The Future of Xander Bogaerts
While locking Rafael Devers into a long-term contract should be organizational priority number 1, the second major order of business in my eyes is figuring out the future of Xander Bogaerts.
At the beginning of the 2019 season, seven months before he could have become a free agent, Bogaerts gave the Red Sox a gift, telling his agent Scott Boras to finalize a contract extension which essentially bought out his first three years of free agency for $60 million.
The following season, just after the 2020 trade deadline, Bogaerts had a no-trade clause kick in. Because of that no-trade, and the ability to opt-out of his contract after the 2022 season, Bogaerts and Boras are in complete in control of where he will call home going forward.
In April 2021 Boras discussed Bogaerts with Alex Speier in the Boston Globe:
“Certainly, he had a great year [in 2018], but rising to that consistency level of being in the middle of a lineup for a few years, being that guy, that was something that Xander felt was attainable in Boston,” said Boras. “Xander definitely wanted to stay in Boston. He felt comfortable establishing himself there and enjoyed being a Red Sox. That was important to him.
“I think now, Xander is a different player and person than he was when he signed this contract. The good thing is Xander can be a 29-year-old free agent, very much in his prime, and will have an opportunity to be looked at.”
Bogaerts is obviously one of the best offensive shortstops in the game. A machine that has produced four straight years with a wRC+ between 130 and 141, meaning he’s been between 30% and 41% better than a league average MLB hitter in those seasons. Over the past three years Fernando Tatis Jr. has separated himself as an otherworldly offensive force, but Bogaerts, Trea Turner (the other 2022 free agent gem), Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Tim Anderson, and Bo Bichette all land between 126 and 135 wRC+. Trevor Story and whatever Colorado weirdness checks in at 113, Francisco Lindor 110, and Javier Baez 104.
Besides a few nitpicks about his passive swing selection, offense is not where the Bogaerts questions begin.
Which brings us to his defense.
There are 29 shortstops with 1500+ innings played between 2019-21 and Bogaerts ranks 25th with -18 Defensive Runs Saved. That’s over a 50-run difference between himself and the defensive leaders, Baez (+40), Correa (+37), and Story (+36).
Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop over the years: -5, -3, -10, -11, -8, -9, -4, and -5 in 2021.
Statcast player tracking paints a similar picture of his defense:
Outs Above Average
2018: 24th percentile, 2019: 3rd percentile, 2020: 9th percentile, 2021: 1st percentile
Even with all the ugliness of those metrics, Bogaerts is sure-handed at shortstop, ranking 8th with a .978 fielding percentage over the past three seasons. He routinely makes the plays he gets his glove on, which usually leads to people being perplexed about how his metrics could be so negative. It doesn’t look so bad; it actually looks pretty good. However, it’s clear he doesn’t have a great first step and has limited range, the numbers basically reporting he doesn’t take hits away. It’s hard to see this improving going forward.
I view it as kind of the opposite situation as Devers, who leads third basemen in out of zone plays over the past three years, but is one of, if not the worst at converting routine plays into outs. There is more hope for improving routine than expanding athleticism, in my opinion, especially when Devers goes on long stretches of very steady play before the mishaps return.
The only specific public critiques of Bogaerts by any Red Sox personnel I can recall are Dave Dombrowski saying he is an offensive shortstop that doesn’t have the range as some others, and Alex Cora in December 2019 and November 2020 saying that his next challenge is improving his first step and saying the Red Sox need to push him to become more than just a steady defensive shortstop.
The Red Sox pitching staff has been fighting an uphill battle against the Red Sox defense recently, and while that is not close to being all on Bogaerts, his defensive would seem to be a big contributor. In the 2019-21 timeframe Red Sox pitchers had the widest negative gap in MLB between their ERA and FIP, -0.38. The next closest teams are the Colorado experience and the dumpster fires in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Each of the Red Sox last three seasons have been similarly bad, -0.42, -0.39, and -0.32. Teams on the other end of the spectrum, outperforming their FIP, are Los Angeles (NL), St. Louis, Houston, Oakland, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Atlanta. While this year’s unexpected playoff success pushed some of the season’s storylines to the back burner, the defense is in major need of repair.
Bogaerts is going to be 30-years-old when free agency opens next winter, three prime free agent years already gone. Lindor and Seager are getting their big contracts starting at age 28, Correa is getting his at age 27.
Lindor’s contract is for $34M AAV through his age 37 season, I presume Seager and Correa will be in that universe, but I find it hard to believe Bogaerts approaches that level of AAV or years in an extension with the Red Sox. Equaling Lindor’s AAV and years would mean an 8-year, $272M extension, totaling over $330M for his entire free agency span. You’d think that would be Boras’ jumping off point.
I always get asked what I would do or what I think about a situation. It’s tough because there are so many unknowns in the public sphere, especially when it comes to monumental organizational decisions. With that said, knowing this is probably not how the baseball real world works, and it may not be realistic, this would be my approach:
Offer Bogaerts a 6-year, $180M contract extension, $30M AAV, covering his age 30-35 seasons. If he accepts, he’s locked in as the Red Sox shortstop for the next 3-4 years before an eventual move off the position, hopefully clearing the way for Marcelo Mayer. This is a hard defensive path and would need to be covered up for as best as possible around the rest of the diamond moving forward.
If Bogaerts and Boras are uninterested in a contract along those lines, then you tell them that other options will need to be explored and his shortstop spot is not guaranteed. Everyone knows the middle infielders on the market this winter, a seemingly nice Semien fit, or a possible run at one of the best free agents to ever hit the market who also just so happens to love our manager, plus everything in-between. It would all need to be explored.
Bogaerts’ little 3-year bridge contract and no-trade clause make this an almost unprecedented situation, so it should probably be treated as such.
In one of these scenarios, getting another shortstop under contract and shifting Bogaerts to second base should improve the Red Sox significantly. Semien in Toronto and Turner in Los Angeles are recent examples of players moving to the other side of second base because of circumstance and they resulted in ruthless middle infield duos. That would be nice. If Bogaerts is uninterested in a position switch before free agency, he is free to waive his no-trade rights.
Playing out next year with no contract extension and no way to trade him without his approval is an uncomfortable spot to be in that will fuel year-long storylines, but may be the most likely way this all unfolds.
Yes, this is not fun to think about, and yes, many Red Sox fans will not accept any outcome other than giving Bogaerts whatever amount of money it takes to make him agree to a deal. But this is a nuanced situation of gigantic significance with tight needles to thread as the Red Sox try to resolve it. I thought starting to lay everything out was worthy of more than a few tweets.
All we know from the Red Sox public comments is that they love Bogaerts and speak glowingly about him, about how he is the steadiest person in the organization, and are always making sure his name is in the elite shortstops conversation. In the end maybe they do value him at that top of the market level. As Cora said earlier this year, “he’s going to play short for us hopefully for a long, long time.”