<
>

Never too soon for Red Sox to strike long-term deals with Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts

BALTIMORE -- By now, the question is no longer whether Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts will fulfill their vast potential and become big-league superstars. At age 23, they already have reached that status.

No, the issue now for the Boston Red Sox is how long they can keep Bogaerts and Betts together in the same uniform.

Even when the Red Sox lose, as they did here Wednesday night in an interminable 13-9 slugfest against the Baltimore Orioles that took four hours to play and exposed the weakness of Boston's starting rotation, Bogaerts and Betts are the best players on the field. The former extended his career-long hitting streak to 25 games by dunking a single into shallow center field in the sixth inning against Orioles reliever Brad Brach, and the latter continued a historic power binge by tying a major-league record with five homers in a span of seven at-bats and becoming the first player to go deep in the first and second innings of back-to-back games.

Bogaerts has more hits (273) than any player in the American League since the start of last season, his penchant for serving line drives to right field reminiscent of childhood idol Derek Jeter. Teammates have compared Betts' lightning-quick hands, absurd bat speed and surprising power to Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.

In both cases, they have become must-see attractions. At a time when David Ortiz is nearing his retirement, the iconic slugger no longer is the only hitter in the Red Sox lineup who compels fans to stay in their seats rather than heading for the concession stand.

Thanks to Bogaerts and Betts, the Red Sox's post-Papi future has never seemed brighter. It isn't too early, then, to begin exploring what it might take to lock them up to long-term contracts that ensure they won't sniff free agency until long after they become eligible.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski isn't inclined to speak publicly about contract talks -- "That would be one of those things, if we did do it, we would keep it to ourselves," he said recently -- but indications entering spring training were that those conversations had not yet taken place.

And there really isn't any urgency. Bogaerts, who is making $650,000 this year, isn't eligible for salary arbitration until after this season and can't become a free agent until after 2019. Betts, making $566,000, is one year behind Bogaerts on the salary scale, which puts him under the Red Sox's control through 2020.

Bogaerts is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who is notorious for advising clients to eschew long-term deals until free agency as a way of maximizing their earnings potential, an approach he took with former Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. There are exceptions, though, including right-hander Stephen Strasburg, a Boras client who last month signed a seven-year, $175 million extension to stay with the Washington Nationals even though he could have become a free agent this winter.

In 2012, Boras brokered a three-year, $14.4 million deal for Elvis Andrus that bought out each of the Texas Rangers shortstop's three arbitration years and gave him more security than going year-to-year until free agency. A year later, Boras negotiated an eight-year, $120 million extension that could keep Andrus under contract in Texas through 2023.

Allowing for the yearly inflation of salaries and the fact that Boras already has noted publicly that Bogaerts has more RBIs through age 22 than Jeter did, there's no doubt he would aim much higher than the Andrus deal in any long-term discussions with the Red Sox about Bogaerts.

Betts' agents, The Legacy Agency, could draw similarly lucrative comparisons.

From ages 22-24, McCutchen batted .276 with 51 homers, 78 stolen bases and an .823 OPS for the Pirates. In 2012, one season before he became eligible for arbitration, he signed a five-year, $51.5 million extension that was comparable to outfielder Justin Upton's six-year, $51.25 million deal two years earlier with the Arizona Diamondbacks after he batted .272 with 43 homers, 23 steals and an .835 OPS in his first three big-league seasons.

Through Wednesday night, Betts' career numbers from ages 21-23 are .290 with 37 homers, 36 steals and an .835 OPS. And although he maintains that he isn't a home-run hitter -- "I see myself as a gap-to-gap doubles hitter; they're just going over the fence right now," he said -- his two-day power surge in Baltimore has left him on pace for 43 homers and 128 RBIs, production that would put him in line to far surpass McCutchen's extension.

Multiple team officials have suggested the Red Sox aren't inclined to discuss long-term deals for players during the season. But with several of the game's young stars -- including Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Orioles infielder Manny Machado and Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson -- eligible for free agency after the 2018 season, the Red Sox could also set the market rather than reacting to it by trying to lock up Bogaerts and Betts this winter.

"We're open-minded to that, if you can get that kind of cost-stability with the right players," Dombrowski said during spring training. "And, of course, it takes two to get that done, because [the players] have to be willing."

Bogaerts and Betts have danced around the topic, preferring instead to focus on winning games and insisting they're happy with the Red Sox.

Sooner than later, the Red Sox should do everything it takes to make sure it stays that way.