On Dec. 9, a collective cry of despair went up from Lansdowne Street to Faneuil Hall. Xander Bogaerts, the All-Star shortstop who had spent his entire 10-year career with the Boston Red Sox, was leaving.
Bogaerts signed an 11-year, $280M contract to join the San Diego Padres. Red Sox fans, who held out hope that the homegrown star would stay until the very end, were left with nothing but bitter disappointment. Bogaerts played the most games at shortstop in the long history of the Red Sox. He helped the club win two World Series titles. And, then, in an instant, he was gone.
The same thing could happen to the Blue Jays within the next few years. The Jays have compiled and nurtured a number of young stars who have developed through their system, the most notable being Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. What happened to the Red Sox and Bogaerts should serve as a stark warning for the future: lock up your young talent or watch them vanish.
Guerrero and Bichette are under team control for the next three seasons. They’re part of a core that has helped the Blue Jays make it to the postseason two of the last three seasons and turned their lineup into the highest-scoring in the league. The fact they haven’t hit free agency yet has allowed the Blue Jays the financial flexibility to pursue free agents, including George Springer, Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, and Chris Bassitt. But that won't last forever.
Guerrero is estimated to earn around $14.5M through arbitration this season. Bichette is slated for around $5.7M. Together, the Blue Jays are paying them just over $20M, or around the same amount as the Yankees are spending on former Blue Jay Josh Donaldson. The Blue Jays have leveraged that freedom to spend liberally, with a projected payroll of $233.7M this season, according to Spotrac. It will be the first time they’ve surpassed the $233M competitive balance (i.e. luxury tax) threshold.
But they’ll eventually be due for big raises. Bogaerts is making $25.4M per season under his new contract with the Padres. Over the last three seasons, he’s hit 49 home runs with a .851 OPS. Bichette, in the same span, has 58 homers and a .817 OPS. Once he hits free agency, when he’ll still be just 28-years-old and in the prime of his career, he’ll command at least as much as Bogaerts, firing off a bidding war for the spirited shortstop.
The Blue Jays have to make sure that never happens with Bichette and Guerrero. That they don’t make the same mistake as the Red Sox made with Bogaerts and let them hit free agency. The two of them have to be locked up long before then, as the Rays did with Wander Franco when they signed him to an 11-year extension after he had played just 70 games in the big leagues. Or the Braves did when they locked up Ronald Acuña Jr. for eight years, ensuring the multi-talented outfielder stays in Atlanta through the prime years of his career.
Surpassing the luxury tax isn’t an issue, according to president Mark Shapiro. “It’s not an obstacle for us. It’s not what will limit us,” he said at the Winter Meetings in December. “We’ll budget and we’ll have a budget that we limit to. But the CBT is not going to be what sets our budget.”
Bogaerts joined an ever-growing list of players to depart the Red Sox in recent years, including Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts. The Red Sox played with fire and got burnt.
Rafael Devers, their All-Star third baseman who is still just 26, becomes a free agent next year. The two sides remain nearly $100M apart in contract talks. The anguish of fans across New England could be felt again a year from now. The Yankees had a scare when Aaron Judge seemed to be on his way to San Francisco, then changed his mind and resigned in the Bronx.
The Blue Jays still have a few years left before they have to worry about experiencing that. It’s their job to ensure it never happens.