George Mitrovich's man Hunter Renfroe
Last December, when the Red Sox signed free agent Hunter Renfroe to a modest $3.1 million dollar contract (if 3.1 million bucks can be deemed "modest," and in baseball terms that's just what it is), I didn't pay much attention. The deal is only for one year and Renfroe is under Red Sox control for three years. It seemed at the time to be just a minor part of a major remake. After all, General Manager Chaim Bloom was busy wheeling and dealing and trying to rebuild the team that nosedived into the cellar of the American League East in 2020, and picking up a guy who'd hit only .156 in 2020 for Tampa Bay didn't seem to be the answer. Sure enough, for the first month of this season, Renfroe wallowed well below the Mendoza Line, but, for the two months since then, he has hit above .300 with good power and a knack for coming through when the chips are down. In addition, he's turned out to be a terrific outfielder with a strong, accurate throwing arm. Did I mention that he's fast and a really good baserunner? Anyhow, he's the real deal, at least he is so far.
Tampa Bay gave up on him after his lousy year in 2020. But there were extenuating circumstances in 2020. It was a lousy year for a lot of people -- and not just ballplayers.
Renfroe would not even have been on my radar scale had it not been for my late, lamented pal, George Mitrovich. A man of boundless energy, George ran the City Club of San Diego, the Denver Forum, and the Great Fenway Park Writers Series and also found time to write a blog called "Baseball Notes," which appeared daily during the season except when he was on the road to or from somewhere, which was not uncommon. George died two years ago this past July and I still miss him and his "Notes." They were a round-up of the day's events in baseball, complete with his comments, including the late games played on the West Coast. A facile writer, he'd type out his "Notes" after the games in the West were over, so those of us back East would find them on our emails first thing in the morning. The schedule didn't leave time for much (or any!) proofreading, and sometimes he'd get a score or a fact wrong, but that never seemed to bother him too much -- he was on to the next day's project.
Anyhow, it was through "Baseball Notes" that I first became aware of, as George referred to him, "my man Hunter Renfroe." He (Renfroe, not George) broke in with the San Diego Padres in 2016, and, for a while, he shuttled back and forth between the big-league club and its minor-league affiliate in El Paso. Sending him back to the minors was something George, a lifelong Padres fan (dating back to its days in the Pacific Coast League) couldn't understand. He was convinced that Renfroe was big league material and made no bones about it in "Baseball Notes."
When George first started writing about Renfroe, I thought he must have had him confused with Hunter Renfrow, the wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders of the NFL. It's not a common name, after all, and how many Hunter Renfroes can there be who are also elite athletes? It turns out there are at least two, though they are not related and the football guy's surname ends with a "w" and the baseball guy's with an "e." There is one other way to tell the difference between them: the baseball guy is built like a football player (6' 1" 230 lbs. and very muscular), while the football player looks better suited for baseball (5'10" 185 lbs.), he's more a Mookie Betts body type.
Incidentally, have you been following Mookie since he signed his 12-year, $365 million contract with the LA Dodgers? The last time I checked, his batting average was under .250 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs, well behind Renfroe's line of .272, 12 homers, and 43 RBI. This is not to say that Renfroe is the better player -- at least not yet. But he's a whole lot better than 1 percent of the player Mookie is, which is all the Red Sox have invested in him so far.
Something seems to happen to players once they hit pay dirt with the big contract. It's not that they consciously let their foot off the gas pedal a bit, it's just that the pressure is off. Financially, their future is secure. If Mookie, perish the thought, should suffer a career ending injury, those paychecks with lots of zeros and commas in them will keep on coming. The drive that pushed him to the very top is no longer there. He has already arrived there.
Will Mookie Betts ever have another year like the one he had in 2018, when he batted .346 with 32 homers, 129 runs scored and won the MVP? Possibly, but he sure as the dickens won't have a dozen of 'em, and that's what his pay scale calls for.
Overpaying ballpayers for extended periods is a fact of life with which teams must deal. Even Dustin Pedroia, who signed a contract extension back in 2013 calling for him to be paid an average of $13 million a year for the next eight seasons, thought at the time to be a bargain for the Red Sox, saw it become a burden when he couldn't play for its final four years due to his chronically-injured knee.
Will the Red Sox be faced with a repeat of the public relations disaster they confronted when Betts was traded in early 2020, when Rafael Devers reaches free agency? The moment of truth is only two and a half seasons away. Some team, desperate for a power hitter, will certainly be willing to overpay him. What will the Sox do? Sign him to a long-term deal before free agency hits? Trade him while they can still get some value? Let him walk?
The decision is complicated by the fact that George Mitrovich's man Hunter Renfroe will be a free agent after the 2023 season, the same year that Devers is.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.