Red Sox Hope Brayan Bello Deal Is the Start of Something Bigger

Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s a major blow that Lucas Giolito is likely to be out for at least the entire 2024 season due to a double whammy of elbow injuries, the Red Sox are making efforts to stabilize their already-thin rotation for the longer term. On Thursday, righty Brayan Bello agreed to a six-year, $55 million extension with a $21 million club option for his seventh season. In a well-timed touch, the formal announcement of the deal is expected on Saturday before the Red Sox play the first of two exhibition games against the Rays in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where Bello will be surrounded by family and friends.

The guaranteed portion of Bello’s contract covers the 2024–29 seasons, the last of which would have been his first year of free agent eligibility. The total value of the deal is the second-largest ever for a pre-arbitration pitcher, just surpassing Hunter Greene’s six-year, $53 million extension, which he signed last April with comparable service time and which also includes a club option. Spencer Strider’s similarly structured deal, which came in at $75 million for six years plus a club option, is the record. (Hat tips to ESPN’s McDaniel and the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier for those comps).

The 24-year-old Bello, whom the Red Sox signed out of the Dominican Republic on July 2, 2017 for a bonus of just $28,000, solidified his spot in the majors last year after debuting in mid-2022. Last spring training he was pencilled in as the team’s sixth starter behind Corey Kluber, Nick Pivetta, Chris Sale, James Paxton, and Garrett Whitlock, and he began the season on the injured list recovering from a bout of elbow inflammation. But as injuries and/or ineffectiveness took hold of each member of the planned starting five, he moved up in the pecking order; after making his first start of the year on April 17, he remained in the rotation for the rest of the season, though he was briefly optioned following his second start before an injury to Whitlock brought him back for good. Bello’s 28 starts and 157 innings — the most by a homegrown Red Sox starter since Clay Buchholz in 2014 — both led the staff, while none of the aforementioned five made more than 23 starts or totaled more than 107.2 innings in the rotation.

In terms of run prevention, Bello was unremarkable, with final numbers straddling league average: a 4.24 ERA (93 ERA-) and 4.54 FIP (105 FIP-). However, those numbers are inflated by a pair of bad starts at each end of the season, in which he allowed 20 runs, 10 walks, and six homers across 16.1 innings. Even with his bad season-opening starts against the Angels and Brewers, he was much stronger in the first half than the second, when his home run rate more than doubled and his strikeout and walk rates inched in the wrong directions:

Brayan Bello’s 2023 Splits by Half
1st Half 80 20.8% 6.5% 14.3% 0.90 .279 3.04 3.74
2nd Half 77 18.7% 6.9% 11.7% 1.87 .333 5.49 5.36

Perhaps not surprisingly given that he set a career high in innings (163, including a rehab start at Triple-A Worcester, up from 154.2 between the majors and minors in 2022), Bello wore down late in the year. Via the Boston Globe’s Julian McWilliams:

Fatigue and heavy legs began to set in. His slider didn’t quite have the sharp break to deter hitters from his two dominant pitches. His four-seam fastball played more as a show-me pitch, but Bello had difficulty locating it above the zone where opponents couldn’t do damage.

While Bello’s sinker/changeup combo turned heads, he’s far from a finished product, as the numbers attest. His sinker, which averaged 95 mph, kept righties at bay (.245 AVG, .381 SLG, 19.3% whiff), but not lefties (.341 AVG, .537 SLG, 8.2% whiff), which helped to account for one of the largest platoon splits for any righty pitcher:

Largest Platoon Splits Among Righty Pitchers
Pitcher Tm TBF RH wOBA vs RH TBF LH wOBA vs LH Dif
Bryce Miller SEA 282 .239 255 .387 +.148
Chris Bassitt TOR 423 .253 403 .357 +.104
Shane Bieber CLE 269 .258 264 .356 +.098
Zack Greinke KCR 325 .288 268 .385 +.098
Tyler Glasnow TBR 219 .221 266 .311 +.090
Tanner Houck BOS 223 .277 240 .366 +.089
Clarke Schmidt NYY 350 .292 344 .376 +.083
Brayan Bello BOS 346 .294 322 .377 +.083
Jameson Taillon CHC 329 .281 326 .363 +.082
Lance Lynn 2 Tms 407 .311 401 .384 +.073
Cristian Javier HOU 315 .277 372 .350 +.072
Zack Wheeler PHI 374 .240 413 .311 +.071
Grayson Rodriguez BAL 294 .291 221 .359 +.068
Jake Irvin WSN 244 .298 286 .366 +.068
Pablo López MIN 394 .260 407 .327 +.067
Colin Rea MIL 270 .282 247 .346 +.064
Luis Severino NYY 215 .360 202 .422 +.063
José Berríos TOR 376 .270 406 .332 +.062
Nick Pivetta BOS 346 .271 241 .333 +.062
Dean Kremer BAL 398 .290 337 .349 +.059
Min. 200 right-handed and 200 left-handed batters faced.

As you can see, this was a particular problem for Red Sox starters, with Houck — who ranked third on the team with 21 starts, helping to fill the void left by so many injuries — having an even larger split than Bello, and Pivetta cracking the top 20, too.

Meanwhile, Bello’s signature changeup befuddled hitters, who managed just a .196 average and .291 slugging percentage against the pitch while whiffing on 38.7% of their swings. Less effective were his slider and four-seamer, with batters posting a .304 AVG and .457 SLG against the former and a .310 AVG and .646 SLG against the latter, which averaged 95.5 mph but just 2,083 rpm, placing him in the fifth percentile for spin rate.

Bello and the Red Sox are quite aware that his arsenal needs refinement, with chief baseball officer Craig Breslow telling reporters on Wednesday, “We still think that his best years are ahead of him. We recognize some opportunities to further optimize the repertoire and we’re super excited about having him.” The pitcher spent the offseason working on elevating his four-seamer above the zone to change the eye level of hitters and get more chases outside the strike zone. He also threw a few sessions under the watchful eye of Hall of Famer and Red Sox special assistant Pedro Martinez, who offered Bello pointers on sharpening his slider with a different grip. To improve his stamina, he worked to strengthen his legs, not that we haven’t heard that one before.

Via Dan Szymborski, here’s a look at Bello’s ZiPS projection percentiles for 2024:

2024 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Brayan Bello
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 134 3.32 4.0
90% 126 3.53 3.6
80% 116 3.81 3.1
70% 111 3.98 2.8
60% 107 4.15 2.5
50% 104 4.28 2.2
40% 99 4.48 1.9
30% 95 4.66 1.6
20% 89 5.00 1.1
10% 83 5.34 0.6
5% 76 5.84 -0.1

As for the extension, it’s literally pretty much right on the money according to Dan’s model:

ZiPS Projection – Brayan Bello
2024 11 11 4.28 28 27 147.3 154 70 16 54 134 104 2.2
2025 11 10 4.26 27 26 143.7 148 68 16 50 130 104 2.2
2026 11 9 4.25 26 25 144.0 147 68 16 48 130 104 2.3
2027 11 9 4.23 26 24 140.3 142 66 15 47 126 105 2.2
2028 10 10 4.35 26 24 140.7 144 68 16 46 125 102 2.1
2029 10 10 4.39 24 23 135.3 140 66 16 45 117 101 1.9
2030 9 9 4.45 23 22 127.3 132 63 15 43 109 100 1.8

The ZiPS contract recommendation for the first six years of that deal is $50 million, so while the Red Sox see him as a potential no. 1 starter, Bello doesn’t have to be much better than average to match that valuation. He could wind up delivering a whole lot more value if he approaches his ceiling, but as a hard-throwing young hurler who’s years away from what he hopes will be his biggest payday, he’s got protection if things go south.

For the Red Sox, this is a positive move following a dreary and disappointing winter. Despite chairman Tom Werner’s assertion that the team would go “full throttle” in its efforts to improve after dismissing chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, Boston has signed just two free agents to major league deals, Giolito (two years, $38.5 million) and Liam Hendriks (two years, $10 million). The former may be headed for Tommy John surgery, while the latter is expected to miss most or all of the season recovering from his own August 2023 Tommy John procedure. The team did make some trades, most notably dealing away Alex Verdugo, acquiring Tyler O’Neill, and swapping Sale for Vaughn Grissom, but that’s hardly a radical makeover for a team that has missed the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and projects to finish last in the AL East for the third straight year.

What particularly stands out about this Bello move is that the Red Sox have just one other pre-arb or arb-eligible player signed to an extension (Whitlock), which is a rather scathing indictment of their player development pipeline — though they did lock up Rafael Devers last year as he entered his final year of arb eligibility. This is at least a step in the right direction, and hardly an exorbitant amount of money. It won’t hamper them the way that, say, getting 11 starts from Sale from 2020–22 at a cost of about $71 million did. Which isn’t to say that Bello’s going to be as good as Sale, but let’s also remember that the White Sox (and later the Red Sox) got the best years of the wiry lefty’s career under a five-year, $32.5 million extension (2013–17) that had two club options tacked on.

Indeed, the Red Sox’s failure to develop quality homegrown pitching has been a particularly sore spot that has doomed multiple regimes. Again, it had been nine years since a pitcher they produced — as a draft pick or as an international free agent — threw as many innings in a season as Bello did in 2023. If Red Sox are to compete in the AL East while trying to live with midsized payrolls, they need to grow pitchers from within and hope some of them flourish to the point of being worth building around. They believe Bello can be one of them, and well, it’s a start.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 months ago

If I have this right, this buys out his two pre-arb years, the arb years, and the first year of free agency. Gerrit Cole (one of the better pitchers that went all the way through arbitration) got paid something like $25M in the arbitration process.

If Bello gets paid $25M through arbitration–which I think is probably an overestimate, but you never know–this is something like $25M for one year of free agency plus an option year. How much is that extra year and the option going to be worth? Enough to balance out the fact that pitchers break?

For someone like Hunter Greene, who throws the ball crazy hard, I think it’s the sort of gamble you might want to take on the off chance he busts out and you have an ace on your hands. For Bello, I think the answer is…maybe? I like it better than giving out megadeals to 31-year olds right now, and more than giving Giolito 80% of this. If you feel the need to spend money, I suppose this is a better option than most of the alternatives.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I guess the value is that you get 2 free agent years w/o committing past that. So if you went year to year, you wouldn’t get those 2029 and 30 seasons w/o committing huge FA money/years

Also I could be wrong but the lux cap hit for that 2030 option might only be ~10mil (actual option is 21mil)

Last edited 2 months ago by Brock244
2 months ago
Reply to  Brock244

Right, the idea is that you get to keep the guy for a couple of extra years instead of paying Madison Bumgarner ten billion dollars in free agency later. If you do enough of these deals it will probably work out. I just don’t know about the actual numbers here.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think Corbin Burnes is the new record holder for pitchers at $32.1M for his arbitration years ($6.5M, $10M, $15.6M). Shane Bieber got over $29M for his arbitration years, and Max Fried got $23.85M for his arbitration years. Gerrit Cole’s arbitration years were 5 years ago, and pitcher salaries have kept going up.

Here’s the math for Bello: figure $1.5M for the next two years, then $32.5M for the arbitration years if he’s the pitcher the Red Sox think he is. That’s $34M for 5 years, then he’s a free agent at age 29.

If the Red Sox think he’ll be an ace and they’ll owe $34M anyway, buying out a year of free agency at $21M is a deal, along with a team option for a seventh year at $21M.

Even if he’s not an ace, what does he need to be for this contract not to be underwater? It’s a $9.16M AAV, so if he’s an average major league pitcher during this time, the contract will break even overall.

I don’t have as much confidence in the Bello contract as I do the Spencer Strider contract, but every multi-year contract for pitchers is an exercise in spreading the risk of injury across multiple years.

2 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Even if Bello’s future were on par with Burnes or Bieber, the amount to be paid during the arbitration years should remain unchanged if no extension is made. Furthermore, if an extension is made, considering the risks of not performing as well as Burnes or Bieber or the risk of injury, it would be strange if Bello were not discounted compared to Burnes or Bieber. Moreover, if Bello were to end up as a starter around the predicted 2.0 WAR, his annual salary during the arbitration years would likely be no more than around $20 million.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’m a big Bello guy so I think it’s worth it. I think he’ll be a good #2 in time. I don’t think the K numbers will ever be there, but I can see him being a Logan Webb lite. Also 10M a year for the Sox is nothing. Well, it *should* be nothing. And if they’re going to act like the CBT is a salary cap, then they’re going to need more team friendly deals like this one to retain their talent and to compete with the Rays, Orioles, Yankees, and Blue Jays.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think players and agents have largely figured out this game and the clubs aren’t getting the deals they used to.

Prior to 2021, Giolito was reportedly offered a deal that would have paid him something like a minimum of $59M through 2025 and he is going to make about $50M even after turning it down. His career has been something close to the worst case scenario between 2023 and the injury this year, so one way of looking at it is he missed out on $9M. Another way of looking at it is that he invested $9M against the potential of what? $150M if he kept up his 2019-21 production? That’s really not a bad bet. In terms of lifestyle, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between $50M and $60M, but there might be between $50M and $200M. Although both are an awful lot of money.

Last edited 2 months ago by MikeS