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Astros Pay Alex Bregman Now To Avoid Paying Him Later

Coming on the heels of Mike Trout’s humongous contract extension, news broke that Alex Bregman and the Astros had agreed to an extension of their own worth $100 million, with Mark Berman first to report the deal. While the Trout contract is the biggest of all time, the Bregman deal is not without intrigue. Bregman, who was still a full year away from arbitration, is the first star-level player to sign a pre-arb contract extension in nearly five years. The last player at or above Bregman’s level of production to sign a contract like this was Trout, who signed his six-year, $144.5 million contract back in 2014.

Since 2014, the number of contract extensions buying out free agent years has decreased. When Luis Severino signed his deal earlier this offseason, Jeff Sullivan ran the numbers on the quantity of extensions by offseason, providing this graph.

In the five years leading up to the 2014 season, there were about 25 or so extensions per season, and in the five years since, the numbers have dropped in half. Since Severino signed, we have had Jose Leclerc, and now Alex Bregman, but those extension figures aren’t going up a ton this year. It isn’t just that the number of extensions have gone down; the quality of players signing those extensions has declined as well. We saw Trout’s big deal ahead of the 2014 season; the year before, Buster Posey, who was Super-2 arbitration eligible, signed an even bigger contract covering more seasons. It was Andrew McCutchen the year before Posey. Matt Carpenter and Jason Kipnis, who were several years older than Bregman but also coming off very good years, signed six-year deals with options guaranteeing themselves around $50 million each. Read the rest of this entry »

Mike Trout Leaves Money On the Table Again

Mike Trout is a better player than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado combined. He’s been more than twice as valuable as each of those players in their young careers. And yet Mike Trout is about to agree to a contract that, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, will pay him like he’s one of the greatest players of this generation instead of potentially being the greatest player of this century, and one of the greatest baseball talents of all time. As first reported by Passan, Mike Trout and the Angels have agreed to a 12-year deal worth $430 million, with Bill Shaikan reporting the deal will come in at $426.5 million. Because Trout was already owed $66.5 million over the next two seasons, the contract is functionally a 10-year extension worth $360 million. Trout is essentially accepting something similar to the Harper/Machado deals two years in advance. This is not the first time Trout has made this choice, which is very much a personal decision, but it is one that has cost him potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2014, Trout was coming off an eight-win season, which itself came on the heels of two 10-win campaigns. His 29.2 WAR mark through his age-22 season was the best in baseball history. Before he signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract giving away three free agent seasons, Dave Cameron wrote about the potential for a contract extension, and expected a figure more than $100 million higher. When Trout actually signed, Cameron followed up:

You don’t need another 1,500 word explanation of why this is a hilarious steal for the Angels. Trout would have made something like $50 to $60 million in arbitration had he gone year to year, so the Angels are basically getting three free agent years for $85 to $95 million. This doesn’t come anywhere near Trout’s value, and Trout has left an enormous amount of money on the table. Even if his goal was to reach free agency again and sign a second monstrous contract, he still is worth so far more than the roughly $30 million per year he signed away three free agent years for.

That bargain five years ago made the current one possible. Because Trout had two more years left until free agency (instead of entering the market last offseason), he was limited to the Angels when it came to contract partners. Because the Angels’ risk of losing Trout wasn’t going to present itself for another two seasons, any new contract with him was going to come with a discount. In this case, the discount meant signing a deal like Harper and Machado’s instead of one like Alex Rodriguez’s.

After Harper and Machado signed their contracts, I attempted to compare the two deals because it can be difficult to put a 13-year deal and a 10-year deal for differing amounts into proper context. The present-day values of each contract is below, with the numbers translated into a 10-year deal, and Trout’s contract listed with just the extension (2021-2030), as well as with the two years Trout was already guaranteed (2019-2030). The numbers assume Trout is paid $36.35 million each year beginning in 2021.

Present-Day Value of the Mike Trout Contract
Total Value Present-Day Value 10-Year Equivalent
Bryce Harper $330 M $220.8 M $305 M
Manny Machado $300 M $217.4 M $300 M
Mike Trout (2021-2030) $360 M $223.7 M $309 M
Mike Trout (2019-2030) $426.5 M $287.7 M $397 M

The Angels appear to have looked at Mike Trout and said, “We know we owe you about $65 million over the next few seasons. Keep that and we will give you the Harper/Machado contract right now.” Trout said yes, and now the Angels have one the best players in baseball history locked in for his age-29 through age-38 seasons. Even when you factor in the two years Trout is already owed, that $400 million is significantly below his value, assuming that Machado and Harper are worth $300 million. Those two years left until free agency meant a massive discount for the Angels.

When we call this deal a bargain, we can look at Mike Trout’s contract relative to Harper and Machado’s, and know that Trout is only receiving a little more money despite being a lot better. We can also look at potential future value. I love to look at comps and try to get a sense of a player’s future, but comps aren’t really fair for Mike Trout because there are barely a handful of players who even come close to his level of play. Consider Trout’s career trajectory by year, and the number of players ahead of him by WAR.

Mike Trout By Age
Age Season Trout WAR Players Better Since 1901
Through Age-20 10.8 Mel Ott
Through Age-21 21 NA
Through Age-22 29.2 NA
Through Age-23 38.5 NA
Through Age-24 48.2 NA
Through Age-25 55.1 Ty Cobb
Through Age-26 64.9 NA

Ty Cobb the only comp for Mike Trout. Ty Cobb! Trout ranks third right now through age-27 even though he hasn’t even played the season yet, and he needs just four wins to pass Cobb and Mickey Mantle. He’s already surpassed the average Hall of Famer. Maybe you think that the early start to Trout’s career inflates the numbers. Even taking away his first two seasons, from age-22 through age-26, the only players with more WAR are Mantle and Cobb. Even just looking at the last three years, which includes an injury-shortened 2017 campaign, only Babe Ruth, Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, Alex Rodriguez, and Cobb are ahead of Trout. If Trout plays like any of those players, he’ll cost something like $4 million to $5 million per win over the last 10 years of the deal. If we wanted to conservatively estimate the current value of a win on the free agent market at $9 million without any inflation, Trout wouldn’t need to age like one of the 10-best players in history — aging like the 50th would still be a good value.

The deal is such a slam dunk for the Angels that it feels a little silly to talk about what it means in baseball terms. The Angels get to keep one of the best players in history. They can now plan for the future knowing they have Trout. It would have been fun to see what an all-in Angels team would’ve looked like in 2020 with Trout a pending free agent, but hopefully this deal means we get to see the fun of a franchise that is secure in its star ensuring that that star gets a ring. After all, Mike Trout in the playoffs is good for baseball.

When it comes to adjusting the biggest contracts in baseball history for inflation, this one is a little tough to assess. We have that $430 million, but we also have that $363.5 million that doesn’t kick in until 2021. To provide some historical context — as I did for Machado and Harper earlier this offseason and later updated — I’ve included two Trout contracts below. The first is the $426.5 million figure representing the total value of the money owed to Trout; the second is Trout’s extension, assuming 5% inflation in the following two seasons.

Biggest Contract in MLB Adjusted to 2019
Player Year Years Total Value ($/M) 2019 Adjustment ($/M) AAV 2019 ADJ ($/M)
Alex Rodriguez 2001 10 $252 M $592 M $59.2 M
Alex Rodriguez 2008 10 $275 M $448 M $44.8 M
Derek Jeter 2001 10 $189 M $444 M $44.4 M
Mike Trout 2019 12 $426.5 M $426.5 M $35.5 M
Giancarlo Stanton 2015 13 $325 M $393 M $30.3 M
Manny Ramirez 2001 8 $160 M $376 M $47 M
Albert Pujols 2012 10 $240 M $358 M $35.8 M
Bryce Harper 2019 13 $330 M $330 M $25.4 M
Ken Griffey, Jr. 2000 9 $116.5 M $330 M $36.6 M
Mike Trout (extension only) 2021 10 $360 M $327 M $32.7 M
Prince Fielder 2012 9 $214 M $319 M $35.4 M
Robinson Cano 2014 10 $240 M $310 M $31 M
Manny Machado 2019 10 $300 M $300 M $30 M
Kevin Brown 1999 7 $105 M $297 M $42.5 M
Joey Votto 2014 10 $225 M $290 M $29 M
Mark Teixeira 2009 8 $180 M $290 M $36.2 M
Joe Mauer 2011 8 $184 M $289 M $36.1 M
Mike Hampton 2001 8 $121 M $284 M $35.5 M
Clayton Kershaw 2014 7 $215 M $277 M $39.6 M
Todd Helton 2003 9 $141.5 M $277 M $30.8 M
Jason Giambi 2002 7 $120 M $276 M $39.4 M
Carlos Beltran 2005 7 $119 M $263 M $37.6 M
Nolan Arenado 2019 8 $260 M $260 M $32.5 M

When stacked up against comparable players and comparable contracts, Mike Trout was a humongous bargain in his last contract and will be one in his the next, but if we can play devil’s advocate a little, it’s tougher to determine how much Trout actually cost himself. Let’s say he had been a free agent last offseason like he would have without a contract extension. What would his contract have been? There’s a reasonable argument for 15 years and $600 million. Look at the Alex Rodriguez contract above. In another two years, might $500 million been on the table? That might have been what Trout was looking at, but what if last year the market didn’t quite develop as he had hoped, and he ended up with just $500 million? What if the top offer had only been $400 million after 2020? Does that seem so far-fetched given the way these past two offseasons have progressed?

Trout is now set to make around $460 million for the remainder of his free agent years. He jumped the gun twice and took a discount. The value he will provide will far exceed the money he is set to earn. It’s possible, however, because of the way spending has progressed, that Trout has actually cost himself little to no money by signing these extensions. Mike Trout was always going to be a bargain; we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the number he’s really worth. He’s the best player in baseball, and simultaneously the most underrated one. That’s a ridiculous feat, but with Mike Trout, we’ve grown accustomed to ridiculous feats.

2019 Positional Power Rankings: Second Base

On Monday, Jay Jaffe kicked off our positional power rankings series by evaluating first basemen. If you need a refresher on the process or the concept behind the series, Meg Rowley wrote a handy explainer. Today, we stay on the infield and tackle second base.

The stereotype surrounding second base is that these players aren’t good enough defensive players to man shortstop and aren’t good enough hitters to play third base. There are those that defy those conventions. Jose Altuve is one of the best players in the game. Javier Baez and Ozzie Albies can handle short. Robinson Cano has been one of the better hitters in baseball for a decade. Mike Moustakas probably should be a third baseman, but weirdly won’t be one this year. There are many, however, for whom those traditional designations fit. Only two teams have four-win projections at the position, with a bunch of high-floor three-win types. That doesn’t scream stardom, but there’s a lot of hidden upside in these projections. In addition to Albies, we see possible stars in Gleyber Torres and Luis Urias. Javier Baez only gets partial playing time at second. Scott Kingery, Carter Kieboom, Keston Hiura, Bo Bichette, and Nick Madrigal don’t play a huge role below, but they do represent talented young players who could help their teams to the top of these rankings in the years to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 3/14/2019

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Yankees Buy Back YES and Bring Along Amazon and Sinclair

With 80% of the YES Network up for sale, the New York Yankees have formed an ownership group that will give the club a majority interest in the network. The deal is valued at $3.47 billion, more than four times the network’s estimated value when it was formed in 2002, though that figure is also about half a billion dollars less than it was when YES was last sold in 2014. Disney recently acquired the 80% share of YES as part of their acquisition of Fox, but they must sell Fox’s regional sports networks in order to gain government approval of the broader Fox purchase. The Yankees, not willing to go it alone on a multi-billion dollar investment, found financial backing in the form of Blackstone and a few other private equity groups. More important to the actual running of the network, Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Amazon will also be significant investors, with the Yankees possessing a majority interest.

A little over six years ago, Fox bought nearly half of YES Network for $1.5 billion. While the team was the most prominent owner of the network at the time, that deal most benefited Goldman Sachs, Providence Equity, and a group headed by former Nets’ owner Raymond Chambers. The latter three groups owned roughly two-thirds of the network at the time, and sold most of their share. The Yankees sold about 9% of their share, netting them around a quarter of a billion dollars. That deal allowed Fox to later purchase the rest of the equity groups’ shares, as well as a bit more of the Yankees’ share, for another billion or so dollars. Fox completed that purchase in 2014, owning 80% of the network; the Yankees owned the remaining 20%. In what would turn out to be a big part of the agreement and the current sale, the Yankees retained the ability to buy back the network. Read the rest of this entry »

MLB Teams with the Most Dead Money in 2019

Sunk costs are difficult for all of us. We might keep a gym membership longer than we should hoping to get some value out of it despite not going for months. We might finish a meal that was terrible from the start because we cooked it or paid for it. We finish movies and books we know we will not enjoy. Once some of our money or time has been spent, there is a pull to keep spending or wasting that time and potential enjoyment because we’ve already started. Sometimes, baseball teams are just like us. Once a big contract is handed out, teams feel compelled to continue to provide playing time past the point of utility or give a roster spot to a player whose play doesn’t merit it. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes teams move on, and when they do, they end up with dead money on their payroll.

This is my fourth year tracking dead money on payrolls and while the amount fluctuated greatly from 2016 to 2017, going from under $150 million to $300 million, last year it was back around $200 million, and it remains the same this season. As to what counts as dead money, this is what I said in last year’s post:

Dead money is generally any money a team is paying out to a player who no longer appears on their 40-man roster. There are three types of dead money:

  1. Money paid to players who have been released. Those players are free to sign with other teams, but the team releasing the player still owes the money remaining on the contract.

  2. Money paid to other teams as compensation for players who have been traded. Generally, we see teams cover a portion of a contract to receive a better return in trade.

  3. Money paid to players who are still in the organization, but who have been removed from the 40-man roster. Any team could have claimed these players if they were willing to take on the contract, and the player probably could have elected fee agency, but then he would forfeit his right to the guaranteed money.

While Jacoby Ellsbury’s salary sits on the Yankees payroll with no expected contribution, that money is only mostly dead. As far as which team has the most money this season, that honor, or dishonor, goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers. These numbers were compiled from Cot’s Contracts.

The Dodgers have been first or second on this list every year I’ve done this exercise, spending close to $140 million since 2016 on players not on their roster. This year’s big expenditure comes in the form of Homer Bailey, who the team acquired from the Reds in order to move Matt Kemp’s contract as well as acquire a few prospects in the deal that sent Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to Cincinnati. The Blue Jays come in just behind the Dodgers as the team that decided to cut bait with the oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki as well as trade Russell Martin to the Dodgers. The moves by the Dodgers and Blue Jays illustrate contrasting styles when it comes to dead money on the roster. Los Angeles acquired Homer Bailey to drop him in a move designed to save tax space as they exchanged Kemp’s bad contract. For the Blue Jays, who are not expected to compete for the division this season, giving playing time and roster spots to aging veterans doesn’t help the club’s future as those resources can be better utilized by providing meaningful experience to younger players. Nearly one-third of Toronto’s payroll won’t even be on the team and the club’s on-field roster is set to make under $80 million this season.

Breaking the money down, here are the players who have been released by their teams.

Released Players on the Payroll
Player Old Team Current Team Money Owed in 2019
Homer Bailey Dodgers Royals $23 M
Troy Tulowitzki Blue Jays Yankees $19.45 M
Pablo Sandoval Red Sox Giants $18.45 M
David Wright Mets None $15 M
Prince Fielder Rangers None $9 M
Phil Hughes Padres None $7.25 M
Hector Olivera Padres None $7.5 M
Austin Jackson Rangers None $3 M
Dian Toscano Dodgers None $200,000

In Prince Fielder’s case, the Tigers are paying some of his salary and a discount for insurance proceeds has been taken. It would be useful to do the same with David Wright, though those numbers are a bit more murky. We know that Wright restructured his contract with some deferrals so that he will make $9 million this year. It’s possible that insurance proceeds, estimated at $12 million by Ken Davidoff over the next two seasons might mean the Mets aren’t actually paying any money to Wright this season. The Padres essentially bought a draft pick by taking on some of Phil Hughes’ salary last year, while also taking on Olivera, who they immediately released, allowed them to get out from under Matt Kemp’s money.

As for trades, here are the players for whom teams are paying some or all of their salaries this season. There are a few repeat names from the list above.

Traded Players Still on the Payroll
Player Old Team New Team Money Sent for 2019
Russell Martin Blue Jays Dodgers $16.4 M
Matt Kemp Dodgers Padres and Reds $10.5 M
Justin Verlander Tigers Astros $8 M
Prince Fielder Tigers Rangers $6 M
Phil Hughes Twins Padres $5.95 M
Robinson Cano Mariners Mets $5 M
Mike Leake Cardinals Mariners $5 M
Jedd Gyorko Padres Cardinals $5 M
Hector Olivera Dodgers Braves $4.66 M
Edwin Encarnacion Indians Mariners $3 M
Evan Longoria Rays Giants $2 M
Clayton Richard Padres Blue Jays $1.5 M

Most of these deals are pretty straightforward, with the old team offsetting some salary to get a deal done or receive a better prospect return. The Edwin Encarnacion situation is a bit complicated. Cleveland and Seattle swapped Carlos Santana and Encarnacion with Seattle actually sending a couple million dollars to Cleveland for this season and $4 million next year. That was not the entirety of the deal; Tampa Bay sent $5 million to Seattle as part of the deal with Cleveland that sent Jake Bauers to the Indians for Yandy Diaz and Cole Sulser. It’s fair to think of that $5 million as shipped through Cleveland, which is how Encarnacion ends up with $3 million from Cleveland this season.

There are just a few more players with payroll qualifying for dead money.

Players Off the Roster Still on the Payroll
Player Team Money Owed in 2019
Yasmany Tomas Diamondbacks $15.5 M
Rusney Castillo Red Sox $11 M
Yaisel Sierra Dodgers $5 M
Kazuhisa Makita Padres $1.9 M

We have multiple, big contracts for Cuban players who haven’t quite worked out. Tomas’ deal couldn’t even be made under the current rules, while Castillo suffers, in part, because adding him back on the roster would result in more competitive balance tax payments. Tomas didn’t make enough contact despite swinging a lot. Castillo has played well in the minors though still wouldn’t be a starter for Boston even if they did bring him up to the majors. Sierra is still in the Dodgers’ system and could be a reliever at some point.

Having a bunch of money on the payroll devoted to players who won’t contribute to the MLB team isn’t a great situation to consider; most of the decisions made above were done to help teams reach some goal, now or in the future. Teams have finite roster space and using that space on players who can contribute is better than using it on a player just because they have an expensive contract. Sometimes teams save money in the present, but have a bigger cost later on. While teams have gotten more frugal about long-term deals, we haven’t yet seen the amount of dead money on MLB rosters decrease significantly.

Addressing Tanking Through Revenue Sharing

The title of this post suggests that tanking is a problem in major league baseball, and one that needs addressing. It’s worth noting that “tanking” might be a bit of a misnomer. While definitions may vary slightly, if we consider tanking to be intentionally losing for a period of time in order to save money and horde talent for a later run of success, there aren’t actually a lot of examples. There are several issues with that model, but one of the most significant, both in perception and in reality, is waning competition. There is less parity in baseball as more teams head to the extremes and fewer occupy the middle. It’s so bad in the American League that a good team like the Cleveland Indians can actively try to get worse and still be favored to win their division because of the state of the rest of the AL Central. With the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros all so good, the rest of the AL looks up and sees few avenues to a playoff spot and one that almost assuredly only buys a team one game. The motivation to get a few wins better is lacking at the top, with so few contending teams, and at the bottom, where a few extra wins likely won’t meaningfully change a team’s playoff odds. These aren’t “tanking” issues, but problems with the current landscape’s competitive level.

These issues are exacerbated by the recent windfall from BAMTech sales, which have netted every team more than $50 million, national television deals that have continued to go up in value, and local cable television deals that provide higher guarantees. Ticket sales are still important to a team’s bottom line, but they are slightly less important to turning a profit, which serves to make winning slightly less important. Revenue sharing might provide an avenue to placing a greater emphasis on winning.

Revenue sharing is a fairly simple process, in which every team takes 48% of their net local revenue (revenue minus stadium operating expenses), then puts it in a big pile and divides it evenly among the league’s 30 teams. Clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox put more in than they get out while teams like the Marlins and Pirates get a lot more back than they put in. The teams on the lower end of the revenue spectrum are supposed to spend the funds they receive on the field. Last year, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance alleging that the A’s, Marlins, Pirates, and Rays were not doing so. The players aren’t the only group that have been upset about revenue sharing; the Yankees have complained about the system for years. Read the rest of this entry »

Did Manny Machado Get A Better Contract Than Bryce Harper?

This winter’s two biggest free agent names signed the two biggest free agent deals in history over the last week. Manny Machado will receive $300 million over 10 years if he doesn’t exercise his opt-out after 2023, while Bryce Harper will take in $330 million over the next 13 seasons. For Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, waiting for Machado to sign was likely part of a plan to secure a higher payout. That plan appears to have worked as Harper received $30 million more in guaranteed money. But because those dollars will be paid out over more years and the contract has no opt-out, it’s not entirely clear whether Harper signed the best financial package. Let’s take a closer look.

Before getting to the contract breakdown, here is a reminder of how biggest doesn’t necessarily equal best. Back in December, I took all the major league contracts of at least $100 million and adjusted those amounts to 2019 MLB dollars. As we now have a few more entrants, here is the updated version of the chart from that post.

Biggest MLB Contracts Adjusted to 2019
Player Year Years Total Value (M) 2019 Adjustment (M) AAV 2019 ADJ (M)
Alex Rodriguez 2001 10 $252 $592 $59.2
Alex Rodriguez 2008 10 $275 $448 $44.8
Derek Jeter 2001 10 $189 $444 $44.4
Giancarlo Stanton 2015 13 $325 $393 $30.3
Manny Ramirez 2001 8 $160 $376 $47.0
Albert Pujols 2012 10 $240 $358 $35.8
Bryce Harper 2019 13 $330 $330 $25.4
Ken Griffey, Jr. 2000 9 $116.5 $330 $36.6
Prince Fielder 2012 9 $214 $319 $35.4
Robinson Cano 2014 10 $240 $310 $31.0
Manny Machado 2019 10 $300 $300 $30.0
Kevin Brown 1999 7 $105 $297 $42.5
Joey Votto 2014 10 $225 $290 $29.0
Mark Teixeira 2009 8 $180 $290 $36.2
Joe Mauer 2011 8 $184 $289 $36.1
Mike Hampton 2001 8 $121 $284 $35.5
Clayton Kershaw 2014 7 $215 $277 $39.6
Todd Helton 2003 9 $141.5 $277 $30.8
Jason Giambi 2002 7 $120 $276 $39.4
Carlos Beltran 2005 7 $119 $263 $37.6
Nolan Arenado 2019 8 $260 $260 $32.5
All contracts over $100 million considered.

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Phillies Get Bryce Harper and Bryce Harper Gets Massive Payout

This offseason, Bryce Harper failed to reach an agreement with 29 teams on a long term contract that will pay him more millions in any one deal than any baseball player has ever received before. Fortunately for Harper, there are 30 teams in major league baseball, and after a winter (and arguably, a life time) of waiting, the 26-year-old and the Philadelphia Phillies have agreed to a contract that will pay Harper $330 million dollars over 13 years, with a no-trade clause and no deferrals or opt-outs, per Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan. In exchange for that large guarantee, the Phillies get a star player, both in reputation and performance. His five-win 2019 projection is one of the very best in the game, and he greatly improves the Phillies’ chances of a playoff spot in a tough division.

Prior to adding Harper, the Phillies had already made several big moves, adding J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, and David Robertson. Despite those additions, the Phillies were still projected for a win total in the low 80s, and found themselves in a real fight with the Braves and Mets for second place in the division. Harper jumps into a corner outfield spot with the Phillies and improves the team by around four wins over what Nick Williams would’ve provided, vaulting the Phillies past the Mets and Braves and into a conversation with the Nationals for best team in the division and potentially the National League. Harper gets his record-breaking contract, topping Machado’s free agent deal and Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension. The money is more spread out, with a roughly $25 million average annual value that could benefit the Phillies as they navigate the competitive balance tax in the future, so go ahead and start (or continue) the rumor that Mike Trout will make his way to Philly after the 2020 season.

While the wait this winter has been a long one, as free agency drags into spring training, this deal has been an even longer time coming for the former teen phenom. Ten years ago, a 16-year-old Harper was asked what he wanted from baseball, and he responded with all the bravado of a teenager, mentioning the Hall of Fame, pinstripes, and becoming “the greatest baseball player who ever lived.” As for the criticism that came with the comparisons to LeBron James and seeming hubris of a wunderkind gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated when he could barely drive, Harper embraced it, saying “I love the way people talk crap. I hear it all the time. Overrated. You suck. I’ll just do something to shut them up, like, I’ll show you.”

A decade later, he’s still on track for the Hall of Fame, though New York’s trade for Giancarlo Stanton made pinstripes unlikely, and Mike Trout’s existence all but ensures that Harper won’t even be the greatest player of his generation. That Harper might have to settle for Cooperstown speaks to the great expectations placed on the former number one overall pick and NL Rookie of the Year. As for those trying to cut him down, a decade has likely wisened Harper to the reality that nothing he can do will ever stop the naysayers or the perception that he hasn’t done enough. After putting up consecutive four-win seasons at 19 and 20 years old, Harper was rewarded by his peers by being voted the most overrated player in the game two years in a row. While multiple All-Star-level campaigns should have been enough to draw positive attention, Harper wasn’t satisfied; he got better. At 22 years of age, he put up one of the greatest single hitting seasons of all-time and won the NL MVP award unanimously. Just two seasons later, he was again considered the most overrated player in the game by his peers.

The expectations placed upon Harper by the media, his agent Scott Boras, and by Harper himself have shaped the way he is viewed by players and fans. The Commissioner opted to single Harper out for daring to think a $400 million contract was a reasonable ask. When greatness is the standard, slumps, team failures in the playoffs, injuries that have shortened seasons, and one season’s worth of poor defensive metrics garner more attention than a Hall of Fame pace. With this contract, those expectations aren’t going away, but if his track record, projections, and comps are any indication, some of the boasts of a 16-year-old might well become reality, as Harper continues to put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers.

Comparisons help frame our understanding of players, but in free agency, historical comparisons can often do a disservice to a player like Harper. Most free agents are older than he is. Andrew McCutchen became a free agent for the first time this winter at age 32. When Harper reaches McCutchen’s age, he will be in the seventh year of his contract. Comparing Harper’s contract to 10-year deals is nearly meaningless when those deals miss on multiple prime years at the beginning and instead mostly contain multiple years in the late-30s when age decimates nearly all players. Perpetuating the owner’s message that 10-year deals don’t work out is an exercise without utility.

Since Jackie Robinson joined the majors in 1947, only 13 players have put up a WAR within five of Harper’s 30.7 and within 20% of his 3957 plate appearances through their age-25 seasons, including Manny Machado. The 11 players who preceded this year’s free agent pair averaged 39 WAR from age 26 through age-35, and eight of the 11 players are in the Hall of Fame. Even ignoring Harper’s MVP season, his comps create an incredibly high floor. According to my colleague Dan Szymborski, ZiPS, which uses some fairly conservative playing time estimates due to the length of the deal, still has Harper worth more than 30 wins over the life of the contract even with the last few seasons projected to be below replacement-level.

In the past two decades, the only players at Harper’s age or younger to reach free agency with a similarly high level of play are Alex Rodriguez, whose 140 wRC+ through age-25 is identical to Harper, and Manny Machado. The latter just received his own $300 million deal, while the former signed for $252 million nearly two decades ago. Those dollar figures can also deceive in free agency, as Rodriguez’s deal is worth close to $600 million in today’s payroll dollars. Machado’s contact might be the first free agent contact to reach $300 million, but it’s the 10th MLB contract to reach that amount in today’s dollars, while 22 deals have been worth $252 million or more adjusting for MLB payroll inflation.

It’s possible that Harper’s defense has taken a more lasting turn for the worse, and will limit his value going forward. It’s possible Harper gets hurt. He might age poorly. There is inherent risk in making any decade-long-plus commitment when you only get to see a single outcome. It’s important to bake that risk and that downside into future expectations. When we factor that risk with the very good player Harper has mostly been, the great player he’s sometimes been, and the upside associated with a star’s late-20s–make no mistake, even at this high cost, there is still substantial upside–this is an objectively good deal. Adding Harper for 2019 is always going to look good. Every single team in baseball would love to have had Harper for this season. The reason those 29 other teams don’t is their unwillingness to make the substantial commitment that comes after this season. Those teams undoubtedly have their reasons for not making that outlay, but based on everything we know, the Phillies did a very good job in securing a likely Hall of Famer fairly early on his career while paying a reasonable price to do so. For both sides, it has been a long time coming.

A Modest Proposal to End Service Time Manipulation

Major league baseball is at its best when the game’s most talented players are able to showcase their skills at the sport’s highest level. Anything that serves to limit these displays is to baseball’s detriment. Of course, sometimes, fate intervenes. The game’s best players are susceptible to injury, and though major league organizations and the players themselves take great care to try to stay on the field, seasons are lost to tweaked knees and torn elbow ligaments. Some obstacles are impossible to avoid fully. But other absences are the result of careful, intentional planning. Take the example of service time manipulation.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is generally considered to be the best prospect in baseball. He probably earned a callup last season when he was destroying minor league pitching. Right now, Steamer projects the younger Guerrero to put up 4.6 WAR in 545 plate appearances. That’s the 13th-best projection among position players, right behind Nolan Arenado and just ahead of Jose Altuve. He’s not a player who needs to spend more time in the minors, and yet yesterday, Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said that, “I just don’t see him as a major league player. He’s 19.” To start with, Guerrero is older than Juan Soto was when the latter debuted last year, and will turn 20 before Opening Day. Atkins assertion that Guerrero isn’t ready is belied by his minor league performance and industry consensus, and it is hard to interpret the GM’s comments as anything other than an attempt to provide some public, baseball-related justification for keeping Guerrero in the minors so that he can stay under team control through 2025 instead of hitting free agency after the 2024 campaign. That’s service time manipulation.

The practice isn’t unique to Toronto. Kris Bryant was famously held down at the beginning of 2015; he won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 season instead of in 2020. Last season, Ronald Acuña didn’t start the season with the Braves. The White Sox’s Eloy Jimenez is likely to spend time cooling his heels in Charlotte despite being much better than the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is ready now, and the Blue Jays will be worse for every game that Guerrero spends in Buffalo, but that is exactly where he figures to begin this season.

The incentives for teams are obvious, but they are deliberately choosing not to field their best roster, depriving the sport of its best possible product, and delaying deserving players from fulfilling life-long dreams and obtaining market contracts. The easiest solution would be for teams to simply call up players when they are capable of meaningfully contributing, but given that teams could easily do that right now and don’t, another solution is likely necessary. Others have offered solutions to this issue in the past. In 2015 in response to the Cubs’ treatment of Bryant, FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello proposed changing the a full year of service to time to 100 days on the major league roster. Erstwhile Baseball Prospectus scribe Russell Carleton proposed an age-based free agency model as a means of curtailing the practice. Sheryl Ring proposed that a player accrue a year of service if he spends the majority of the league year on the major league roster. And while a solution might not even be possible until the players and owners negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, I’d like to put forth my own proposal to eliminate service time manipulation. The problem is fairly straightforward, but as most potential solutions have unintended consequences, this one is a multi-parter.

First, a player’s first year of service time will be reached with 90 days of MLB service. This is a fairly direct solution, but unfortunately, it could also incentivize teams to keep players down even longer than they do now. While it might make clubs’ decisions more difficult if they are potential contenders, organizations might still opt to keep players in the minors, and non-contending teams might be more likely to do so than those with playoff aspirations; in a year where the Blue Jays are only projected for 77 wins, they might decide that Vlad Jr.’s defense at third needs yet more time, bad PR and a potential grievance be damned.

As a result, it will be necessary to give players half-service time for their days on the 40-man roster. If a player spends the entire season on the 40-man roster in the minors, he will reach 90 days of service time at the end of the season. To prevent shenanigans for those with MLB experience, players can earn one year of MLB service time in the minors at any point in their careers, but can only accrue one year this way. This will get some players closer to free agency without actually playing in the big leagues, and incentivizes putting a team’s best players on the active roster. After all, if a player’s free agency clock is going to start anyway, why not have him lend his talents to the big league club if he’s ready? Unfortunately, teams don’t put players on the 40-man roster until they have to, and many top prospects won’t be on the 40-man roster as a result.

To combat the phenomena described in the previous paragraph, it will be necessary to put more teeth behind the Rule 5 draft by making players draft-eligible a year earlier than they are under the current system. Players who signed their first pro contract at age 18 or younger would now be eligible after four years of minor league service instead of five, while those who did so at age 19 or older would be eligible after three years instead of the current four. This would make many more good prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft and in order to protect them, teams would then put them on the 40-man roster.

Unfortunately, making so many more players eligible for the Rule 5 draft would create a massive roster crunch, and could result in teams being unable to get the prospects they develop to the majors. To prevent this situation, and to keep the Rule 5 draft roughly as it is, the 40-man roster would become a 50-man roster. Teams would then have no difficulty protecting eligible players, but would still be encouraged to promote their prospects as those prospects would end up with a year of service time. While teams would move more players to the majors earlier, those players accruing service time in the minors are a limited set of players: those who are close to the majors or have star potential after multiple years in the minors, hence creating the need to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. For players, it would also have the added benefit of welcoming hundreds more players into the union with better minor league wages as players who have been named to the 40-man, now 50-man, roster are paid at a higher rate thanks to union protections. As a benefit to teams, an additional option year could be added.

So to review:

  • Players receive their first, and only first, year of service time after 90 days
  • Players receive half-service time for days spent on 50-man roster, but not in the majors
  • Rule 5 Eligibility moved up one year
  • 40-man roster increased to 50 players
  • Teams receive an extra option year

This proposal is admittedly complicated. The irony of this idea is that Kris Bryant, the poster-boy for service time manipulation, actually wouldn’t have been spared due to his rapid ascent to the majors, though the Cubs would have had to hold Bryant out until the All-Star Break in 2015 to get an extra year of his services. While this deal favors the interests of the players at the expense of teams and team owners, it is a much more reasonable proposal from ownerships’ perspective than cutting the service time necessary for free agency to less than six years. A union proposal that cuts free agency down to five years and deals with service time manipulation in some other way would mean less team control for those young, ready stars that this proposal is designed to protect, and might make it a non-starter come 2021. Negotiating this solution is likely to be difficult and part of a much larger deal. Teams are going to be highly resistant to any change that deprives them of cost controlled years of their best players. But the union focusing some of their attention on getting players like Vlad Jr. to the majors, as well as getting better benefits to the minor leaguers left behind, can only be to the game’s benefit. Many of baseball’s stars of tomorrow are ready today. Let’s watch them play, shall we?