Corbin Carroll Reduces Snake-Eyes Risk by Signing Long-Term with Snakes

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Spring is for extensions. As surely as swallows flock to Capistrano or salmon charge upstream, major league teams spend February and March offering their young stars sackfuls of money in exchange for years of team control. Sure enough, the Diamondbacks and Corbin Carroll followed the path of least resistance over the weekend in agreeing to an eight-year deal worth $111 million, with a ninth-year option for $28 million and $20 million in various contract incentives.

That sounds like a lot of money. Carroll, after all, has only played 32 games in the major leagues and has accrued only 772 professional plate appearances. But do the math, and you can see why Arizona offered this deal, and also why Carroll accepted it.

Carroll isn’t some random recent debut. He’s the number two prospect in baseball, a power-contact-speed-and-defense threat who has dismantled every level of competition he’s faced. That includes the major leagues; that 32-game debut saw Carroll hit .260/.330/.500 with superlative baserunning and defense. He looked like an All-Star right away, and truthfully, he’s always looked like an All-Star. That’s how you end up as the number two prospect in baseball as a 5-foot-10 outfielder so quickly despite missing nearly two consecutive seasons of playing time thanks to the pandemic and then injury.

In our recent Top 100 prospect list, Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin sung Carroll’s praises. His power-and-contact offensive skill set has everyone in agreement, from data-first eggheads (hi!) to visual evaluators. Carroll has done nothing but hit and play good defense. We think he’ll play left field for the Diamondbacks, both because of a lack of arm strength and because teammate Alek Thomas is one of the best in the business in center, but Carroll’s speed certainly fits in center.

Clearly, Carroll wasn’t going to sign just any old extension. He stood to gain too much by simply playing out his team control years and hitting free agency. ZiPS thinks that Carroll will be an All-Star-caliber player right away, and that he’ll maintain that level throughout his contract:

ZiPS Projection – Corbin Carroll
2023 .255 .343 .425 506 75 129 23 9 15 76 57 160 20 110 6 3.8
2024 .259 .347 .434 525 80 136 25 8 17 81 60 156 20 114 6 4.2
2025 .260 .350 .436 543 84 141 26 8 18 86 64 154 19 115 6 4.5
2026 .261 .351 .442 556 87 145 27 7 20 89 66 152 18 117 6 4.6
2027 .261 .353 .444 559 88 146 28 7 20 90 68 148 17 118 6 4.8
2028 .258 .351 .436 555 87 143 27 6 20 89 68 143 15 115 6 4.5
2029 .260 .353 .441 547 86 142 27 6 20 88 67 142 14 117 5 4.5
2030 .258 .352 .436 534 83 138 26 6 19 86 65 139 13 116 5 4.3

That’s one of the best projections in baseball. Assuming Carroll simply played out the next six years without a contract extension before hitting free agency – three years at the league minimum followed by three of arbitration – ZiPS thinks he’d net $50 million in total salary. With that kind of expected payday, there wasn’t much reason for him to take a deal that gave up years of free agency without solid compensation.

On the other hand, $50 million is notably less than $111 million. If Carroll plays at the high level projected up above, he’ll reach free agency and secure far more than two years and $61 million (or three years and $89 million counting the team option) as a new contract. But hear me out: he also might not play at that level. I don’t think Carroll has particularly high bust risk, but he recently missed an entire season when he tore his shoulder by swinging too hard. The future isn’t set in stone.

The question for Carroll is how much he’s giving up in prospective upside by signing this deal, and what he’s getting in return for that upside. I’d argue that he’s not giving up anything worth losing sleep over; in scenarios where he regrets delaying his free agency by three years, he’s still making $139 million (or more) and hitting free agency after his age-30 season. If he ends up signing a George Springer deal – six years, $150 million – instead of a nine-year, $300 million mega-deal, he’d be foregoing $51 million dollars after accounting for the years he pledged to Arizona in this deal.

How likely is he to hit that outcome? It’s a lot less than 50%, in my opinion at least. Most outfielders don’t sign deals like that. Not every prospect hits their projections. Carroll could of course do better than his projections, but I think he’d have to meaningfully beat them to merit a free agency contract approaching $300 million. There just aren’t many players getting those deals in baseball, top prospects or otherwise. Sure, I expect payroll to drift higher over the next decade, but not by that much.

Let’s say Carroll is leaving an expected $20 million on the table with this deal. The cost certainty he gets in return is enormous. In a scenario where he falls short of projections, he might only make $50 million in his entire major league career. Miss a season with injury, post a poor platform year that drags down each subsequent arbitration payout, and things can spiral. That isn’t my central expectation, but it’s far from impossible.

Think of it this way: assume that in 25% of scenarios, Carroll is making himself $50 million by taking this deal – in other words, assume that 25% of the time, his production over the next eight years would only net him $61 million if he went year-to-year. Assume that another 25% of the time, this contract is exactly fair. Another 25% of the time, the deal underpays him by $45 million, and another 25% of the time it underpays him by $90 million.

Add those all up, and you get the result that this deal, on average, underpays his year-to-year payouts by $20 million. You also have what I see as a slam-dunk reason to take the contract. The more money you have, the less each successive dollar changes your life; by taking this deal, Carroll is simultaneously giving up a bit of expected money and reducing his risk of poor outcomes by a huge margin. Ask Scott Kingery if he’s glad he took his $24 million deal from the Phillies.

Carroll’s fail case almost certainly won’t be Kingery-esque, but it’s still prudent to hedge your downside risk. I’ve mentioned this dynamic before; both sides are served by this kind of deal. Carroll sacrifices some money in exchange for earnings certainty, while the Diamondbacks can afford to give plenty of players similar cost certainty in exchange for slight discounts to what they’d make in the open market. The team gets many bites at the apple, so any one player busting hurts them less than it would hurt that player’s expected utility. Someone else they’ve signed to a deal will probably outperform expectations and cushion the blow, so long as all the deals they sign secure at least a slight discount to year-to-year fair value.

As Dan Szymborski put it, ZiPS would suggest that fair value for this contract, accounting for Carroll’s contract situation, is eight years and $146 million. Despite that, Dan and I would both advise Carroll to take the deal. Locking in a life-changing payout is simply smart business, even if you leave a bit of potential profit on the table to do it.

From Arizona’s side, this deal has three key features. First, it projects to save them a bit of money. If Carroll hits his projections, he’d make more than $139 million over the nine years they can keep him for. It’s simplistic, but it’s good for teams to sign players for less than they’d otherwise have to pay them.

More important in my eyes are two more complex effects. First, think about it this way: for the Diamondbacks to punch at the top of the NL West over the next decade, they need to get a little lucky. The Dodgers are ludicrous, the Padres are going for it right now, and the Giants seem like they’re in it for the long haul. Unless they’re going to put a ton more money into salary (don’t hold your breath, the recent example of the Padres notwithstanding), the D-backs need some good breaks in player development to compete.

You know what’s correlated to good breaks in Arizona player development? Good breaks in Corbin Carroll development. I think it’s fair to say that in most of the possible futures where the Diamondbacks become perennial playoff contenders, Carroll develops better than we currently project. If he turned into an exact clone of 22-year-old Mike Trout, that would put the D-backs on much better footing relative to the rest of the division.

Of course, if they didn’t extend Carroll, the good times might not last. They’d need to pay him more in arbitration than that $50 million number ZiPS projects, and they’d also surely lose him after six years. For a budget-constrained team, that money matters, and the lost years of team control are clearly no good.

In other words, giving Carroll an extension now tends to work out for Arizona when Arizona has a good team in the future. That’s exactly when they want good contracts; if they’re competing for playoff spots thanks to a superstar turn from Carroll, it’ll be spectacularly useful to have some cost savings to spend on surrounding him with talent.

The inverse is true – when Carroll turns out worse than expected, this extension will hurt the Diamondbacks when they can least afford it. But let’s be honest – so what? If Carroll doesn’t pan out, the odds are high that Arizona’s rebuild won’t work out. It’s not a 1-to-1 correlation, but most of the time that the D-backs ends up paying Carroll more than he’d fetch on the open market, it won’t really matter; even if they “got that money back” by going year-to-year with him, their team would be so far out of playoff contention that they probably wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap in free agency.

I wouldn’t suggest this kind of analysis for every team, but if you’re looking at budget-constrained teams that need some good breaks to build a contender, extensions around potential franchise cornerstones have right-way risk; they’re helpful for the team when help is most valuable (because they’re right on the playoff bubble), and hurtful for the team when monetary losses hurt least (because they’ll be out of contention anyway).

Another way of thinking about it: let’s say you’re the Diamondbacks general manager and a genie tells you that he’s willing to make you a deal. If your team is better than expected in the future, he’ll up your budget by $50 million. If they’re worse than expected, he’ll lower the budget by that same $50 million. You should always take that deal if you need to do better than the median outcome to succeed. Locking up Carroll for nine years today is an approximation of that tradeoff.

One ancillary benefit: the Diamondbacks can start building around Carroll knowing he’ll be there for a while, and his contract is probably helpful in unquantifiable “convincing the team you’re serious” ways as well. I’d prefer to be a prospect in Arizona’s system more now than a year ago; extending Ketel Marte and now Carroll would make me feel less worried that the team will look to trade anyone who turns out to be good.

I’m not sure how to value that last bit, and I haven’t quantified the right-way-risk part either, but this contract really crystallized this idea in my head. I think this is a rare deal where the Diamondbacks probably would have been willing to pay more and Carroll probably would have been willing to accept less. Both sides are served here thanks to the distribution of possible outcomes, which is a really neat feature of an unprecedented (for a draftee) extension.

One last note: the team fit for Carroll is solid. The club has been building around Thomas and Carroll as outfield cornerstones. He’s not blocking anyone behind him, and he’s a clear everyday starter and top-of-the-lineup bat right away. That’s obvious – again, he’s one of the best prospects in baseball – but it’s still worth noting. Pretty much everything about this deal lines up well for everyone involved.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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16 days ago

And meanwhile, the Orioles don’t extend anyone, because the baseball team and their success is wholly unimportant to their owner.

16 days ago
Reply to  markakis21

TBF extensions generally make the most sense for the team side when (A) the player is still making minimum salary and therefore their downside risk is never seeing a 7-figure contract ever and (B) the team is secure enough in knowing that the player is likely going to not totally suck and turn that money into dead money. Furthermore it’s a lot harder to negotiate with #1 overall picks since they already made set-for-life money with their original bonus. So if you look at the Orioles roster there aren’t that many options to choose from, and not all are willing to settle instead of betting on themselves.

16 days ago
Reply to  markakis21

Not sure what good extension candidates the Os have had the past few years. Mullins had a great year in 2021 but it was probably a career year and he’ll be 31 when he becomes a FA, so you’d be overpaying for what should be his best years to buy a discount for his early-30s, which isn’t the ideal extension.

I’m sure they would try (or already have tried) to extend Adley if he’s open to it, but as a 1.1 overall guy who signed for over $8m he doesn’t have a ton of incentive to give a huge discount.

Gunnar checks all the boxes but he’s a Boras client, so not sure it would be fair to pin that one on the Os.

Last edited 16 days ago by slamcactus
15 days ago
Reply to  slamcactus

Yeah, I would definitely talk to Adley and Gunnar. Not sure how it’s going to work out, but a deal like this for Gunnar would make a ton of sense. Adley would seem to be in line for a bigger deal than that, but he’s a catcher, so this kind of a deal probably would make sense for him too.

But as you say, it takes two to make a deal.