The pieces are starting to come together for the rebuilding Braves. Though they’ve spent their winter stocking up on veteran starting pitchers and piratey-looking utilitymen, it’s been a winter spent with an eye looking to the future. None of the players whom Atlanta has added are standing firmly in the way of a young prospect, and they all make the team just a little bit better for their debut at their new taxpayer-funded stadium.
The extension of Ender Inciarte is a different matter. This isn’t a move that allows the future to happen, it’s one that shows what the future is going to look like. Inciarte has been given $30.525 million to stick around for an extra two years, and the Braves hold a $9 million option for an additional year after that. If that sounds cheap for a young, three-win center fielder, it’s because it is. Here’s how the deal breaks down.
|2016 (Signing Bonus)||25||$3.5|
|2022 (Club Option)||31||$9, $1.025 Buyout|
MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections pegged Inciarte to earn $2.8 million this offseason, and assuming he’d been his usual productive self this year, he would’ve gotten a good raise next winter. Still, this seems like a real steal. Even if you assume Inciarte will record only the 2.4 wins for which Steamer projects him in 2017 and also assume that wins are going for $8 million a piece this offseason (when $8.5 million is more likely), it’s still likely that Inciarte will produce more than $100 million in on-field value over the next five years.
|2017||26||2.4||$8.0 M||$19.2 M|
|2018||27||2.6||$8.4 M||$22.3 M|
|2019||28||2.6||$8.8 M||$23.4 M|
|2020||29||2.6||$9.3 M||$24.5 M|
|2021||30||2.6||$9.7 M||$25.8 M|
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
As you can see, this deal saves the Braves a lot of money in the long run, and it gives Inciarte some immediate financial security. Atlanta will now have more money with which to play in free agency and in acquiring players in trades as they look to morph into a contending club.
However, once again, it’s striking by how cheap this contract is. Let’s talk about Ender Inciarte for a bit, shall we? Inciarte doesn’t offer more than a league-average bat, and he’s been a hair below average over the course of his career. He is, however, a brilliant defensive outfielder. UZR and DRS are fond of him in all three positions. He’s exceeded 15 steals in every season since his debut run the bases well overall. He’s only just turned 26, too, so we probably haven’t seen his peak yet. Inciarte isn’t a game-changing talent, but you can do far worse for a center fielder. He’s worth having around, and the Braves are going to have him around for a low cost, and for at least two years longer than originally planned.
The deal is quite similar to the one just signed by Odubel Herrera. The Phillies extended Herrera for five years and gave him $30.5 million, with two options tacked on at the end. One can argue that Herrera is a bit more valuable than Inciarte due to his above-average offense, and WAR backs that up. Herrera’s extension only guarantees one extra year of control in contrast to the two extra years for which the Braves get Inciarte. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see both NL East clubs locking in control of their young center fielders for the foreseeable future as both teams aim to start winning.
Inciarte was the lone remaining core Braves player whose financial future remain undetermined, following the extensions that Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran have already signed. It’s tempting to throw Dansby Swanson into that category too, but he’s been in the big leagues for a relative millisecond and is unlikely to be an extension candidate until he approaches salary arbitration in a few years. The rest of the team is made up of tweeners and salaried veterans like Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis. The Braves are going to replacing most of those guys over the next few years. In Inciarte, they’ve made a firm commitment and identified a major building block.
Unless, of course, they trade him.
The Braves are known to be seeking an ace. They were in the Chris Sale discussion, and will likely continue to be interested in adding a front-line starter in the near future. Inciarte’s extension makes him an even more valuable trade chip due his assured low cost for years to come. Given the Braves’ demonstrated creativity in their team-building (the Kemp trade, going after Sale this early in the rebuilding process), it wouldn’t be surprising to see them flip Inciarte at some point as part of an effort to acquire impact big-league talent. Atlanta has a blue-chip outfield prospect in Ronald Acuna who could be ready at some point in the next two years, and he looks like he may end up having more of a bat than Inciarte currently has. It’s foolhardy to assume that Acuna is a sure thing, since prospects have a habit of breaking your heart, but I wouldn’t rush to assume that Inciarte is going to be off the table in trade discussions.
Regardless, Atlanta made a very good move here. Inciarte is a good talent, and this seems to be the going rate for good young NL East center fielders. One wonders if it would have been prudent of him to wait out for more money, but you can’t fault Inciarte for taking the money now. That $30 million bucks is still $30 million bucks. It’s also quite a steal for the Braves.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.