Eugenio Suarez and the Free-Agent Market by Jeff Sullivan March 16, 2018 Eugenio Suarez is young, and, last year, he was very good. He wasn’t about to leave the Reds any time soon, but now a separation could be even further away. See, Suarez was looking at three more years of team control, but now he and the club have agreed to a seven-year contract with an eighth-year club option. The breakdown is as follows, and what isn’t shown is Suarez’s $2-million signing bonus. 2018: $2.25 million 2019: $7 million 2020: $9.25 million 2021: $10.5 million 2022: $11 million 2023: $11 million 2024: $11 million 2025: $15-million club option ($2-million buyout) Suarez’s first free-agent year would’ve been 2021. He’s signed away four of them, and maybe a fifth, and the total guarantee works out to $66 million. There are no other bonuses or escalators included, and Suarez also hasn’t received a no-trade clause. We’ve seen a lot of increasingly complicated contracts. This one’s simple. The Reds are locking up a good player for a while, and that player is now guaranteed life-changing money that will afford his family great comfort. Everyone right now is saying the right things. The mood is typically pleasant when a contract is announced. The Reds say they’re thrilled to keep a building block. They see Suarez as someone who can lead them out of the rebuild and into contention. And Suarez says he’s ecstatic to commit to Cincinnati, where he’s come to excel. I can’t imagine being upset about sixty-six million dollars. It’s very, very easy to see how this is a triumphant moment for Suarez as a player. It’s also easy to see how Suarez might’ve been undervalued. The timing here probably isn’t a coincidence. Suarez is 26 years old. He just worked hard to turn himself into an above-average defensive third baseman. More than that, this is a guy who, in 2015, walked in just 4.3% of his plate appearances. Last season his walk rate was more than three times higher. Suarez has already shown tremendous growth, in just about every aspect, and it’s important to remember Suarez was part of a package the Tigers sent the Reds in exchange for one year of a very diminished Alfredo Simon. Suarez was never considered a top prospect. The story is actually even better than that. I’ll excerpt from Chris Kraul, in April of 2011. The doggedness of some Venezuelan scouts was shown with Suarez’s signing two years ago. Tigers scout Alejandro Rodriguez found him playing in a youth league in the remote mining town of Ciudad Piar, which has never produced a Major League player. Although Suarez was somewhat slight of build at 145 pounds on his 6-foot frame, scout Rodriguez was attracted by his fire on the field and offered him a $12,000 bonus to sign a minor league contract. That’s far less than the $89,000 average that Venezuelan prospects received that year, but Suarez jumped at it. Suarez signed for a tiny bonus, out of a town with no track record. Within a decade, he performed as one of the 50 or so best players in baseball. Now he’s guaranteed two-thirds of $100 million, which is just impossible money. Even though Suarez had lost in arbitration, he knew he was about to get $3.75 million. Suarez was going to have his first-ever seven-figure contract. Now he’s signed his first-ever eight-figure contract. Suarez first made it when he signed with the Tigers. Next, he made it when he got up to the majors. Then, he made it when he broke out in 2017. And now we have this. Suarez has reached a height few of us can imagine, and few of us have his own personal background. This is a victory, and Suarez should have few regrets. But this is also where a certain imbalance comes into play. Players are concerned about every million. And, for a baseball player, and especially a baseball player who doesn’t come from money, the first million is more important than the next. The first ten million is more important than the next. Give a player $10 million and he won’t be able to even imagine how he could spend it all. Players, however, are paid by organizations, and organizations don’t view things the same way. Organizations are steered by billionaires, who can afford to take a longer-term view. None of them are desperate for money in the short-term, which helps them make money in the long-term. To get to the point more quickly: Suarez won’t be sad about $66 million, but this already appears team-friendly. This could’ve been done for more, if it had to be done at all. The benefit for the Reds is that, as a lower-budget operation, they need team-friendly terms in order to compete. And obviously, the Reds are assuming some risk, since Suarez could ruin his career tomorrow. There’s a reason why extensions like this get signed in the first place. Interests end up sufficiently aligned. But I can’t help but look at this deal and think about what we’ve seen with free agency. Suarez has a little over three years of service. He’s headed into his age-26 season. A year ago, headed into his own age-26 season, Wil Myers had a little over three years of service. He signed a six-year extension with the Padres, worth $83 million. Both the Myers and the Suarez deals have an option at the end. Myers was coming off a year in which he was worth 3.9 WAR, with a wRC+ of 116. Suarez is coming off a year in which he was worth 4.1 WAR, with a wRC+ of 117. Extensions of this length aren’t common with players with Suarez’s amount of service. Headed into his age-27 season, in 2015, Kyle Seager had a little over three years of service. He signed a seven-year extension with the Mariners, worth $100 million. That also came with an option. Seager was coming off a year in which he was worth 5.4 WAR, with a wRC+ of 127. It’s true that Seager had a better record then than Suarez has now. But Seager and Suarez are somewhat similar, in that they’ve been career overachievers, and while Seager looked a little better than Suarez does now, Suarez is coming off a breakout. And it’s been three years. You’d expect to see some inflation. Suarez is still getting just two-thirds of the Seager deal. Recently, I’ve observed a recurring question in my Friday chats. The question asks, will this year’s poor free-agent market lead to more players signing long-term extensions? I don’t think Suarez signed because of the free-agent market, but I do think the free-agent market is a relevant variable. In that, I think free agency is now scarier than it’s been. No matter how you feel about the market — whether it’s just rational now, or whether it’s evidence of collusion and intentional wage-suppression — players have noticed, and agents have noticed. None of them are thrilled. Even if free agency is simply now less stupid, it’s also less pleasant. It’s no kind of paradise; it’s looking for work, with employers who want to pay as little as possible. Free agency isn’t as much of a draw. If free agency is less appealing, then bypassing free agency becomes more appealing. Being a free agent might just come with too much uncertainty. And while I don’t think that’ll deter the true stars — guys like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado — someone like Suarez isn’t on that level. For his career, Suarez has been worth 2.3 WAR per 600 plate appearances. He projects at 2.6. Before, Suarez would’ve been able to look ahead to being a free agent in his late 20s. But Suarez was also going to hit the market before the expiration of the current CBA. Now Suarez won’t hit the market until he’s well into his 30s. At that point, he’ll likely be winding down, anyway. Suarez is getting his money now, instead of betting on himself and anticipating a future bidding war. It seems silly that Suarez has sold four free-agent years for about $11 million apiece. And then there’s the club option. There’s the lack of a no-trade clause. How much is $11 million really going to be in baseball in 2024? But Suarez just saw Mike Moustakas get $6.5 million. He saw Logan Morrison get $6.5 million. He saw Neil Walker get $4 million. Even though baseball will change over time, you couldn’t blame Suarez if he didn’t feel like getting involved in that. In this way, the free-agent market doesn’t affect only free agents. It affects the very idea of free agency, which can affect decisions by players who aren’t free agents yet. We’ll see if this happens more often. I imagine a number of teams are attempting to engage. This is a happy day for the Cincinnati Reds, and this is also a happy day for Eugenio Suarez. Suarez right now probably doesn’t much care if he could’ve signed for more than he did. I’m guessing $66 million will prove to be more than enough. But what we’ve seen has looked like a shift away from free agency. The solution to that would be shifting more money toward young players. Those same young players might now be more inclined to sign for too little, out of fear of the free-agent market itself. No one’s going to want to be the next Moustakas. And the ripples from that are widespread.