J.P. Crawford and the Mariners are a Perfect Match

© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There are so many good young shortstops in baseball these days that it’s easy to lose track. The oldest starter in the top 10 of our positional power rankings is Xander Bogaerts, and he hasn’t turned 30 yet. Eighteen of the top 20 shortstops are under 30. It can feel like every team has one of these guys. But that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable, and the Mariners clearly agree: they recently agreed to a contract extension with J.P. Crawford that will keep him in the Pacific Northwest through the 2026 season.

Crawford is, for lack of a better way to put it, an in-between Mariner. The team’s old guard – Félix Hernández and Kyle Seager, for example – is gone. The new guard – Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodríguez, Logan Gilbert, et al. – are breaking in now. But Crawford debuted for Seattle in 2019, and saw his first major league action in 2017. He would have reached free agency after the 2024 season, awkwardly in the middle of what the Mariners hope will be their new core’s best years.

The solution seemed obvious, and the deal the two sides worked out fits the mold almost perfectly. The five-year, $51 million pact is straightforward; no options on either side, no escalators, and no buyouts. It will pay him $10 million in each of the first four seasons and $11 million in the last year.

We already know what Crawford would have made in arbitration this year; he and the team settled on $4.85 million. We can approximate what he would have made next year; if his arbitration increases follow the average increase league-wide and he hits his projections, he’d probably make around $7 million in 2023, and $10 million in ’24. Those are estimations, to be sure, but that’s kind of how contract negotiations work; both sides take estimates into account when a contract buys out future years of arbitration.

If those estimates are close to the mark, this deal works out to the equivalent of a $29 million contract for 2025 and ’26, the two years of free agency Crawford is sacrificing by signing. That seems broadly fair to me; those will be his age-30 and 31 seasons, and if you pencil in a standard aging curve, that’s perhaps a slight discount on what he’d earn in free agency.

By the math, it’s hardly a discount; take into account the time value of money (the structure of Crawford’s deal gets him more money sooner) and estimate the cost of one win in free agency as roughly $8 million, and he’s looking at receiving perhaps $2 million less than he otherwise would. The real cost comes in the years after the end of Crawford’s contract; if he hits free agency coming off of a roughly average season – between 1 and 2 WAR, let’s say – he might find a limited market for his services. It’s easier to get a four-year deal at 30 than a two-year deal at 32, at least in the current economic environment.

If I were Crawford, though, I wouldn’t care about those last two years overly much. At the conclusion of this contract, he’ll have career earnings approaching $60 million. If he gets squeezed and only makes, say, $4 million per year in those next two – something like what Brad Miller and José Iglesias made this offseason – well, so what? Downside scenarios are a lot easier to stomach when you start with tens of millions of dollars in your bank account.

In exchange, lots of the worst-case scenarios that could otherwise befall Crawford fall away. Not that it’s particularly likely, but he could suffer a season-ending injury this year and turn that arbitration timeline on its head. Or hey, he could just suffer a series of nagging injuries; 2021 was only the second year of his professional career where he eclipsed 600 plate appearances.

Another risk: Crawford might regress at the plate. He’s never been an overwhelmingly good hitter; he sports a career 96 wRC+, and last year was the first time he’s eclipsed the 100 mark in the major leagues. A grounder-heavy batted ball mix and bottom-of-the-barrel contact quality – sixth percentile in barrels per batted ball, eighth in hard-hit rate – mean that his offense relies heavily on walks and singles. That’s always a little scary, though Crawford has the high-contact game to make it work.

That’s not to say that Crawford can’t hit for power. He doesn’t consistently make powerful contact, but he’s capable of it; he’s regularly above major league average when it comes to maximum exit velocity. In 2021, he hit 88 balls at 100 mph or harder. It’s not a high rate of his batted balls – he doesn’t strike out much – but Joey Gallo had 89 such balls last year. Rhys Hoskins had 88. Jonathan India had 86. They combined for 86 home runs. Crawford gets less out of his hard-hit balls; he had nine homers.

The problem? Crawford’s hardest contact mostly didn’t get airborne. He hit eight of those 88 100 mph-plus batted balls in “home run territory”; between 20 and 35 degrees of angle off the bat. Seven of those eight were homers. The three power hitters I compared him to averaged 30 potential home run balls. In other words, Crawford’s loud contact just doesn’t play the same. Unless it starts to, he’ll need to keep making his usual excellent contact to compensate for his lack of extra-base hits.

If his contact skills falter and drag his batting line down towards a 90 wRC+, that would make Crawford essentially an average regular. He’s good enough defensively, and at a hard enough position, that even sub-par offense will play. But that would cut into his arbitration payouts, and chill his market in free agency. Realize his 20th percentile outcome, and he might lose $25 million in earnings relative to this extension.

That same rough fact is true for many players, but when $25 million is nearly half of your career earnings, I’m much more in favor of signing an extension that takes that variance off the table. Life likely won’t feel very different at $60 million or $75 million in career earnings; the difference between $35 million and $60 million is a much larger gulf. Imagine a scenario where a genie tells Crawford that if he doesn’t sign this extension, he’ll either make $75 million (80% of the time) or $35 million (20% of the time). That’s an average of $67 million. Then, the Mariners offer him this deal, which the genie tells him will net him $60 million in career earnings 100% of the time.

You can do the math – $60 million is less than $67 million. But I’d take the guaranteed $60 million, and plenty of rational people would as well, because money and utility (a broad economic concept, but think “total happiness”) aren’t correlated one-to-one. It’s called diminishing marginal utility; the millionth dollar doesn’t add as much to your happiness as the thousandth dollar, and you can’t double your happiness by doubling your money.

I think that the diminishing marginal utility of money is often overused to support a player taking an extension. There are plenty of non-economic reasons to turn down extensions and aim for a free agency payday. It might be important to you to set a contract precedent for the guys who follow you. You could want to choose where to play, or prefer a particular term of contract, or simply want to set a record for largest (or highest-average, or longest) deal.

But for a player in Crawford’s situation, I think the economic argument is overpowering. I don’t think he’s giving up $15 million on average – I think the Mariners paid him quite close to fairly, taking into account the years of arbitration he had remaining. And if I were him, I would have taken the deal even if I were giving up that hypothetical $7 million in expectation. Getting certainty without giving up much money is my idea of a good deal.

There’s a natural harmony between team and player here. Teams essentially provide players with insurance via early contract extensions. In scenarios where a player performs much worse than expected, his contract will still pay him. In exchange, in scenarios where he performs as expected or better, the contract pays him less than he would have made without signing it.

Players get a smoother income distribution across their potential outcomes, which is a good deal for them. Teams can bear that risk better; they have a ton of players, some of whom are bound to underperform and some of whom will inevitably overperform, and no individual contract is the difference between a team working and not. If the numbers are reasonable (read: not Albies-ian), it’s a symbiotic relationship.

There’s one more consideration the Mariners were making here. They’re offering Crawford what looks like a very good deal relative to similar pre-free-agency extensions. They’re not getting any of the years as team options, or locking up an in-his-prime-superstar at a crazy rate; they’re just paying a good player slightly less than they otherwise might have.

Why do that? Because Crawford fills a key need for them. Their farm system is in the middle of delivering some impressive talent to the major leagues, but it’s light on middle infielders. Noelvi Marte looks like the only high-impact player there, and he’s not yet 20. When the current generation of top prospects is at its peak in a few years, it’s far from clear that they’ll have enough going on in the middle infield to complement the young group of outfielders and pitchers. If Marte pans out, they can always shift Crawford to second, and if he doesn’t, they have a perfectly useful Crawford as backup.

They’ve now removed that possibility from play. It shows three things. First, it shows what they think of Crawford – that he’s likely to merit a spot in their lineup for the next five years. Second, it shows what they think of the odds of finding a shortstop and a second baseman internally who would make them want to move on from him in a few years – not very likely. Finally, it shows their opinion of their young core – high enough that they want to lock in steady pieces around it rather than gamble for upside.

If any of several circumstances hadn’t lined up, I don’t think this deal would have happened. If the Mariners had a stronger pipeline of infield prospects, or didn’t have such a dynamic group of young talent to build around, or simply had a huge budget and a marquee shortstop they wanted to woo, they wouldn’t have offered it to Crawford. If he had a little more money in the bank, or if they didn’t offer this deal until a year from now, or if he’d been a 3 WAR player for the last three years instead of merely the last one, he wouldn’t have accepted it. But the confluence of team need and player situation is absolutely perfect here.

Maybe I’m underselling Crawford’s talent. Maybe I’m overstating how much care went into the Mariners’ offer. But I don’t think this extension is a coincidence. It fits both sides too neatly. We don’t know how Crawford will age, and we don’t know how the Mariners will look in three years – but for everyone involved, both of those circumstances are more certain now than they were a week ago.

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

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7 months ago

Great article. I really love all the young guys getting extensions from teams that don’t always spend enough (Pirates, Guardians, Rays, Mariners).

ventricular buzzword
7 months ago
Reply to  dl80

The Mariners do not belong on that list of teams. Since 2000, the only years they didn’t have a top 15 opening day payroll were when they were going through youth movements, 2011-2014 and 2020-2022. The only years they had a bottom 10 payroll was in 2013 (#24), 2020 (#21), 2021 (#25), and 2022 (#22). And after those youth movements they haven’t been afraid to spend in free agency (see Cano and Cruz deals in the ’13-’14 offseason and the Robbie Ray deal this year).

And compared to the fire sales teams like Cleveland, Oakland, and Tampa Bay frequently engage in, the historical criticism against the Mariners is that they’d hold on to aging stars so long they lost any trade value (see King Felix) or sign veterans in decline to contracts valued at their past production level (see Chone Figgins).

7 months ago

It is worth noting that current Mariners ownership has only been in place since 2016 and has only made 4 signings over $25 million since then including this one (The Segura, Marco Gonzales, and Crawford extensions and the Kikuchi and Robbie Ray FA signing). Granted they did take over a team with fairly high payroll commitments and didn’t desperately try to offload it like some other ownership groups have, but this ownership group has had tighter purse strings than Nintendo did.