Jean Segura and the Mariners Are Betting on Each Other

Back in November, the Mariners decided to bet on Jean Segura’s 2016 breakout, swapping prized young starter Taijuan Walker and shortstop Ketel Marte for Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger. While Jeff and I both took to Haniger as perhaps the most interesting player in the deal, Segura was the headliner for most people, as a 26 year old coming off a +5 WAR season is something you don’t often get to add to your roster. And to this point, Segura hasn’t disappointed.

Prior to going on the DL with a high ankle sprain, Segura was following up last year’s .319/.368/.499 line with a .341/.391/.462 mark, and given the switch from Chase Field to Safeco Field, that’s an even more impressive offensive performance; his 136 wRC+ is 10 points higher than the 126 wRC+ he put up last year. And so, with another few months of strong hitting in his track record, the Mariners have decided to bet on Segura once again, reportedly signing him to a five year, $70 million contract extension.

Given that Segura had one arbitration year left, this is really a four year extension, for roughly around $60 million over those four free agent years. Segura made $6 million in arbitration this winter, and assuming he kept playing well, he would have landed something in the $10 million range for his final arbitration year in 2018, so this deal pays Segura about $15 million a year for age 29-32 seasons.

On the one hand, that’s a pretty easy sell for the team, given what Segura is doing right now and what that kind of money currently buys you in free agency. This deal would put Segura in roughly the same territory as what Josh Reddick (4/$52M) and Mark Melancon (4/$62M) cost last winter, and while those guys are perfectly useful pieces to have on a roster, an everyday shortstop who can hit is more valuable than either one. If Segura had kept running offensive numbers like he has since the start of the 2016 season for the next year and a half, it’s hard to imagine him coming in under $100 million in free agency, so if Segura keeps hitting, this could be a significant bargain for the Mariners.

But Segura isn’t yet a free agent, and his true offensive level remains something of an unknown, so the team is definitely buying some risk in this deal.

Last year’s breakout was fueled by a significant power spike, as Segura posted a .181 ISO, up from .079 in 2015. He hit almost twice as many home runs last season as he did in the two years prior to that combined. 2016 was defined by non-HR hitters finding their home run stroke, and Segura was part of the wave of unexpected sluggers who started launching balls over the fences.

This year, though, the home run power hasn’t carried over that well. He has just four home runs and a .121 ISO that is closer to what he did in his Milwaukee years than in his Arizona breakout. Instead, this year, his offensive line is being carried by a .395 BABIP that is sixth-highest in baseball among qualified hitters. And while Segura is a fast right-hander who sprays the ball around the field (thus neutralizing the shift), his contact quality doesn’t support these kinds of results.

By MLB’s xwOBA calculation, which evaluates a hitter’s expected production based on exit velocity and launch angle, Segura has one of the largest deviations between results and expected results, with a .375 wOBA and a .310 xwOBA. In front of him are a couple of Astros, a couple of Reds, a couple of Rockies, a couple of Red Sox; players who hit in ballparks that are conducive to turning less-strong contact into hits, basically. While Safeco isn’t the pitcher’s paradise it once was, it’s still not a park that inflates offense, and that kind of gap between wOBA and xwOBA suggests that there’s a lot of air that could come out of Segura’s current offensive line.

Of course, there is more to batted ball data than just exit velocity and launch angle, and Andrew Perpetua has done good work with his xSTATS calculations, and his numbers agree that regression is coming, but not to the same degree. He has Segura’s expected line at .300/.347/.440, good for a .340 wOBA, well ahead of what MLB’s calculation suggests, and still quite excellent for a shortstop. And as Tony Blengino wrote over the winter, Segura’s 2016 numbers were mostly supported by his contact, so while he won’t keep running a .395 BABIP, there is a decent amount of evidence that he’s a significantly better hitter now than he was in Milwaukee.

The question now is really an order of magnitude. If he is anything close to what he’s done since last year began, he just left a lot of money on the table. If last year’s power spike was an anomaly and the true-talent BABIP is closer to .330 than .400, then the lack of walks would probably serve to make him an average-ish hitter, which is what ZIPS and Steamer both project going forward. An average hitter who can play shortstop is a nice thing, but defense peaks early, and Segura has graded as an average to below average SS to this point in his career, so it’s not unheard of that he’ll be a defensive liability at the position by the time the new years of the extension begin, and that he would profile better at second base for the duration of the contract.

Of course, Robinson Cano makes a move to second base impractical in Seattle, so Segura will play short for as long as Cano is his double-play partner. And that’s what makes this part of Segura’s decision a bit interesting; he might have just signed up to spend the remainder of his prime with a team with an uncertain future. The Mariners are 29-30 with an aging roster and no real farm system to speak of, and depending on how the next few months go, there was a chance they could have had to make a decision on whether to sell this summer and retool the roster again.

With Segura getting full no-trade protection in this extension, he’s obviously off the market as a trade chip, and if you’re not moving Segura — who would have been one of their most valuable chips — then you’re probably not engaging in a rebuild that gets enough to justify moving other guys either. So while it’s not like the team can’t rebuild now that they’ve re-signed Segura, this seems to signal that the organization intends to continue pushing in on the short-term instead, but they almost certainly can’t run down Houston this year, and the Astros look like a behemoth in the division for years to come.

Perhaps Segura just really likes Seattle, likes the ballpark, likes the organization, and isn’t as concerned about whether he’s on a sustained winner. But 18 months from free agency, it seems like he might have had a chance to earn more money on a team with a more certain future, so him taking an extension now is certainly a risk on his part, as he could end up as an underpaid asset on a team without enough around him to win consistently. That’s not what you generally want.

But given Segura’s up and down career, it’s not hard to see the allure in taking a guaranteed $70 million. A little over a year ago, it was a question of whether he was good enough to start in the big leagues, but now he’s got a secure position for the foreseeable future. Both sides are taking some risk here, betting on the other to do their part to help the team win, and for the price, it probably makes sense for both sides. Now both the organization and their new long-term shortstop have to hope they can find some pitching to make this marriage work for a while.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Deacon Drakemember
5 years ago

Nobody wants to end up in the Ian Desmond boat… it looks like it worked out for Desmond in the end, but he had to eat last season and learn two new positions.

While Segura does have a little bit more ceiling to play with, a deadline trade to a less favorable environment could have depressed his value. In Seattle he has a stranglehold on the starting position and is producing… seems like a good time to take some guaranteed money. These “Big Network Rights” era contracts may not be the same in the near future.