Last Friday, I wrote that if Adam Jones sustains his performance all year, he could be looking at a contract extension in the range of $120 to $140 million by selling himself as Matt Kemp Lite. Today, the Orioles are rumored to have come to an agreement with Jones on a deal for a reported $85 million over six years.
For the Orioles, getting Jones at this price is a slam dunk. Given what he’s already accomplished in the first several months of the season, Jones was going to get a significant raise in arbitration from the $6 million he’s making this year, likely putting him in line for a $10 or $11 million salary in 2013. Given that the Orioles clearly weren’t going to non-tender Jones under any scenario, we can essentially assume that part of the deal was already predetermined to a large extent, so the Orioles are essentially adding five years and $75 million or so onto their existing commitment.
Have you seen what 5/75 buys in free agency lately? Last winter, that was close to the amount C.J. Wilson signed for, but he took less money to stay on the west coast, and the Angels were buying his age 31-35 seasons. In 2010, 5/75 would have left you without enough cash to sign Adrian Beltre, but you could have won the bidding for Adam Dunn and had enough left over to sign Carl Pavano or John Buck. In 2009, that money could have gotten you really close to signing John Lackey or you could have had some leftovers if you signed Jason Bay instead. In 2008, you would have come up just shy for A.J. Burnett or outbid the Braves for Derek Lowe. In 2007, you’d have had enough for Aaron Rowand but not quite enough for Torii Hunter. I think you get the idea.
In reality, the price tag for Adam Jones was only going to go up the longer the Orioles waited. By signing him now, the Orioles take on some additional risk of injury and regression, but they got a pretty significant discount for absorbing that risk, making the decision to sign him now versus in December a pretty easy one. At this price, the question stopped being when they should sign Jones, but whether he was a guy they wanted to lock up long term at all. If the answer to that question was yes, than doing this deal at this time made a lot more sense than waiting until after the year and paying the higher cost associated with the closer proximity to free agency.
So, should Jones be the kind of guy that the Orioles wanted to lock up? After all, he’s a free swinger with a history of average offensive performances whose defensive metrics haven’t lived up to his physical abilities. To date, Jones has a career wRC+ of 103. Up until this year, he has not been a legitimate star player. The Orioles are betting on Jones being better going forward than he has been in the past. But, at this price, that’s a bet worth making.
Jones’ one fatal flaw right now is his walk rate, and it drives the one criticism of his game that people constantly bring up – the low on base percentage. However, walk rate is a skill that improves the most consistently as players get more experience in the big leagues. In this chart from Tom Tango on component aging peaks, you can see that walk rate from 21-37 is a continuously increasing line, with the BB% finally declining at age 38 for the first time. Walks are an old man’s game, and are almost certainly a byproduct of hitters learning to be more selective as they have larger amounts of history to pull from and get better at recognizing which pitches to swing at and which ones to lay off.
The fact that Jones hasn’t walked much from 21-26 does not mean that he’s going to continue not walking for the rest of his career. In fact, if his walk rate doesn’t improve as he ages, that would make him the exception, not the norm.
To show the magnitude of the expected improvement, I pulled all outfielders who have posted a wRC+ between 95 and 105 through age 26 (minimum 2,000 plate appearances) over the last 50 years. Since we’re essentially controlling for overall performance, we’re just looking at guys who were roughly league average hitters early in their careers, so they had some kind of offensive deficiency before they reached their physical prime.
There were 22 such outfielders whose careers had continued on with a large enough sample that would give us useful information about how these types of players would age from 27 on. 20 of those 22 outfielders posted a higher walk rate from age 27+ than they did through age 26 – only Alex Rios and Vince Coleman drew fewer walks during the latter portion of their career. Overall, the group’s BB% through age 26 was 6.9%, and their BB% after age 27 was 8.3%. The biggest gainers included Sammy Sosa (yes, I know, put an asterisk on that one if you want), Jose Cardenal, Torii Hunter, and Claudell Washington, who all went from being low walk guys in their early 20s to average walk guys later in their career.
So, the question isn’t whether Jones is going to start drawing more walks as he gets older – that’s almost certainly going to happen. The question is whether the improvement in walk rate will offset the decline in his physical skills enough to allow him to remain a highly productive player. And, based on what we know about how a player ages, that answer should be yes.
With his current skillset (and heavily regressing his 2012 performance), Jones is approximately a +4 win player over the course of a full season. Peak age for most Major League players is around 27, so there’s no reason to expect Jones to decline in value in 2013 – even if we don’t give him any credit for further improvement, we should project him as a +4 win guy for the next couple of years. So, a back-of-the-envelope assessment of Jones’ value during the years the contract covers would look something like this:
2013: +4.0 WAR
2014: +4.0 WAR
2015: +3.5 WAR
2016: +3.0 WAR
2017: +2.5 WAR
2018: +2.0 WAR
This assumes that Jones never becomes more than he is now, and his early season breakout is more of a fluke than any real step forward. Even in that scenario, Jones would be projected to post +19 WAR over the life of the deal, and for $85 million, that would come out to just under $4.5 million per WAR. Or, if we just looked at the five free agent years covered by the contract, that’d be +15 WAR for $75ish million, or $5 million per WAR over the actual extension. That’s pretty close to current market value, with the Orioles essentially accepting additional injury and performance risk in exchange for hedging against future inflation and the potential that Jones’ breakout season continues and his price goes through the roof.
If you’re an Orioles fan, you almost have to like this move. The team locked up a quality player who may be developing into a true star, and they did so without having to commit beyond his age 32 season. In a time when we’re seeing contracts regularly reach into a player’s late-30s, Baltimore was wise to get their center fielder locked up for his prime years at a salary that he should easily be able to justify.
Jones gets a deal that gives him long term security and makes him a very rich man. The Orioles lock up their franchise center fielder. This contract appears to be the definition of a win-win.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.