Late Tuesday night, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Tampa Bay Rays had agreed to a six-year, $24 million contract extension with 24-year-old second baseman and outfielder Brandon Lowe. Lowe is our 46th overall prospect, the top one in the 50 FV tier, and the No. 5 prospect in a loaded Rays system.
According to the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin, the deal also includes two club option years, which, along with incentives, could bring the total value to $49 million; if those options are exercised, Lowe will be 32 when the deal ends. Lowe will now obviously be making much more during his pre-arb seasons than he would have with standard contract renewals, but the possibility of overarching changes to baseball’s compensation structure in the next CBA currently make it impossible to evaluate the latter parts of the deal on Lowe’s end.
If he becomes the type of player I expect him to be — Lowe has power, walks at an above-average clip, and plays several positions including a passable second base, all of which makes me think he’s a two to three win player — a $4 million average annual value would make Lowe a bargain for the Rays. Based on Craig Edwards’ work at our site (and Driveline Baseball’s recent attempt to refine that research), 50 FV position player prospects like Lowe should be valued at $28 million, quite close to the value of his deal, excluding of the team option years. The AAV of the two option years, which would encompass Lowe’s age-31 and 32 seasons, is $12.5 million, almost exactly what D.J. LeMahieu received this offseason (age 30, two years, $24 million), and LeMahieu has been what we’d call a 50 in prospect parlance, as he was on average about a two win player during his tenure with Colorado.
But Lowe is at the very top of the 50 FV tier, and we have as much big league data from him as is possible for a ranking-eligible hitting prospect, as his 2018 debut left him just two at-bats shy of exhausting rookie eligibility. In those 148 plate appearances, Lowe hit .233/.324/.450. If you combine his 2018 numbers from Double- and Triple-A and the majors, he hit .281/.376/.530 with 28 home runs and 37 doubles, a 12% walk rate, and a 24% strikeout rate. 50 FV prospects bust at a nearly 50% rate, but Lowe seems safer than that baseline because he’s performed at the upper levels of the minors and in a fairly significant big league sample. If he’s a two to three win player right now, he’ll easily out-produce the value of the contract during the life of the deal, so perhaps that $28 million valuation is selling Lowe short due to the specifics of his ripe prospectdom, or maybe it’s an indication we just under-ranked him.
Perhaps this deal illustrates the conundrum facing college draftees and, by extension, high school prospects deciding whether to go to school or sign a pro contract and head to rookie ball. Most college draft prospects are 21 or 22 when they enter pro ball and most of them, even most of the best ones, spend two or three years in the minors developing. They typically debut in the majors at around age 24, like Lowe did, and don’t reach free agency until their early-30s when, as we’ve seen during each of the last two offseasons, it can be hard to find a good deal or any deal at all.
High school draftees and international signees need to be added to the 40-man after having played five pro seasons, or else they’re exposed to the Rule 5 draft. For college-aged players, the timeline is four seasons. That means 17- or 18-year-old high school kids are forced onto the 40-man at age 22 or 23, while college players get added at 25 or 26, and the difference in potential earning power in free agency six years afterward is sizable. If extensions like this become more common, I’d expect most of the players involved to be college draftees who have more incentive to take the money rather than cross their fingers that the market for 30-year-olds is better a half decade from now.
Lowe may also have sought security because he has twice suffered serious injuries. He tore his ACL as a freshman at Maryland, then broke his fibula not long before the 2015 draft, which dimmed his stock a bit and meant he needed to sit out during what would have been his first pro summer to recuperate. It’d be reasonable to have stared into baseball’s abyss and come out the other side seeking immediate financial security just in case something happens again.
He has shown no lingering effects from either injury in pro ball. Lowe hits balls hard, he hits them in the air, he has a track record of strong offensive performance dating back to his healthy years of college, and his defensive versatility will afford the Rays flexibility at other positions. He’ll make some starts at second base, he could play some first base instead of Ji-Man Choi in order to let Willy Adames play short everyday while Daniel Roberston and Joey Wendle platoon at second, and he’ll come off the bench to hit against righties in later innings.
He’s going to contribute to a competitive Rays club immediately and, it would seem, for the foreseeable future. The proactive extension seems like a good deal for the Rays but we don’t yet know if it will prove to be for Lowe.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.