It isn’t hard to justify a player’s reasoning for signing a long-term extension. It isn’t hard to justify Ronald Acuña Jr. wanting to secure his future. In 2014, the Braves phenom received a signing bonus of $100,000 and then spent the next three and a half years making almost nothing. Last season, he made a bit more than half a million dollars. He was set to do the same this season and next before finally cashing in to the tune of somewhere between four and eight million dollars, unless he manages to win an MVP award, in which case it would bump him up closer to $10 million. Earning just over $1 million for his six years after signing as a professional baseball player isn’t nothing, but it’s also not $100 million, and per Jeff Passan, Ronald Acuña Jr. appears set to sign a contract for a guaranteed $100 million over potentially the next 10 years of his professional baseball life. It’s a lot of money, but it also might be the biggest bargain of a contract since Mike Trout’s six-year, $149.5-million contract signed in 2014 or Albert Pujols‘ eight-year, $100-million contract signed in 2004.
Acuña isn’t on the level of Trout or Pujols, and odds are he never will be, but he is already a very good player. Our Depth Chart projections have Acuña as a four-win player today at 21 years old, sitting right next to J.D. Martinez, Javier Baez, Joey Votto, and Matt Carpenter. Dan Szymborski ran the ZiPS projections for Acuña’s next eight seasons; he averaged about four and a half wins per season, putting him right in line with expectations for Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rendon this year. Acuña is already one of the game’s better players, and his age should keep him at that level for the next decade before he declines, so he gave away potentially four free agent seasons and arguably his entire prime for a fraction of what he might have earned otherwise.
There are two paths to walk down when it comes to putting this contract in perspective. The first is to compare the deal to the one just signed by Eloy Jimenez. The White Sox prospect was guaranteed $43 million over the next six seasons despite never playing a day in the majors. If things break well for him and the White Sox, he will make $77 million over the next eight years and give up one free agent season. Acuña, who has already played a season in the majors and performed really well, will make just $90 million over the next eight seasons if things break right and will have given up two free agent seasons. Then it gets worse for Acuña, because $10 million of that $100 million guarantee is a buyout of a $17 million option for a ninth season followed by another option for $17 million. Those option prices are incredibly small when free agents or free-agents-to-be like Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado are making twice that today, not to mention what salaries might be like eight years from now. According to Passan, the most Acuña could make over the next 10 seasons is $124 million.
Even if we try to understand the deal through the lens of securing life-changing money, it’s hard to fully comprehend. If I’m Acuña, and I were given the option of signing a contract that would set me and my family up for life, I’d prefer to take something more like what Jimenez signed. The guarantee is doubled in Acuña’s case, but the difference between $43 million and $100 million is one that might not make that much of a difference in the course of a person’s a life, especially in contrast to this contract, which could potentially cost him hundreds of million of dollars given that Acuña may never have the opportunity to hit free agency while still in his prime.
As a result, when we compare the extension to the one Jimenez just signed, the deal looks really light. Even if we were to look at players with similar service time like the deals signed by Paul DeJong and Tim Anderson, we find difficult comparisons. Those deals provided guarantees roughly one-quarter that of Acuña’s, but those players were far inferior to Acuña and they only signed away two free agent years instead of four, and weren’t likely to be Super-2 eligible like Acuña. Even Evan Longoria’s bargain contract from 2008 only took effectively two free agent seasons. Given Super 2 status and Acuña’s demonstrated ability, a contract with $60 million in guarantees to buy out one or maybe two years of free agency would have been somewhat reasonable though still ultimately team-friendly. He might have been better off taking the $30 million that was reportedly offered to him last season. In this context, giving up two additional years of free agency seems completely unnecessary from the player’s perspective. It’s possible Atlanta wasn’t willing to offer that type of deal — though it seems strange that they wouldn’t be — and drove a hard bargain by offering this deal or nothing. If that’s the case, we should look at Acuña’s alternative in arbitration.
Arenado is perhaps the closest comp to Acuña at the moment in terms of expected talent and production. Arenado received $60 million for his four seasons of arbitration. If Acuña were to win an MVP over the next few years, Kris Bryant becomes a better comp. Bryant has made $24 million in his first two years of arbitration (despite a lackluster 2018 season) and is probably looking at $40-50 million more in 2020 and 2021. Rendon had a few up-and-down seasons to start his career and still made around $40 million during arbitration. If Acuña plays well, the Braves have guaranteed just $20 million or $30 million extra for those four free agent seasons and end up paying just $50-$60 million in total for those years. If we say Acuña’s arbitration seasons are probably worth around $40 million, and let’s say the Braves take a pretty big discount at 25% to guarantee those seasons, that means the Braves had to guarantee just $70 million for those four free agent seasons and are potentially paying, at most, $94 million over four seasons that don’t even begin until 2025. Forget the negotiations for the next CBA. Acuña won’t likely be a free agent until the CBA after that one kicks in.
We should look at the big guarantee for a player with Acuña’s service time, note that it secures Acuña for life, and understand how tough it would be pass up that kind of money given that we don’t know or understand Acuña’s motivation or circumstances. We can bemoan a system that suppresses salaries for more than half a decade. Those factors are all ones we should consider with contracts of this type, but we also need to consider what the player has potentially given up, as well as reasonable alternatives that meet some of the same goals. The balance between the guarantee is the free agent seasons, as well as the potential arbitration awards. Players simply haven’t given up four free agent seasons this far from free agency, especially players of Acuña’s caliber. A guarantee for half that amount that ensured that Acuña hit free agency in his 20s likely would have been a better deal for Acuña and a positive deal for the Braves. This deal isn’t a steal because of the system that players and owners have set up. This is a deal that, even within that system, will likely prevent Acuña from ever being paid at a level anywhere near his true on-field value.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.