Texas Signs Marcus Semien for Seven

Marcus Semien finally landed his long-term contract over the weekend, coming to an agreement on a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Rangers. The tritagonist of the AL MVP race in both 2021 and ’19 hit .265/.334/.538 with 6.6 WAR for the Blue Jays in 2021, playing in all 162 games for just the second time in his career.

The exact distribution of the money is not yet public, so we don’t know about opt-outs, options, buyouts, incentives, and the like. But whatever the fine print says, this is a big contract, and one that it looked like Semien would never be able to land. A late bloomer, he was not widely considered a top prospect around baseball, though he ranked 31st in the inaugural ZiPS Top 100 Prospects before the 2014 season after terrific all-around performances in ’13 for Triple-A Charlotte and Double-A Birmingham. But it was the outlier here, and the White Sox of the time were not a particularly imaginative organization. They didn’t see him, then error-prone, as a shortstop, and in any case, Alexei Ramirez had an ironclad hold on the position. This was the era in which the Sox seemed determined to play Gordon Beckham at second indefinitely, despite any performance-based reason for that strategy, and little attempt was made to find a role for Semien on the roster. He, along with Chris Bassitt and a couple others, was shipped off to Oakland after the 2014 season for Jeff Samardzija.

Oakland has never shied away from being the Island of Misfit Toys and found a better use for Semien, and like Marco Scutaro, a stathead darling from a decade prior, he turned out to be a low-cost, league-average infielder. With the help of Ron Washington, he improved immensely with the glove and nearly put up his first 4-WAR season in 2018. When his power broke out, as it did the following season, he was a legitimate contender for the AL MVP award.

The next time you hear bemoaning about how players always have career years right before they hit free agency, remember to keep the example of Semien in your mind. He finally made it the market after 2020, his age-29 season, but was coming off a relatively unimpressive follow-up to his MVP-caliber ’19, hitting .223/.305/.374. It was hardly a lousy year by any stretch — his 1.2 WAR represented a 3.1 WAR pace over a full campaign — but it was one to get the word “fluke” out there.

With the hope of a bounceback season in a year not drastically shortened by a raging pandemic, he signed a one-year deal with Toronto worth $18 million, positioning him to get one more chance to land a big deal. That bet paid off, and while the shape of his contribution changed between ’19 and ’21 — less batting average, an easier defensive position, more power — a second big season answered a lot of questions about just how good a player he was.

When evaluating the contract, though, it cannot be forgotten that late bloomer or not, Semien is 31, not 26. He was solid enough defensively in his first year at second that he should be able to play at least somewhere in the middle infield for the bulk of the contract. The Rangers have not yet indicated whether they consider him a shortstop or a second baseman in 2022, but I’m having ZiPS project him as a second baseman given the presence of Isiah Kiner-Falefa and the rumors about the Rangers being in on another shortstop, such as Trevor Story.

ZiPS Projection – Marcus Semien
2022 .269 .342 .491 613 103 165 34 3 32 84 67 13 120 6 4.7
2023 .265 .336 .483 578 95 153 33 3 29 78 62 11 116 5 4.1
2024 .260 .330 .461 553 87 144 30 3 25 71 57 11 109 4 3.3
2025 .255 .322 .444 525 79 134 27 3 22 63 51 9 103 3 2.5
2026 .252 .315 .429 492 70 124 24 3 19 56 45 8 97 1 1.9
2027 .246 .303 .401 459 61 113 20 3 15 48 37 7 87 0 1.0
2028 .239 .292 .374 364 45 87 15 2 10 34 27 5 77 -2 0.1

In contrast to The Ballpark in Arlington, Globe Life Field appears to be a relatively neutral field, so there’s no particular advantage or disadvantage for Semien based on his skill set. ZiPS think it’s likely that he has already had his best season, but the Rangers aren’t paying him as if they expect him to average 4 WAR per season; at $7.3 million a win in 2022 and 3% growth, that would imply a contract worth about $224 million. Based on these assumptions, Texas is paying a player it expects to average 3.1 WAR over the next seven years. In other words, if Semien maintains just his 2020 performance level, that would be enough to make the contract about break-even in this context.

Now, that’s tougher than it sounds. Semien is likely entering his decline years, and a lot of star infielders around his age do not go particularly gracefully. ZiPS uses large cohorts of players for comparison, so individual player comps aren’t greatly important to an overall projection, but Semien’s top 10 give a note of caution. Lou Whitaker aged very well, but the other nine of Ryne Sandberg, Don Money, John Valentin, Bobby Doerr, Chris Sabo, Miguel Tejada, Bill Madlock, Bill Elliott, and Ken Boyer almost invariably didn’t.

What this means is that you shouldn’t consider Semien’s deal like you would Manny Machado’s. You can make an argument for any team being in a position where the latter would have been beneficial, because he projected to be good for so long that even rebuilding teams would get peak Machado when they were winning games again, as happened with the Padres. At 31, most of Semien’s rest-of-career contributions are likely to come in the next two to four years.

In the end, this feels a bit like the right deal but the wrong team. It appears that the Rangers will be one of the most active teams in free agency this winter, but if they want to win almost immediately, they have to be, and even a normal spending spree may not be enough to make them a real contender quickly. Even with Semien in the fold, our depth charts still have Texas as not quite a 75-win team on average. Running projections for the rest of the NL West, ZiPS doesn’t feel much differently, giving Texas a current projection, based on the current rosters (plus Semien), of 74.3 wins. Signing Story and Kevin Gausman and Max Scherzer would still leave the Rangers about an 85-win team. In other words, they may be in such a deep hole that their ability to spend their way to quick contention is just on the edge of plausibility.

Don’t get me wrong; this deal is a far better idea than the ill-conceived past notions this franchise had in signing Shin-Soo Choo and the willingness to spend for most of Prince Fielder’s remaining Tigers contract. But the Rangers have a monumental and expensive task ahead of them if they’re going to challenge for the top of the AL West in the next couple of years. As for Semien, a player with a career trajectory that tends to fall through the cracks under baseball’s system of free agency, it’s great to see him manage to get his big payday after all.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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7 months ago

Happy that Semien got paid, but I don’t think this is going to work out particularly well for the Rangers. dWAR often falls off a cliff for players and he has been an above average hitter in 2 seasons of his career. But if he maintains his defensive value for a few years than it may not be too bad.

7 months ago
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