The M’s and Julio Rodríguez Write the Most Expensive Choose Your Own Adventure Book Ever

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’ll still be a few months before we see whether Julio Rodríguez wins the American League Rookie of the Year award, but today we got a glimpse of baseball 15 years into the future. As reported by MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez and ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Seattle Mariners and Rodríguez have come to terms on a huge long-term contract extension, one that would run to the late 2030s.

Passan ran down the details of the deal, and it’s a complicated one.

Basically, the extension starts off as an eight-year, $120 million deal. After seven years, the Mariners have to decide whether to pick up a club option that starts after the eighth season. The specific length and value of that option depends on how Rodríguez fares in MVP voting, but it can run for eight or 10 years and range in value from $200 million to $350 million. If the Mariners don’t pick up the option, Rodríguez has a five-year, $90 million option that he can exercise, providing him some financial security on the back end if he gets injured or goes the way of Cesar Cedeno. The contract maxes out at 18 years and $470 million. At a minimum, Rodríguez can guarantee himself $210 million. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the deal also comes with a full no-trade clause, giving Rodríguez veto power over any trades in the event that another team comes to like the terms of his deal a lot more than the Mariners do.

Rodríguez has been phenomenal in his rookie season. Through Thursday’s games, he’s hitting .269/.328/.471 with 20 homers and 23 stolen bases, good enough for an impressive 132 wRC+. He has also fared better defensively in center field than was generally expected; he’s been four runs better than average by Statcast’s OAA measurement. That’s enough to put him at 3.5 WAR, second only to Adley Rutschman among major league rookies, and then only slightly; Rutschman has accrued 3.6 WAR. While Juan Soto edged out Rodríguez in the final round of this year’s Home Run Derby, the latter hit 81 home runs that went a combined total 6.4 miles, numbers bested only by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2019. The dominance of his rookie season has put Rodríguez squarely into the pantheon of young phenoms the sport should build around.

Entering the season, ZiPS projected 3.4 WAR from Rodríguez, rookie year projections that placed him in the company of a bunch of eventual big-league superstars (and Gregory Polanco). Even more astounding, that was only a 91-game projection; with the 134 games in our depth charts, ZiPS projected a stunning 5.3 WAR! Rodríguez was the number one prospect in this year’s ZiPS Top 100 Prospects by virtue of his utter dominance at High- and Double-A in his age-20 season. In other words, ZiPS has never projected a prospect to make such an immediate impact — Mike Trout and Kris Bryant came closest with four-win projections — and Rodríguez has not disappointed.

The Mariners not playing games with J-Rod’s service time clock has paid off handsomely. If Rodríguez had been held in the minors for a few weeks, he’d still likely be in the top two for AL Rookie of the Year voting, which would have resulted in him accruing a full year of service time anyway. And he’s been so good that it might have cost Seattle at least a win, which could have plausibly resulted in the team missing on a Wild Card spot it otherwise would have won. Hopefully, this will encourage other clubs to stop monkeying around with service time quite as much, especially with their ultra-elite prospects.

Anyway, as you might expect, Rodríguez’s rookie season has not diminished any of the enthusiasm ZiPS has for him:

ZiPS Projection – Julio Rodríguez
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .277 .336 .468 607 102 168 29 3 27 93 46 160 32 122 3 4.7
2024 .284 .346 .507 592 105 168 31 4 31 99 48 153 30 135 3 5.6
2025 .283 .349 .515 594 108 168 31 4 33 103 52 160 31 138 3 5.9
2026 .280 .349 .518 593 108 166 31 4 34 103 54 163 29 138 2 5.9
2027 .277 .349 .507 588 107 163 30 3 33 101 56 162 29 136 2 5.6
2028 .275 .347 .509 582 105 160 29 4 33 100 56 164 27 136 2 5.5
2029 .273 .346 .504 565 103 154 29 3 32 97 56 161 25 134 1 5.2
2030 .272 .346 .497 551 100 150 28 3 30 93 55 152 23 133 1 4.9
2031 .274 .347 .499 533 95 146 27 3 29 89 52 138 21 133 1 4.7
2032 .272 .344 .489 511 90 139 24 3 27 84 49 127 19 130 0 4.3
2033 .267 .336 .462 487 81 130 22 2 23 75 44 116 17 121 0 3.4
2034 .266 .334 .455 444 72 118 20 2 20 66 39 101 12 118 -1 2.8
2035 .264 .329 .436 406 64 107 17 1 17 57 34 88 9 112 -1 2.2
2036 .261 .323 .420 371 56 97 15 1 14 49 29 76 7 106 -2 1.6
2037 .256 .314 .394 340 48 87 12 1 11 42 24 65 5 97 -3 0.9
2038 .252 .306 .369 309 41 78 10 1 8 35 20 55 4 88 -4 0.3
2039 .248 .295 .349 238 29 59 7 1 5 24 13 40 3 80 -5 -0.2
2040 .243 .291 .333 177 21 43 5 1 3 17 9 28 1 75 -5 -0.4

That’s the projection of a perennial All-Star, one who, in his best years, will earn a lot of MVP votes. Some might be disappointed by the lack of significant growth in the projections, but that’s a function of folks tending to overrate the odds of very young stars improving. I informally refer to this as the Law of Justin Upton: just because a player develops early is no guarantee the player will develop further. Just as an example, here are the players with the most WAR/600 entering their age-23 seasons (min. 750 PA) and how they fared in the five years after:

WAR Leaders, Ages 23-and-Under
Name PA BA OBP SLG WAR WAR/600 PA Next Five WAR Next Five WAR/600
Ted Williams 2615 .356 .481 .642 36.4 8.4 1365 22.2 9.8
Mike Trout 2877 .304 .397 .559 38.5 8.0 2637 35.1 8.0
Joe Jackson 2044 .387 .455 .565 26.9 7.9 2400 20.3 5.1
Stan Musial 1953 .344 .423 .539 25.4 7.8 2794 33.5 7.2
Eddie Collins 1724 .320 .378 .420 21.3 7.4 3250 41.8 7.7
Ty Cobb 3080 .346 .395 .476 36.2 7.1 2878 42.4 8.8
Rogers Hornsby 2243 .310 .370 .440 26.0 7.0 3165 51.1 9.7
Willie Mays 1308 .304 .379 .561 15.1 6.9 3321 41.6 7.5
Babe Ruth 785 .299 .382 .512 8.9 6.8 3044 58.0 11.4
Albert Pujols 2036 .334 .412 .613 22.2 6.5 3346 40.0 7.2
Evan Longoria 1179 .277 .355 .528 12.8 6.5 2940 25.0 5.1
Arky Vaughan 2480 .337 .422 .502 26.9 6.5 3264 32.1 5.9
Eddie Mathews 2491 .281 .391 .570 26.7 6.4 3319 34.5 6.2
Cal Ripken Jr. 2137 .293 .351 .494 22.4 6.3 3543 26.6 4.5
Mickey Mantle 2841 .298 .400 .528 29.6 6.3 3212 45.3 8.5
Frank Thomas 941 .321 .453 .547 9.6 6.1 3200 31.9 6.0
Jimmie Foxx 2567 .328 .421 .591 26.1 6.1 3365 45.1 8.0
Dick Allen 1440 .310 .377 .525 14.6 6.1 2783 24.1 5.2
Mel Ott 3313 .321 .421 .564 33.2 6.0 3329 35.1 6.3
Tris Speaker 1948 .319 .384 .454 19.5 6.0 3250 43.0 7.9
Joe DiMaggio 2020 .331 .384 .610 20.2 6.0 2397 32.3 8.1
Andruw Jones 2619 .272 .344 .494 25.4 5.8 3329 29.6 5.3
Charlie Keller 1099 .307 .427 .504 10.5 5.7 2085 24.3 7.0
Mookie Betts 1597 .304 .355 .500 14.8 5.6 2828 29.0 6.2
Reggie Jackson 1426 .254 .356 .508 13.2 5.6 2961 26.5 5.4
Jimmy Sheckard 1180 .312 .379 .457 10.7 5.4 3025 20.9 4.1
Pete Reiser 1379 .322 .382 .496 12.5 5.4 944 7.1 4.5
Ken Griffey Jr. 3113 .303 .375 .520 28.1 5.4 2869 35.4 7.4
Grady Sizemore 1616 .285 .359 .499 14.5 5.4 2431 15.9 3.9
Alex Rodriguez 2843 .308 .363 .551 25.5 5.4 3542 43.1 7.3

Of the top 100 players ages 23-and-under, only 51 improved on a rate basis from ages 24-28. The farther you go down the list in terms of quality, the more likely players were to improve: 53% of the next 100 players improved, as did 60% of the 100 after them. More than two-thirds of the players who averaged between 1 and 2 WAR saw improvements. Regression toward the mean and the skewness of risk are not phenomena from which young superstars are immune.

If he were a free agent today, ZiPS would expect Rodríguez to net well over $300 million over an eight-year contract. Of course, that’s not the position he’s in, so it’s not surprising to see a more modest — but still quite lucrative — salary total. With salary arbitration not scaling very well to the contributions of superstars, ZiPS projects that Rodríguez only would have made $52 million through his salary arbitration years rather than the $218 million his projected performance would be estimated to net him in free agency.

It’s not uncommon for players, especially before salary arbitration, to give up some potential earnings in order to reduce their risk. And there certainly is risk; if you don’t believe me, recall the tale of Cody Bellinger. There’s even a recent example in Seattle, albeit one that involves relatively minuscule dollar amounts by comparison. Evan White is guaranteed $24 million through 2025, and while he could have made a lot more if his bat had progressed, if ZiPS is to be believed, he’ll never even reach salary arbitration. That would cut his $24 million in guaranteed earnings by about $22 million or $23 million!

The question here is whether the option structure seems like it’s in line with the risk both parties absorb as part of the deal. In the case of Wander Franco, I thought the numbers were balanced correctly, while they weren’t in the abomination of a contract signed by Ozzie Albies. So let’s unwind this, piece by piece.

Under the terms of baseball’s current salary structure, ZiPS proposes that an eight-year guarantee for Rodríguez should total $191 million, $71 million more than his $120 million guarantee. But he gets some of that value back in the form of the five-year, $90 million player option he can exercise if the Mariners don’t pick up their team option; in the worst-case scenarios, where he winds up being a marginal big leaguer or even out of baseball completely, he gets $90 million that he wouldn’t otherwise. ZiPS values the decade following the initial eight years at $210 million, making the extended club option’s potential price here pretty reasonable. If we were to treat the contract as a straight eight-year deal, Rodríguez’s 90th percentile projection for that span would lead to a projected new deal of $396 million over 10 years at the initial deal’s conclusion, not far off Seattle’s top-end guarantee.

To look at this in a different way, ZiPS projects that the theoretical rest-of-career contract offered by the Mariners ought to be for $401 million (which reflects the reduced salaries of Rodríguez’s cost-controlled years). The actual extension ranges from a guarantee of $210 million to a maximum of $470 million. I think this is a very reasonable deal for both sides (even if I wish its ultimate value was less dependent on how BBWAA members decide to cast their MVP votes). It provides both parties with flexibility and prices risk appropriately, and there aren’t any points in the contract where one side is getting an obviously raw deal. Plus, the annual cost is such that it shouldn’t preclude the Mariners from pursuing other players in free agency, or potentially extending other members of their young core.

I think this is a win for Rodríguez and the Mariners, and as such, it’s a big win for Mariners fans as well. The franchise was hardly destroyed by the departures of Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. a couple of decades ago. In fact, given how Griffey’s Cincinnati years went, the team doesn’t have a lot to complain about when it comes to how that situation worked out. But it was still a loss for fans to see three of the team’s stars, all players who at the time were expected to reach the Hall of Fame, depart in such a short period. However Rodríguez’s career ends up, the Mariners fans wearing his jersey or buying tickets to see him play know that he’ll be on their team wearing their colors. I don’t expect teams with direct financial skin in the game to price that abstract concept very highly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hugely valuable to fans.

Félix Hernández may have been Seattle’s king, but with this long-term commitment, Julio Rodríguez is now its emperor. May his reign be long and fair, and may it wreak a terrible vengeance on enemy pitchers.





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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tz
3 months ago

Title of the article is perfect.

The contract itself is even better.

The Ancient Mariner
3 months ago
Reply to  tz

And the closing paragraph of this article might be even better yet.