Tovar, So Good: Rockies Extend Ezequiel Tovar

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Up until now, the Rockies had made very little noise this offseason. After agreeing to extensions with Germán Márquez and Charlie Blackmon just before the 2023 season wrapped up, Colorado spent a mere $3.5 million on major league free agent deals in the six months since, the fewest of any team in the majors. Yet, at the tail end of a long, quiet winter, the Rockies finally made headlines, when on Sunday they signed 22-year-old Ezequiel Tovar to a long-term contract extension. The deal, which begins right away, will pay Tovar $63.5 million over the next seven years. After that, the Rockies have a $20.5 million team option for 2031, the shortstop’s age-29 season.

Across three offseasons at the helm for Colorado, general manager Bill Schmidt has largely avoided multi-year free agent deals, with one notable exception: Kris Bryant and the seven-year, $182 million pact he signed before the 2022 season. Over the past two winters, the Rockies are one of only three teams not to have signed a single multi-year free agent deal; the other two clubs, the Pirates and Orioles, have outspent Colorado by totals of $37.71 million and $10.13 million, respectively. However, free agency isn’t the only way for teams to keep players around for longer periods of time. Under Schmidt, the Rockies have signed eight players to multi-year extensions; only the Braves have extended more players on multi-year deals in that span. Atlanta has gotten far more extension attention, but this is how Colorado operates, too.

Even so, the Tovar deal represents a different approach for the Rockies because it is the first time that Schmidt has extended a player with fewer than four years of service. It’s also the longest extension the Rockies have awarded since February 2019, when they signed Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million deal that began in 2020. Moreover, while we have started to see more and more pre-arb players signing long-term extensions around the majors, many of those players either are stars or have star potential. Perhaps the only good comp for Tovar’s extension is the eight-year, $50 million deal Keibert Ruiz signed with the Nationals after putting up a 91 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR in 2022, his first full season. Then again, even Ruiz arguably had a higher ceiling at the time. Tovar might be in a class of his own when it comes to low-ceiling, high-floor youngsters signing lucrative long-term deals.

Entering the 2023 season, Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin ranked Tovar no. 41 on our Top 100 Prospects list, describing him as “a fantastic defensive shortstop” with “poor plate discipline” that “somewhat undermines his excellent bat-to-ball skill.” One year later, Tovar is no longer a prospect, but that remains the prevailing report. He finished his debut season with the lowest walk rate and the second-highest O-Swing% among qualified NL batters. He also finished with 16 OAA and 13 DRS; the only shortstop to outpace him in both metrics was Dansby Swanson. Despite his 70 wRC+, worst among qualified NL hitters, Tovar finished his rookie season with 1.6 WAR. That’s hardly star-level performance, but a 1.6-WAR player is still a big league regular.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: Tovar’s offensive numbers last season were pitiful. One of the only areas in which he was above average was batting average, and Coors Field likely inflated that number. His plate discipline was dreadful, as expected, but so were his contact skills, which came as something of a surprise. Tovar ranked 66th out of 72 qualified NL hitters in contact rate, and he wasn’t just whiffing on pitches outside the zone. While his O-Contact% was poor, his Z-Contact% also came in below league average.

On the bright side, when he did manage to put the ball in play, Tovar showed flashes of his promising hit tool. His .378 xwOBAcon was a few ticks above league average, thanks to his line drive tendencies. He ranked in the 71st percentile in Baseball Savant’s Sweet-Spot% and finished seventh among qualified NL players in line drive rate. If he can make more contact, especially on pitches in the strike zone, his offensive numbers will improve even if he never adds a lick of discipline to his game. If he can improve his plate discipline, then all the better. For what it’s worth, he significantly improved his walk rate during his final season in the minor leagues, prompting his Double-A manager, Chris Denorfia, to rave about Tovar’s growth. “He’s made this developmental jump,” Denorfia told David Laurila in 2022. “Something clicked to where he’s recognizing situations where pitchers are going to try to get him to chase.” Plate discipline is a different animal in the majors than in the minors, but still, it’s worth acknowledging that this is a skill he has successfully improved in the past.

Tovar also showed off 69th-percentile sprint speed in 2023. He won’t ever be a weapon on the basepaths, but with speed like that, he should be a better base runner than his numbers last year would suggest; he went 11-for-16 on stolen base attempts and was worth -0.6 BsR. Long story short, this is a player with much more offensive potential than we saw last season, and he has a strong enough glove to allow him to nurse his growing pains at the highest level while still contributing positive value to his club.

Courtesy of Dan Szymborski, here is what the ZiPS projections envision for Tovar over the next eight years:

ZiPS Projection – Ezequiel Tovar
2024 .259 .300 .424 552 75 143 32 4 17 76 28 142 11 87 2.2
2025 .263 .306 .438 562 79 148 33 4 19 81 30 138 11 91 2.6
2026 .266 .310 .442 568 82 151 34 3 20 84 32 133 11 94 2.9
2027 .267 .313 .448 572 85 153 34 3 21 86 34 129 10 96 3.1
2028 .267 .313 .446 574 85 153 34 3 21 87 35 125 10 96 3.1
2029 .266 .314 .445 571 86 152 33 3 21 86 36 122 9 96 3.2
2030 .268 .317 .449 563 85 151 33 3 21 86 36 121 8 97 3.2
2031 .270 .318 .453 552 84 149 32 3 21 84 35 119 8 99 3.2

With projections like that, ZiPS would give Tovar $92 million over seven years. That’s more than he’ll make even if the Rockies pick up his team option for an eighth year.

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why the Rockies offered Tovar a long-term extension. We’ve already seen his floor, and it’s rather sturdy — he can be a valuable player even if he’s the worst hitter in the league. The Rockies could do a heck of a lot worse than pay $9 million per year for seven seasons of a 1.5-win shortstop. What’s more, it won’t take much for this deal to pay dividends in Colorado. If Tovar’s hit tool progresses against big league pitching, he would blossom into an above-average shortstop throughout his twenties.

As for Tovar, his youth has gifted him the rare opportunity to cash in now without giving up the chance to sign another long-term deal. His $63.5 million guarantee is more than the vast majority of players will earn in their careers, yet he can still reach free agency before his 30th birthday. If Colorado picks up its club option, Tovar will have to wait another year to test the open market. Yet, if the Rockies are comfortable paying $20.5 million for his services (even the Rockies, and even in 2031 dollars), that suggests Tovar will be playing well enough to cash in on the free agent market at 30 years old. The two or three free agent years he is losing aren’t nothing, especially for a glove-first player. Still, Tovar had to sacrifice something for lifelong financial security, and it’s not difficult to understand why he made that choice.

Ultimately, this is a rock solid move for both sides. The Rockies are betting they secured three additional years with an excellent shortstop at price tag well below market value. If that doesn’t work out, they’re only slightly overpaying one of the better defensive players in baseball. Meanwhile, Tovar gets to work out his kinks at the MLB level without ever having to worry about money, and if everything goes according to plan, he can still sign a lucrative free agent deal in the 2030s. Now, both sides can get to work on what they need to do next: Tovar will try to improve his plate discipline, while the Rockies will look to acquire, develop, and yes, extend the stars who can help them escape the NL West basement.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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2 months ago

Blind squirrels and nuts, I guess