Andre Ethier will be the first major question for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new ownership. The 30-year-old outfielder will become a free-agent at the end of the season, and he has recently indicated that he would be willing to sign an extension with the club.
Since 2006, Ethier has emerged as a mainstay in the Dodgers’ outfield, and he has become one of their most integral players — along with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. At the same time, Ethier will be a year older next season, and the team may not be willing to commit a substantial amount of money to a player entering his decline phase. But some other team will. And if Ethier is allowed to hit free-agency, there’s a good chance he’ll get the contract he desires.
Ethier has reportedly been looking for a deal that might exceed $100 million. But when we look at some comparable players, it’s tough to find another player that commanded that type of money on the free-agent market.
Nick Markakis, Alex Rios and Nick Swisher each signed extensions before hitting free-agency — none of which were anywhere close to $100 million. Ichiro was given a five-year, $90 million contract extension, but he was entering his age-34 season and he was one of baseball’s best players before he signed the deal.
There’s one player on the list who is somewhat similar to Ethier, and another player who isn’t on the list because he became a full-time first baseman by the time he hit free-agency. Both Magglio Ordonez and Adam Dunn each reached free-agency at the same age as Ethier. All of the players were exceptional hitters, but they struggled defensively in the outfield. As a result, Dunn became a full-time first baseman with the Washington Nationals — and he only received a four-year, $56 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. That’s a major difference from what Ethier is asking for. While there hasn’t been talk about moving Ethier to first base, his defense could force the issue in a few seasons.
Ordonez, on the other hand, makes for a pretty interesting comparison. Though he was coming off a devastating knee injury, the right-fielder signed a five-year, $85 million contract with Detroit . Ethier could use that deal as a benchmark — then point to a better market today — and demand somewhere near the $100 million he wants.
Another interesting player ranks a little lower on the list: During the same time period, Jayson Werth accumulated just 12.4 WAR. After two more seasons of strong production, Werth snagged a seven-year, $126 million contract from the Washington Nationals. Some folks have speculated that Ethier will look for a similar contract, but that notion seems crazy.
Werth’s deal was seen as a huge overpay by the Nationals at the time — and it’s going to be incredibly hard for Ethier to convince a team to give him that type of money. Werth was a year older when he signed his deal, but he was coming off three consecutive seasons with at least 5 WAR and was regarded as a strong defender.
That’s what’s going to make Ethier’s next contract so interesting. No one can argue with his offensive production with the Dodgers: He has hit .291/.364/.479 since 2006. But his defense limits his ceiling. Because of that, Ethier has consistently been pretty good, but he has never great. And while he has posted a yearly WAR total of about 3 each season, he has never be able to top 3.5 during a single season. His 5.3 UZR actually rated alright last season, but his career -27.9 UZR tells us much more about his defense. Since his defense is unlikely to improve with age, it should be a major concern for any team looking to sign Ethier this off-season.
While first base might hide some concerns, we’ve seen how much it can affect players on the free-agent market. At this point, Ethier needs to separate himself from Dunn as much as possible if he wants to make $100 million — but there’s no way a team will give him the deal that Werth signed.
If Ethier hopes to make the money he wants, he’ll be best off matching Ordonez’s previous production and then using Werth’s contract to illustrate how much the market has changed. While the dollar figures are debatable, one thing is certain: Ethier will cash in on the open market.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.