Who Will Be The First $400 Million Player?

Baseball Twitter was abuzz last Wednesday when Tim Tebow announced his retirement … wait, strike that; the subject changed drastically that same evening when Fernando Tatis Jr. inked a 14-year extension worth a reported $340 million. You could argue that Tatis actually left money on the table, as he was potentially lined up to be one of the best free agents in baseball history due to his age and talent. But “potentially” is carrying a ton of water in that statement, and it’s either bad or dishonest logic to fault a 21-year-old for taking close to record-breaking money as security when it’s presented to him.

The Tatis extension isn’t the largest in baseball history, eclipsed as it is by those of Mookie Betts and Mike Trout, but it is larger than the free-agent record of $330 million held by Bryce Harper. All of these numbers, though, left me wondering: Who will be the first to top the $400 million mark? We’ve already seen the first $40 million-plus AAV this offseason in Trevor Bauer, and that number combined with double-digit years could get us there. So who are the top candidates?

Let’s get one technicality out of the way. You could say, and would be correct in spirit, that Trout has already topped the $400 million mark with the extension he signed prior to the 2019 season. While that deal created a commitment of more than $400 million ($426.5 million to be exact) over 12 years, contractually, it was 10 years tacked on to an existing deal. Still, if you want to answer “Who’s The Next $400 Million Player?” with “Mike Trout,” I’m not going to argue semantics. Let’s have fun with this anyway.

Juan Soto, OF, Nationals: 4-1 odds

Soto has everything going for him for this exercise. He’s excessively young, having turned just 22 in October. He’s already one of the best players in the game after leading the National League in all three triple-slash categories last year with a .351/.490/.695 line in the shortened season. Small sample size being damned for a moment, neither Albert Pujols nor Miguel Cabrera ever had a season in which they matched Soto’s 2020 wRC+ mark of 201.

I would have given him higher odds if this were all happening a year or two ago, but the once free-spending Nationals, who handed out massive deals to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, have really tightened the purse strings of late. General manager Mike Rizzo acknowledges that the club has had some level of extension talks with Soto, and therefore also with his agent, Scott Boras, who further lessens the odds due to his penchant for taking players to free agency.

Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Tigers: 15-1 odds

If you were to bet on any prospect in baseball leading his league in both on-base and slugging down the road, Torkelson is your guy. He’s the best college performer in recent history, with statistics and data at Arizona State that nearly broke some team’s draft models last June. While it hurts a bit that he was unable to dip his toes into professional waters last year due to the lack of a minor league season, he has the skill to make up for lost time quickly and is playing for a team desperate for a middle-order bat. The Tigers have the ability to spend and have done so in the past when their contention window is open, and in general, things are pointing in the right direction in Detroit.

Jasson Dominguez, OF, Yankees: 40-1 odds

This is a fun long shot. Yes, he’s still without a professional stat line, but this is a player with special upside and both tools and skills well beyond his 18 years. I anticipate the Yankees pushing him a bit in 2021 with a full-season assignment stateside, which should easily get him back on the plus side of the age/development curve. There is obviously a ton than can go wrong between now and any future extension talks, but this is a potential impact player who could arrive quickly on a team that is generally happy to write big checks.

Wander Franco, SS, Rays: 100-1 odds

It’s all lined up, right? Any reasonable list of the top prospects in baseball has Franco in the top position. I not only wouldn’t respect any list without Franco at No. 1, but I’d also be disappointed in anyone who even saw it as a debate. He’s a generational talent, he’s 19, and he’s nearly big league ready.

The biggest issue here is the team he plays for. The Rays don’t hand out $400 million extensions; they don’t even do fractions of that. They trade away really good players before their arbitration years are up. The only scenario that would work here is some sort of trade that would include an extension negotiation window, and the odds reflect the unlikeliness of that happening. The Rays will most likely get five really good years out of Franco and then move on, leaving his first shot at the kind of money we’re talking about as the time he reaches free agency.

2022 Free Agent SS class: Field odds 125-1

The hype has already begun for arguably the best shortstop class in the free-agent era. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Trevor Story are all really good and relatively young; the entire quartet will still be in their twenties after the last out of the World Series is recorded in October. Correa is the youngest, turning 27 in June, and while he’s capable of an MVP-level season, it hasn’t happened yet. On top of that, 2020 was a scuffle, and he’s prone to missing time. Also coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, Lindor is the most likely extension candidate, but $400 million, when broken down at the most simple of levels, is 10 years at $40 million per, and it’s hard to see any club committing to those kind of figures through Lindor’s late 30s. These guys are going to get paid and paid a lot, and it’s well deserved, but it’s unlikely to sniff record territory.

Young Sluggers group: Field odds 150-1

The obvious name here is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who I’m sure the Blue Jays would love to extend, and if that doesn’t work out, he’s a free agent at 26. Still, as talented as he is, he’s yet to put up anything close to the huge numbers Tatis has, with a wRC+ of just 107 in his two abbreviated seasons. He also doesn’t play a premium position, so his bat-only status and the lessons learned in giving excessively long contracts to such players, especially the aforementioned Pujols and Cabrera, could leave teams cautious.

Rafael Devers also enters the fray here simply because he will also be quite young (27) when free agency hits, but he’s nowhere near the kind of talent to generate a record contract. Cody Bellinger offers far more athleticism than most sluggers but will be 28 when he heads to free agency, and it’s hard seeing him get the necessary contract length.

Every pitcher in baseball: Field odds 300-1

Heading into 2020, Gerrit Cole was coming off a pair of Cy Young seasons, checked every scouting box in terms of stuff and command, and had proved he could stay healthy and handle a big workload. The richest team in baseball wanted him, and the net result was a $324 million deal. It was the perfect storm, and yet it still fell more than $75 million short, and I think that record for a pitcher is going to last a long while. It’s hard to see any team having the comfort in any hurler’s future health to assure a decade long commitment at a Bauer-esque AAV.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

If Soto doesn’t do it, it’ll have to be whoever the next young phenom is (Wander Franco, for instance).

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think the fact that Soto isn’t likely to sign an extension helps him. Teams other than the Rockies usually get a bit of a discount when they sign home-grown stars to extensions. Soto hitting free agency means the Nationals will be bidding against other teams that have historically spent a lot, making him more likely to hit the $400M number. Whoever signs him will be getting him for his age-26 season, meaning a Harper-length contract is possible.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Agreed.

Unless it’s Acuna, who is only signed through his age 29 season. I can see a scenario where at age 25/26, he renegotiates a 10-12 year, $400M deal to keep him a Brave for life.

Especially as inflation kicks in around 2025…

TKDC
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TKDC

Exactly. If Tatis getting an extension didn’t get close to $400 million, I’d think a player would almost surely need to be a free agent or maybe one year away. I’d take those Wander Franco odds all day and twice on Sunday. If Soto’s getting $400 million, it is almost surely as a free agent, and if he does get to free agency and is looking for max dollars, he’s more like 2-1 or 3-2 to get $400 million.

Uncle Spike
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Uncle Spike

Waiting it out till free agency will definitely help Soto’s chances of netting $400M but it will hurt his chances of being the first to $400M.

carter
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carter

I love Soto, but I have always felt age is a very arbitrary thing, and how old someone looks is more important. Soto is about to have a Bonds like peak, but I can’t shake the feeling he is already an old man.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

His defense and baserunning are not good for a young player who appears to be pretty slim with a good amount of muscle, and not much body fat. Most bad fielders and runners are big and tall players and usually a little overweight, but Soto isn’t overly tall or large which tells me there probably won’t be much improvement in terms of athleticism.