As of Opening Day 2017, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson has accumulated 2.4 WAR in his major league career. He’s hit fewer than ten home runs, scored fewer than sixty runs, and stolen a mere ten bases. Of course, Anderson has only appeared in just under a hundred big-league games to date; the former seventeenth overall pick was promoted to the White Sox in mid-June of 2016. Even with this limited big-league sample size, this offseason the White Sox extended their young shortstop through his arbitration years. The six-year, $25 million contract also includes a pair of team options that could see Anderson in Chicago through 2024.
While the deal certainly represents a risk for the White Sox, the upside for the team is significant, and with an average annual payment of under $5 million and two team options, the team’s risk isn’t even that high. As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs.com writes:
“If Anderson is even an average everyday player, this deal will work out well for the White Sox with the potential for a tremendous bargain, both in arbitration and the two potential free-agent seasons the team bought out.”
This excerpt illustrates teams’ incentives for signing their young, high-potential prospects to long-term deals. At worst, the team pays somewhere between $2 million and $4 million per year – the equivalent of a passable reliever’s salary – for a player that never makes a significant impact in the majors. We’ve seen this scenario come to pass in Houston, where in 2014 the Astros extended power-hitting first baseman Jon Singleton for five years before he had ever reached the majors. To date, Singleton, who will begin the 2017 season in Double-A Corpus Christi, has batted .171 with 151 strikeouts in just 420 big-league at bats, good for a -0.9 WAR.
At just $2 million a year, Singleton’s contract has been far from a Ryan Howard-level catastrophe for the Astros. The year this deal was signed, however, Houston had the lowest Opening Day payroll in the league – a miniscule $44.5 million – so it’s fair to assume that Singleton’s $2 million did not represent an altogether insignificant amount.
In his article, Edwards lists out the five other players since 2000 who signed long-term deals before having reached one year of major league service time. It’s apparent that these deals have, to date, occurred exclusively within low-payroll teams:
- 2008 – Evan Longoria – Tampa Bay Rays – 29th-highest payroll
- 2011 – Matt Moore – Tampa Bay Rays – 29th
- 2012 – Salvador Perez – Kansas City Royals – 27th
- 2014 – Chris Archer – Tampa Bay Rays – 28th
- 2014 – Jon Singleton – Houston Astros – 30th
- 2017 – Tim Anderson – Chicago White Sox – 24th (as projected by Spotrac)
For less affluent organizations, this strategy makes sense. By taking a moderate financial risk on their unproven talent, they’ll theoretically reap dividends down the line when their young signees reach their potential. But what’s to stop richer teams from following in the footsteps of their less wealthy counterparts?
In 2016, the Washington Nationals boasted the league’s sixth highest Opening Day payroll, including $22.1 and $21.6 million payments to ace Max Scherzer and corner outfielder Jayson Werth, respectively. Manning their center field, however, was Rookie of the Year runner-up Trea Turner, a potential candidate for the “Tim Anderson treatment.”
Let’s compare Turner and Anderson’s 2016 output:
- Turner: 307 AB, 105 H, 13 HR, .342/.370/.567, 4.3 BB%, 18.2 K%, 30/37 SB, 3.3 WAR
- Anderson: 410 AB, 116 H, 9 HR, .283/.306/.432, 3.0%, 27.1%, 10/12 SB, 2.4 WAR
Clearly, Turner’s 2016 output was superior to that of Anderson, even with a hundred fewer at bats. Does this make him a suitable recipient of a similar contract?
While Turner’s 2016 season was truly remarkable, he does appear bound for some regression. A 4.3 BB% is hardly a recipe for success, and Turner benefited from a good bit of luck last season, as he sported a .383 BABIP. It’s also hard to imagine that Turner will continue hitting for the same power as he did in 2016. While Turner’s ISO was .225, on par with the likes of Joey Votto and Adrian Beltre, Turner had never posted an ISO above .170 in the minor leagues.
All in all, it’s fair to exhibit skepticism that Turner will hit as well throughout his hypothetical long-term deal as he did last year. Still, that’s not to say his 2016 season was a complete mirage. With an average exit velocity of 90.5 miles per hour, Turner ranks closely with Rougned Odor, who was, incidentally, another recent recipient of a long-term contract (although Odor had far more service time than either Turner or Tim Anderson). Most projection models expect Turner to hit for an impressive, if unexceptional, batting average – Steamer projects Turner for a .301 average and 3.7 WAR this season, and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS, while a bit more sluggish on Turner’s offense, still projects for a significant defensive improvement, and 3.5 WAR overall. Turner spent nearly 400 innings in center field last season, where he put up an uninspiring -4.8 UZR. With the Nats’ acquisition of Adam Eaton in December, Turner will be moving back to the middle infield, where his defensive metrics should improve.
Even with strong hit and field tools, Turner’s speed is his most dangerous asset. With his blazing speed, (FanGraphs rates his wheels as a 70 on the 20-80 scale), Turner should continue posting an above-average BABIP, and he should continue swiping bases at a prolific rate. Had Turner qualified for the MLB leaderboards, his 2016 BaseRuns statistic of 5.4 would have ranked thirteenth among all major leaguers – and that’s in less than half of a season. Projected across 650 at-bats, Turner’s 2016 BsR amounts to 10.8, which would have bested Mookie Betts, the season’s BsR leader, by nearly a full run. Overall, while Turner is unlikely to replicate his impressive 2016 statistics, he is still pegged for a strong 2017, and his output, while already exceeding that of Tim Anderson, should continue to remain strong into the future.
Although the Nats have yet to win a playoff series, they’re currently in the middle of their most sustained winning period since moving to D.C. twelve years ago. Their window to win a championship, however, won’t last forever with this core. Bryce Harper, as has been noted, is approaching free agency, and signing him may require a nearly $400 million commitment. Indeed, many expect Harper to sign with either the Yankees or the Dodgers, the two teams with enough spare change to afford his hefty salary. To replace Harper’s production and capitalize on their core group of stars, the Nats will likely have to open the checkbooks during the mammoth 2018 free agent class. Further, the team has already traded away two young and controllable pitchers in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez (although they did receive Eaton, a young, controllable outfielder, in return). Like Scherzer’s deal, any major free agent contracts signed in the 2018 offseason will be both lengthy and heavily back-loaded. While the team will likely have financial room to maneuver in the early 2020s, Turner, if he plays to his potential, will command a large contract as well. If the Nationals’ window is still open, the team may not be able to afford losing such a key contributor to their lineup.
So, just how much of a focus should the Nationals place on extending Trea Turner through his arbitration years? Well, it depends. If the Nationals plan to extend their championship window as far as possible into the future – especially if that future involves re-signing Bryce Harper – then saving money on other young starters should be a priority. While Turner’s offensive output may regress from the 2016 campaign, he still appears poised to put up impressive offensive numbers, play strong defense, and steal numerous bases throughout his twenties. On the other hand, if the Nats consider themselves in full-fledged “win now” mode over the next few years, they’ll want to maintain enough financial flexibility for a midseason acquisition. In this scenario, it is more prudent for the team to hold off on a Turner extension. The excess savings (at least, until Turner reaches arbitration eligibility) can be used for a deadline trade to fill a talent hole or replace an injured player.
Of course, there’s always another issue to consider – is it already too late to extend Turner? As noted above, Turner’s first-year statistics outstrip those of Tim Anderson. Of the six players to have signed similar contracts before reaching a year of service time, only Evan Longoria had accumulated more WAR prior to the deal than Turner had in 2016. In retrospect, Longoria’s 6 year, $17 million deal was ultimately a bargain for the Rays – from 2008 through 2012 (after which Longoria signed a new deal), the third baseman accumulated nearly 30 WAR. Therefore, there’s a chance Turner’s representation at CAA has already privately rejected such an idea; they’d prefer not to see their client on a contract as team-friendly as Longoria’s (or Chris Archer’s, or Salvador Perez’s). Regardless, the Nationals will have a number of tough financial decisions to make over the coming years. If they’re willing to take a risk on Trea Turner’s upside, they can make some of those decisions just a little less difficult.