The decline in players reaching free agency in their prime is noticeable.
Baseball is trending into a younger man’s game, as speed and flexibility are more in demand and power becomes scarce. MLB front offices are responding in kind by taking care of their own, buying out arbitration and free agency years within a player’s first two or three years of service.
The Marlins and White Sox are the two latest examples of this trend, as outfielders Christian Yelich and Adam Eaton received contract extensions from their respective clubs this week.
This shouldn’t be anything new to Cubs fans, seeing how the front office locked up Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo early in Theo Epstein’s regime, and could look to do the same with many of the youngsters coming through the system in the coming years.
Deals like these can be invaluable to organizations, as cost-control of young assets softens the blow for teams that spend more in free agency. For example: Jon Lester’s $155 million deal is less of a hit to the Cubs’ budget moving forward knowing that Castro and Rizzo are costing a combined $83.385 million through 2019 before club options come into play in 2020 and 2021.
Yelich’s deal is worth $49.57 million over seven years (team option for eighth year at $15 million) and might be the new floor for extensions for players who are this good, this early. His deal, which comes after just a little more than a year of service time, trumped Rizzo’s 7-year, $41 million, and became the second biggest deal for a player between one and two years of service time behind Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ deal signed in 2014 worth $58 million over seven years.
It seems like a fair deal for both sides, as Yelich finished second on the team in fWAR (4.3) and weighted on-base average (.341) in his second full season at age 22.
With this deal in place, the Marlins have two-thirds of their outfield under team control for the remainder of their 20s.
It’s worth noting that while the Marlins were able to lock up Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton, neither ace Jose Fernandez nor outfielder Marcell Ozuna are nearing such a deal, as noted here. Both are represented by Scott Boras — who also represents Kris Bryant.
Eaton’s deal with the White Sox comes with less upside than Yelich and a little more risk, considering he missed 39 games and had two DL stints in 2014. In total, Eaton, who has just over two years of service time, is guaranteed $23.5 million over the next five years, and the White Sox get a couple team options thereafter.
It will be up to Eaton to prove he was worth the gamble, and he could do that by replicating the numbers he put up when healthy last season.
Eaton posted the fourth best on-base percentage (.362) among lead-off men, 10th best wOBA (.340) and 10th best walk rate (8.0) in a year in which his 2.7 fWAR was the third best on the team behind Jose Abreu (5.3) and Alexei Ramirez (3.3).
He also posted a .359 BABIP, which was the second best among lead-off men in baseball. It also represents a number he hadn’t reached in a full season since posting a .432 BABIP in 2012 at Triple-A in the Diamondbacks system. The median BABIP among lead-off men was .327, so that might be something to keep an eye on when analyzing the deal moving forward.
Interesting to note that only $13.6 million is guaranteed between 2015 and 2018. And you can see why in the clip below.
The White Sox have club buyout clauses worth $1.5 million in 2020 and 2021. If the club picks up the 2020 and 2021 options, it would tack on an additional $18.5 million to Eaton’s deal ($9.5 million in 2020, $10.5 million in 2021, minus the $1.5 million buyout).
Looking at what the Marlins and White Sox did this week should give fans an idea of what to expect moving forward when the Cubs’ young, high-ceiling players in the minors make it to The Show.