A few months back, an MLB executive told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports that Shin-Soo Choo could get a $90-100 million deal as a free agent this offseason. To most in the baseball world, that figure seemed high. His agent, Scott Boras, thought it was low.
Days later, San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, a very comparable player to Choo, signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension and that $100 million target was looking more and more realistic. But it wasn't until Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a $153 million deal with the Yankees last week that Boras' proclamation became a reality.
"As a custom of the industry," Boras said at the time, "prognostications by executives this time of year are dramatically divergent from the real market."
Boras couldn't have been more right. Not only will Choo's next contract exceed $100 million, but it could be closer to $150 million, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested Sunday on Twitter:
Club on Shin-Soo Choo say Ellsbury (7-$153M) is guidepost in negotiations, expect final number between Werth (7-$126M)/Ellsbury— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) December 8, 2013
Now, the Giants look like geniuses for locking up Pence early, and whoever signs Choo will be crossing their fingers and hoping that he continues to be healthy and productive throughout his entire contract.
But the megadeals signed by Ellsbury, Robinson Cano ($240 million), Brian McCann ($85 million) and possibly others later in the offseason will also have an effect on future contract extensions, which have become much more common these days as teams try to sign their best young players to long-term deals that buy out arbitration years and at least a couple more beyond that.
Just to clarify, Trout and Harper aren't going to be traded. But if they were, the price would be astronomical. That's what the rankings suggest.
But the same concept could be applied to free agency and their cost on the open market if they were free agents. It also applies to their potential cost through arbitration—Bill Shaikin of the L.A. Times wrote that Trout could make a total of $45 million in his three arbitration years (2015-2017), according to a person familiar with the process.
The price of potential contract extensions for either player has also risen from totals that would be unprecedented—I suggested a 10-year, $200 million deal for Harper a few weeks ago—to...well, whatever comes after unprecedented. Any suggestions on a word that would describe that?
Trout, 22, and Harper, 21, are both eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season, although Harper will be under team control for four more years as opposed to three for Trout. Their respective teams, the Angels and Nationals, still have plenty of time to figure out how to keep them in town beyond their arbitration years.
But the longer they wait, the higher the price will likely get, just as it has this offseason.
Many consider Trout and Harper to be once-in-a-generation players that just happened to come along at the same time.
In each of his first two full big-league seasons, Trout finished second in AL MVP voting with plenty of support in his favor from around the baseball world. His 162-game average over 336 career MLB games shows just how well-rounded his game is:
Throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field and the likelihood that he'll get even better, and it's easy to see why Keri ranked him as the most valuable commodity in the game.
Harper's numbers aren't quite as impressive, but he's a year younger and his power potential and overall skill set make him a strong bet to be a perennial MVP candidate.
With each player who signs a contract extension or free-agent deal that is at least slightly above what was thought to be market value, the agents of Trout (Craig Landis) and Harper (Boras) will take note and leverage every case when it's time to negotiate.
An ideal scenario for all parties involved could be for the Angels and Nationals to sign Trout and Harper to long-term contract extensions prior to their first arbitration-eligible seasons in 2015 and through their age-30 seasons. This would put each player in the best position to seek a 10-year deal for their ages 31-40 seasons when they are first eligible for free agency.
Signing early is beneficial for both sides. The player gets the long-term security protecting him from injury or a decline in performance; the team can feel safe in knowing it won't have to bid against other teams if that player were to reach free agency. So, estimating each player's arbitration years and the salary he'd likely make in free agency during the contract could give us an idea of what the cost might be.
For Harper, it would require a nine-year deal that would take him off the market until after the 2023 season. Combining the estimated cost of his four arbitration years—my guess is he'd make around $50 million over four seasons ($5M in 2015, $10M in 2016, $15M in 2017, $20M in 2018)—and the minimum $25 million per season he would've likely made as a free agent over the last five years of the deal, and he could land a nine-year, $175 million deal for his ages 22-30 seasons.
Even if he doesn't quite make the $45 million that Shaikin's source suggested over the course of his three arbitration years, it wouldn't be a stretch to think Trout will get $40 million ($8M in 2015, $13M in 2016, $19M in 2017). For what would be an eight-year contract extension, they'd likely estimate a $30 million-per-season cost for the five free-agent years. So Trout and his agent could ask for eight years and $190 million to keep him with the Angels through 2021.
Of course, these estimated totals could be even higher by next offseason. Just ask Boras.