MLB Metrics 101: Top Candidates for MLB's 1st $400 Million Contract

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 1, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: Top Candidates for MLB's 1st $400 Million Contract

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    Bryce Harper obviously has a shot. But who else?
    Bryce Harper obviously has a shot. But who else?Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Major League Baseball got its first $100 million man in 1998, its first $200 million man in 2000 and, at long last, its first $300 million man in 2014.

    Who will be MLB's first $400 million man? Sounds like a question for the Bleacher Report MLB Metrics 101.

    Hello and welcome back. This week's objective is to round up the top 10 candidates for the first $400 million contract not just in baseball history, but in sports history.

    Such a contract is inevitable and, in light of what FanGraphs' Nathaniel Grow revealed about players' dwindling share of MLB revenues, also very much welcome.

    Surely, this discussion can only involve the best of the best. Read on for more on that.

Methodology

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Not many things are safe to assume. But in this case, it's safe enough to assume that the top candidates for MLB's first $400 million contract are young, already established stars.

    I looked for hitters and pitchers whombased on their past performances, as well as growth and decline curvesZiPS projected to produce at least 3.0 WAR (which FanGraphs defines as the baseline level for a "good" player) in 2017.

    That returned 80 players. Once players over the age of 30 were stripped out, the list shrunk to 52 players.

    Why no prospects or rookies? Simple: With all respect to guys like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Yoan Moncada and Gleyber Torres, it's too soon to lump them into this discussion and, in all likelihood, pointless to boot. Baseball's first $400 million deal probably isn't that far off.

    As for what makes a player a reasonable candidate for a $400 million contract, there are at least three things: elite talent above all, but also youth and proximity to free agency.

    Thus, a system that combines:

    • Baseline WAR: Wins above replacement for every 650 plate appearances (for hitters) or every 162 games (for pitchers).
    • Peak WAR: Career-best WAR.
    • Age Points: One point for each year under 30.
    • Free-Agent Points: Five if a player is one year away from free agency, four if two, three if three, two if four, one if five and zero if six or more.

    Add a player's Baseline WAR, Peak WAR, Age Points and Free-Agent Points and, voila, out comes his "Contract Points." The higher the number, the better.

    It's a crude system. But as luck would have it, it turned out the same 10 names I would have chosen if I were putting these rankings together off the top of my head. And since even including 10 names in this discussion is a stretch, no honorable mentions are needed this week.

    So let's get to it.

10. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    26202019.9 

    Nolan Arenado has four Gold Gloves, two Silver Sluggers and two All-Star appearances. Yet it still feels like he doesn't get enough credit.

    After establishing himself as a defensive specialist in 2013 and 2014, Arenado tallied a .915 OPS and 83 home runs in 2015 and 2016. So it goes in 2017, as he has an .896 OPS and is on pace for 36 homers. Meanwhile, he's already added 13 more defensive runs saved to an already impressive collection.

    But a $400 million player? Really?

    OK, sure. It's a reach. 

    But it's also not impossible.

    The Colorado Rockies aren't a big spender now, but that could change just in time. Per FanGraphs, their local TV contract is up after 2020. Their new one should be worth more than the $20 million per year they're getting under their current deal. That's money they could funnel into an extension for Arenado.

    If not, free agency awaits him after 2019. While the big red flag would be Arenado's splits away from Coors Field, several more years of elite production would help downplay that. And if there isn't already one by then, the open market could at least have laid a stepping stone for a $400 million deal.

9. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    29201920.0

    Technically, Clayton Kershaw's (then-record-setting) seven-year, $215 million contract runs through 2020.

    Ah, but it has an opt-out after 2018. He'll probably use that to either squeeze a longer extension out of the Los Angeles Dodgers or to seek even greater riches on the open market.

    He has the clout for either venture. It says enough that the 2.37 ERA he has now constitutes a "slow" start. But for kicks, he's MLB's active leader in ERA (2.37), ERA+ (159), WHIP (1.00) and FIP (2.57).

    So, yeah. He's the best pitcher in baseball now and could be the best ever when all's said and done.

    But $400 million good?

    His best bet of getting there is going the extension route after this season. The Dodgers already owe him roughly $106 million between 2018 and 2020. If they were to add seven more years at $42 million—which, according to FanGraphs, is actually less than what he's usually worth—per year, then Kershaw would be signed for $400 million over 10 years.

    As a guy who's pushing 30 and who makes a living by abusing his arm and shoulder every fifth day, Kershaw probably doesn't have a path to a $400 million contract otherwise.

8. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    23202220.1

    According to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, the Cleveland Indians offered Francisco Lindor a chance to sign a deal worth $100 million before Opening Day. He said no.

    There would have been no blaming Lindor if he'd said yes. He's only entitled to the league minimum until he goes into arbitration after 2018. Signing for $100 million would have been a play for security.

    However, there's also no blaming Lindor for saying no.

    He knows what he is. As an elite defensive shortstop who can also hit and run, he outpaced all other shortstops in WAR for 2015 and 2016. With legit power now being introduced into his offensive profile, he's becoming even better in 2017.

    This could make him ripe for a $400 million deal down the line.

    The Indians will be nearing the end of a $40 million-per-year TV deal that expires after 2022. If they don't want to pump some of their newfound riches into a $400 million deal for Lindor, the open market could be all too happy to do the honors.

    Fair warning, though: He could have some serious competition that winter.

7. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    25202220.7

    As an NCAA Player of the Year, Minor League Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, MVP and World Series champion, Kris Bryant sure sounds like a $400 million player.

    And he has the numbers to match.

    Bryant posted a .900 OPS and clubbed 65 home runs in his first two seasons. Throw in solid defense and baserunning, and he beat all but four other players in WAR. With a .934 OPS and a 35-homer pace, he's not skipping a beat this year.

    Really, the only problem with his contract outlook is that his youth is already running out.

    Bryant is 25 now and will be 30 by the time he hits free agency after 2021. Even if his talent level doesn't change between now and then, prospective buyers could be wary of backing up the truck to sign him.

    However, there is the extension route.

    With Bryant's first year of arbitration eligibility due up after this season, he is set to gain more leverage in coming seasons. It's not too crazy to think he could sign a richer version of the 13-year, $325 million deal Giancarlo Stanton got after his first year of arbitration.

6. Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    23202220.8

    Although Corey Seager has only played one full season, he's already done enough to prove he's one of baseball's elite players.

    His .885 OPS and 37 home runs are outstanding numbers for a hitter who has to play half his games at Dodger Stadium, and beyond outstanding for a shortstop who does so. And while he's not a great defender, it's commendable that a 6'4", 220-pound big'un like himself can so much as hold his own.

    That Seager is so big does raise the question of whether he'll stick at shortstop in the long run. If he eventually moves to third base, both his offensive and defensive value will take hits.

    But if Seager does stick at shortstop, then he'll have a fair shot at $400 million.

    Assuming they pass on rolling the together-forever dice on Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers could be willing to oblige their franchise shortstop with a long-term extension. If not, he'll go into free agency off his age-27 season in 2021.

    If Seager goes that route, there is the chance that somebody else will have beaten him to the $400 million punch. But if somebody only pushes the market close to $400 million, he'll have a shot.

5. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    22202221.6

    Hey, look. It's another young superstar shortstop.

    Carlos Correa was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2015 and, overall, has been arguably baseball's best shortstop since his debut. Since 2015, he leads all shortstops in WAR.

    However, much of Correa's value is tied to a bat that's produced an .840 OPS and 50 home runs. He's merely solid on the basepaths and has rated below average on defense. Like Corey Seager, he's a candidate for a value-killing move to third base at some point.

    In the meantime, he may be in no hurry to sign an extension.

    “Carlos is never going to do an (early) multiyear contract,” agent Greg Genske told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.

    Still, never say never. Correa himself told Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle that he's not "shutting the door" on an extension. Nor should he. With one of MLB's largest TV contracts and a decent-sized market around them, the Astros could one day be willing to sign their 2012 No. 1 pick to a mega-contract.

    If not, the youth Correa has on Lindor and Seager will be an advantage in the event all three of them enter free agency after 2021. That could be his path to $400 million.

4. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press
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    Welcome, friends, to the "Now we're cooking with gas" segment of this article.

    The six players listed above are solid candidates for baseball's first $400 million contract, but the players most often linked to the idea are two 24-year-old superstars who are due for free agency after 2018: Manny Machado and (SPOILER ALERT) Bryce Harper.

    As one agent told Verducci:

    A re-setting of the market is coming with Harper and Machado, especially given their ages at free agency. So it’s safe to assume the value of free agent years is going to go up, and it’s not crazy to think that number is going to start with a four.

    Earlier this year, I leaned toward Machado as the better choice for a $400 million deal. He didn't have Harper's upside but had the advantage in consistency and durability.

    Machado has responded by going "pluh" so far in 2017. He has just a .708 OPS and 10 home runs. With Harper raking in the meantime, the edge Machado had is dissipating. 

    But for now, the events of 2017 are a mere crack in Machado's armor.

    He remains one of baseball's best players going back to 2013 and should remain as such for years to come. His chance of becoming MLB's first $400 million player may not be alive and well, but it's not dead, either.

3. Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
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    Since the start of the 2015 season, the WAR leaderboard for position players looks like this:

    1. Mike Trout: 23.2
    2. Mookie Betts: 17.8

    There you have it. Mookie Betts is a 5'9", 180-pound dynamo.

    He's a .302/.353/.506 hitter over the last three seasons, in which he's slugged 58 homers and stolen 55 bases. He's also one of the best defensive outfielders in MLB.

    On talent alone, he's an even better choice for baseball's first $400 million contract than either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. His disadvantage, of course, is that he's not due for free agency until two years after they're going to reset the market. He could be Johnny-come-lately to the $400 million party.

    However, there is the possibility that Machado and Harper only push the market closer to $400 million. If they do, it's not hard to see how Betts could push it the rest of the way.

    An extension is one possibility. The Boston Red Sox have a lot of money and don't mind spending it. And during Betts' three arbitration years between 2018 and 2020, the Red Sox stand to have Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello and possibly David Price come off their books.

    Failing that, Betts would stand to benefit from hitting free agency a year before Kris Bryant and the shortstop brigade.

2. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press
    AgeLikely FAContract Points
    24201925.7

    Bryce Harper has already made it known where he stands on the possibility of a $400 million contract.

    "Don’t sell me short," he said in a 2016 interview on 106.7 The Fan in Washington, via USA Today. "That’s what you’re doing right now to me, so don’t do that."

    There are caveats, of course. Harper's awfully talented but has been inconsistent in three of his six major league seasons. A big reason why he was inconsistent was because he couldn't stay healthy.

    But now for the counterpoint: The dude is a living embodiment of the word "upside."

    Harper first showed his upside in posting maybe the greatest season ever by a teenager in 2012. He showed it again in 2015, when he led MLB in WAR en route to a unanimous MVP. With a 1.076 OPS and 15 home runs through 47 games, he's showing it again this year.

    With Harper already under contract for 2018, it seems beyond unlikely that he and the Washington Nationals will strike a deal for $400 million before he reaches free agency. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen when he goes strutting onto the open market.

    Who could possibly be a better candidate for MLB's first $400 million deal? Take a wild guess.

1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press
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    The answer, as it usually is, is Mike Trout.

    Trout entered 2017 as the all-time leader in WAR through the age of 24. He then set about getting even better. Before his thumb injury—which is a drag but shouldn't be career-threatening—he was working on a 1.203 OPS and had a shot at 50 homers, 30 stolen bases and 11 WAR.

    If Trout were to enter the open market this offseason, there's little question that the bidding would be extreme enough to drive his price up to $400 million. Alas, the six-year, $144.5 million deal he signed in 2014 runs through 2020. That leaves room for Machado, Harper or Betts to beat him to the punch.

    However, it is possible to imagine dark timelines for all three.

    It's far from impossible that Machado will continue to struggle or that Harper will have another injury-marred season. Likewise, it's far from impossible that the undersized Betts will see his skills diminish as he ages.

    If any of these things happen, MLB's first $400 million deal could be Trout's for the taking.

    The 2021 expiration date on Albert Pujols' contract could embolden the Los Angeles Angels to sign Trout to another, even more lucrative extension before his current deal is up. If not, a cavalcade of drooling suitors awaits him on the open market after 2020.

    Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.