Imagining Sky-High Contracts If MLB's Biggest Stars Were Free Agents Right Now

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 12, 2017

Imagining Sky-High Contracts If MLB's Biggest Stars Were Free Agents Right Now

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    Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images

    Don't expect any contract records to fall at the hands of this winter's free-agent class.

    There are some gems out there, to be sure. Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain top the list. But they each come with enough warts to put enormous contracts out of reach. None is likely to get $200 million, much less meet Giancarlo Stanton in the $300 million club.

    Thus, a question: Which players would clean up if they were free agents this offseason?

    That's a cue to round up 10 superstars who meet the following requirements:

    • Must be at least arbitration-eligible.
    • Must not have already maxed out their earning power.
    • Must be at or near their peak value.

    Contract renderings are ballpark figures based on presumed market value, which is based on precedents, player age and positional and skill scarcity. If anything, they're also somewhat restrained in light of how the luxury tax threshold won't get a big boost until next winter, when it will go from $197 million to $206 million.

    Now, strap in and get ready for 10 names with some really big numbers attached to them.

Nolan Arenado, 3B

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    27.4$17.8 Million

    Nolan Arenado's surface-level accolades leave little doubt he's one of MLB's best players. His defense has won him five Gold Gloves at third base. At the plate, he's averaged a .930 OPS and 40 home runs since 2015.

    And, oh yeah, he's only 26 years old.

    As good as Arenado has been, however, the Coors Field effect is impossible to ignore. Accounting for that is OPS+, which adjusts Arenado's OPS to be just 18 percent better than average.

    This is a profile (read: a superior defender with an excellent-yet-iffy offensive track record) that doesn't attract many relevant free-agent comps. The best, such as it is, is probably Jason Heyward.

    He went into free agency off his age-25 season in 2015 as a well-rounded performer who'd won three Gold Gloves in right field. Alas, his career OPS+ was just 14 percent better than average. Though he was worth $300 million, per Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated, he got just $184 million over eight years from the Chicago Cubs.

    Even if Arenado's market were to hit a similar wall, though, a couple of things would help him outdo Heyward: his power upside and the reality that third basemen are more important than right fielders.

    The Contract: 8 Years, $200 Million

Corey Kluber, SP

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    26.9$14.6 Million

    Corey Kluber was an out-of-nowhere success story when he won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014. He has since proved that was no fluke. He ranks second among pitchers in WAR over the last four years.

    Alas, Kluber probably never will maximize his earning power. The contract extension he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 2015 gave them control through 2021, and it tops out at just $76.8 million.

    And to be fair, Kluber would have one thing working against him if he were a free agent this offseason. At 31 years of age, he's older than teams tend to prefer their free agents.

    There is one encouraging precedent, however: Zack Greinke. He was coming off his age-31 season when he became a free agent after 2015, yet that didn't stop him from getting a six-year deal worth a record $34.4 million per year from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    Though Kluber's career WAR is roughly half the 48.6 WAR that Greinke boasted at the time, a "what have you done for me lately?" perspective paints Kluber as the better pitcher. He's averaged 6.5 WAR over the last four years. Greinke averaged 5.2 WAR between 2012 and 2015.

    Like Greinke was then, Kluber is coming off an MLB ERA title. Unlike Greinke, Kluber won his second Cy Young Award for his efforts. To boot, top-shelf pitching is in much shorter supply these days.

    The Contract: 6 Years, $210 Million

Chris Sale, SP

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    37.1$32.4 Million

    The Chicago White Sox signed Chris Sale to a club-friendly extension following his star turn in 2012. By continuing to be an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender in the years since, he's more than earned his pay.

    Assuming the Boston Red Sox, who acquired the 28-year-old in a blockbuster trade last December, pick up his $13.5 million option, Sale won't reach free agency until after 2019. If he were a free agent right now, however, he could market himself as an ace left-hander who's still in his prime.

    The most relevant comp for a pitcher like that is one of Sale's teammates: David Price.

    Price set a record for starting pitchers when he got seven years and $217 million from the Red Sox after 2015. At the time, he was coming off his second AL ERA title and had just missed earning his second Cy Young Award.

    Despite lagging behind in innings, Sale's 37.1 career WAR dwarfs the 29.2 WAR that Price had when he hit the open market. Sale is also a seasonal age (i.e. coming off his age-28 season, whereas Price was coming off his age-29 season) younger than Price was.

    Only Mike Hampton has ever earned an eight-year contract as a pitcher, and his example isn't exactly one for teams to follow. But it's easy to imagine Sale getting as many years and a higher average annual value than Price, thus pushing the bar for pitchers to a new height.

    The Contract: 7 Years, $224 Million

Mookie Betts, RF

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    Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    24.1$2.0 Million

    Now that Mookie Betts is arbitration-eligible, he's finally on his way to getting paid real money.

    Per MLB Trade Rumors, an $8.2 million salary awaits in 2018. He should build on that. After all, he was an MVP runner-up in 2016 and has produced more WAR since 2015 than every hitter except Mike Trout.

    If Betts were a free agent right now, teams would be looking at a 25-year-old who can do it all. He's averaged an .842 OPS with 24 homers and 24 stolen bases over the last three seasons, and he's won a pair of Gold Gloves thanks to his exceptional range and strong arm in right field.

    In light of all this, Heyward once again emerges as a relevant comp. Naturally, that comes with both bad news and good news.

    Here's the bad: After Heyward's fall from grace, an investment in a Heyward-like player doesn't look so wise.

    But then, here's the good: Betts is basically a supercharged version of Heyward. He's at least as good a defender, demonstrated a better bat (career 120 OPS+) and achieved a higher peak performance. The 9.5 WAR he produced in 2016 was a mark bettered by only Trout and Bryce Harper in recent years.

    Thus, it'd be doable for Betts to improve on Heyward's deal.

    The Contract: 9 Years, $225 Million

Clayton Kershaw, SP

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    Harry How/Getty Images
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    57.4$129.1 Million

    Clayton Kershaw became the richest pitcher ever when he signed up for $215 million back in January 2014. He's since produced his third Cy Young Award, his fourth MLB ERA title, an additional National League ERA title and an ultra-rare 300-strikeout season.

    There might be a free-agent frenzy over Kershaw only a year from now, when he could enter the open market via the opt-out clause in his contract.

    If he were a free agent right now, though, he'd be a 29-year-old ace with a hell of a track record. This would position him to build off the seven-year, $200-ish million foundations laid by Price and Max Scherzer.

    Kershaw certainly has the numbers for the task. He leads all pitchers in WAR since 2008 and also owns the best ERA+ (which does for ERA for what OPS+ does for OPS) of all pitchers who've ever logged 1,500 innings. He is on his way to being the best pitcher ever.

    The big red flag is Kershaw's recent injury history, which includes ailments that have limited him to just one 30-start season out of the last four. But while this can't be overlooked, it's no small comfort that his arm and shoulder are in good shape.

    In all likelihood, his deal would be Scherzer- and Price-like in length and Greinke-like in average annual value.

    The Contract: 7 Years, $245 Million

Jose Altuve, 2B

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    29.6$12.7 Million

    If ever there were a guy who deserved better than his contract, it's Jose Altuve.

    In July 2013, when he was about a year removed from his first All-Star nod, Altuve inked an extension with the Houston Astros that could pay him $24.3 million through 2019. He's emerged as a superstar in the four years since, producing more WAR than all hitters except Trout and Josh Donaldson.

    Altuve's latest season was his best yet. He won his third AL batting title with a career-best .346 average, piling on 24 homers and 32 steals. He was named the AL MVP in November. In between, he helped lead the Astros to their first World Series title.

    Throw in that Altuve is only 27, and suffice it to say he'd be in huge demand as a free agent this winter.

    The contract to beat would be the high-water mark for superstar second basemen: the 10-year, $240 million pact that Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners after 2013. That would require a hard sell in some respects. Cano was a great hitter and a good defender. Altuve is a great hitter but a subpar defender.

    A significant difference, however, is that Altuve is three seasonal years younger now than Cano was then. He could surely get a contract of similar length and have inflation take him past Cano.

    The Contract: 10 Years, $250 Million

Manny Machado, 3B

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    27.9$18.1 Million

    Manny Machado is just a year from free agency, and estimates for what he might earn when he gets there climb as high as $400 million.

    But that's then. This is now.

    Machado is coming off a down year offensively. He put up an .869 OPS and slammed 72 homers in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, he clubbed 33 homers, but his OPS tumbled to .782.

    The closest comp for Machado is Arenado. Their career WAR is about the same. They're similarly excellent defenders. Arenado has a slight offensive edge, as his 118 OPS+ tops Machado's 116. All this raises questions about why Machado should be considered the better long-term investment.

    These questions do have good answers, though.

    For one thing, Machado is two seasonal years younger than his Colorado counterpart. For another thing, he has experience at and the ability to play shortstop, the most valuable non-catcher position on the diamond. For still another thing, xwOBA—which estimates production based on contact quality—rates Machado as the superior hitter over the last three seasons.

    Thus, a 10-year deal at the high end of the going rate for superstar hitters ($25-27 million) would be within reach.

    The Contract: 10 Years, $270 Million

Kris Bryant, 3B

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    19.7$1.7 Million

    Like Betts, Kris Bryant is due a nice raise ($8.9 million, per MLB Trade Rumors) in his first trip through arbitration. After that will come even greater riches.

    The only conclusion to draw from Bryant's three major league seasons is that he's a super-duper-star. He's compiled a .915 OPS and hit 94 home runs and won NL Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and a World Series ring.

    Bryant hasn't been much more valuable than fellow third base stars Arenado (19.5 WAR) or Machado (17.2) over the last three seasons. The 25-year-old fits nicely between the two in terms of age, however, and offers a more well-rounded skill set. He's an elite hitter, a versatile defender and, if you believe FanGraphs' baserunning metric, a hugely underrated baserunner.

    As an unquestionably dangerous hitter with excellent secondary skills and a 6'5", 230-pound frame, Bryant has more in common with Stanton than he does Arenado or Machado. Which leads to an interesting quote from last fall.

    "Stanton is great, but for me, I'd rather have Bryant over any player in the game not named Mike Trout," one NL executive told John Perrotto of FanRag Sports in November 2016.

    Take away a year because of the age difference—Stanton was coming off his age-24 season when he signed his $325 million mega-contractand inflate the average annual value a little to account for Bryant's superior skills and consistency, and a deal begins to emerge.

    The Contract: 12 Years, $336 million

Bryce Harper, RF

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    26.1$26.3 Million

    When Harper is going strong, the thinking tends to be that he's worth as much as $500 million. When he isn't, the idea gets downgraded from a certainty to a possibility.

    By the time Harper, 25, hits free agency next winter, there's a good chance the thinking will align with the first mode. But right now, a contract with a five and eight zeroes wouldn't quite be a given.

    Harper isn't too far removed from a stellar 2015 season, which featured a 1.109 OPS and 42 homers and netted him a unanimous MVP Award. He showed flashes of that ability in 2017, putting up a 1.008 OPS and hitting 29 homers despite being limited by injuries to 111 games.

    Harper's injury-marred workload, however, was nothing new. And while his 2015 and 2017 seasons were encouraging peaks, his others were discouraging valleys. The sum of these parts is a frustrating player: one with superstar ability who's only occasionally a superstar.

    And yet his tremendous upside would be a selling point in free agency. The same goes for his youth. And for his marketability, which is uncommon among MLB superstars.

    These things considered, he's yet another Stanton-like talent. A 13-year deal would be in the cards. So would an average annual value that would at least match Miguel Cabrera's hitter-record $31 million per year.

    The Contract: 13 Years, $403 Million

Mike Trout, CF

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
    Career WARCareer Earnings
    55.2$43.8 Million

    In 2014, Trout inked a six-year, $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels that locked him in town through 2020. In so doing, he gave away three free-agent years.

    Yes, this means that the 26-year-old two-time MVP would be a free agent right now if he hadn't signed on the dotted line. When Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports asked around in July about what the market would have paid Trout, he got answers ranging from four years and $200 million to 15 years and $600 million.

    There are no precedents for such deals.

    Then again, there's no precedent for a player like Trout.

    Getting to 55 career WAR by the age of 25 is something only Ty Cobb had done, and he did it in 96 more games. That makes Trout—whose average season includes a .987 OPS, 33 homers and 27 steals—arguably the greatest young player ever.

    If Trout were a free agent, the open market would be getting an asset like it hadn't seen since a 25-year-old Alex Rodriguez nabbed 10 years and $252 million in 2001. Trout is better and has the benefit of inflation and existing in a world in which Stanton's deal upped the ante for contract length.

    So, survey says...

    The Contract: 12 Years, $450 Million

        

    WAR and career earnings courtesy of Baseball Reference. Other stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.