Opportunity Cost

Ozzie Albies' new contract left many wondering why he gave the Braves such a bargain, but like a lot of young MLB stars, he couldn't say no to the lure of security over what could be his true value.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistIN ATLANTAJuly 8, 2019

The ink was barely dry on Ozzie Albies' new deal before the blowback nearly seared his hair and pinned his ears.

Worst contract ever!

Insultingly low.

Well, the Atlanta Braves infielder is not backing down from his decision to sign a seven-year, $35 million extension this past April, and he's got his reasons: He's got a mother (Judari), brother (Zhaihir, 18) and sister (Qjeaneli, two) back home in Curacao whom he helps support since his father, Osgarry, died unexpectedly when Ozzie was 16. There also was the fractured elbow he suffered when he was 19 on a freak play that scared him.

"That played a big role in it," Albies, 22, says. "The first thing that came to my mind was that I can't play no more. The way I broke it, I was really worried. Thank God I came back, and here I am today.

"That's why I secured my life. Just in case of anything."

But in today's world, one man's security blanket is an anathema to others.

Following a winter and spring in which clubs delivered some $2.3 billion in contract extensionssome more, ahem, generous than others—the free-agent market remains disrupted, the players remain on edge and business continues even if it's not always as usual. And while many view some of these extensions as good for the players and good for the game partly because a few, like the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout and Colorado's Nolan Arenado, now may spend the entirety of their careers with one team, others see the deals as diluting future free-agent pools and exploiting the fears of young players that free agency is not what it once was.

"I don't know that clubs are exploiting players because the system is what the system is; you go through arbitration and then free agency," Joe Longo, agent for Christian Yelich, among others, says. "I still think players look forward to free agency. I just think clubs changed tacks a little bit in the sense that they are more willing to consider an extension before free agency, so it causes the player to stop and listen.

"Before, the climate was, 'We'll make a decision on the player when we have to, and that's at free agency, or six months before free agency, or the season before free agency."

Yet agent Scott Boras warns that there may be other forces detouring young players from free agency.

"I don't think a player who is four, five years away from free agency is spooked," Boras says. "I think they're getting advice and counsel that this amount of money is significant for them, and they're looking at the money but not their value."

Each new MLB contract serves as a potential building block for what's to come in an industry raking in record revenues of more than $10 billion annually: New deals help set the market for comparable players, which is why owners shudder at blockbuster contracts that help push salaries higher and why players cringe at below-market deals that help depress the future salaries of their peers. Boras has taken to calling the latter "snuff contracts," as in, they extinguish wage increases for comparable players.

Meantime, while clubs work to depress salaries—the league even awards a championship belt to the club that is stingiest in arbitration each winterthere is a feeling that some agents, particularly those who run smaller shops, might rush to sign a player to an extension before another agent poaches his meal ticket.

As veteran outfielder and Mississippi native Jarrod Dyson says, "Everybody is looking to capitalize on somebody. That's just the world we live in."

Jarrod Dyson, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with Arizona in February 2018, understands why a player like Ozzie Albies would take a deal that could secure his family's financial future even if there was a better contract to be had with a harder bargaining position.
Jarrod Dyson, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with Arizona in February 2018, understands why a player like Ozzie Albies would take a deal that could secure his family's financial future even if there was a better contract to be had with a harder bargaining position.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press

Like Albies, Dyson, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million free-agent deal with Arizona last winter, comes from a poor financial background. And like Albies, Dyson is a minority. Both of those things, naturally, influence his viewpoint.

"If a guy was from the States, maybe they'd offer him a little, but when they know your background, they ain't going to put too much out there," Dyson says, floating another belief held by many people in the game—that sometimes young Latin players are viewed by clubs as easy marks.

Everybody is looking to capitalize on somebody. That's just the world we live in.
— Diamondbacks outfielder Jarrod Dyson

"I would have fucking taken the money. But at the same time, I feel like the offer should have been higher. That's just me, personally. I see a lot of guys who ain't better than [Albies] making more money than he got.

"If you've got a switch-hitter who you [often] put at the top of your lineup and he's playing every day, that's value. And you take care of value. I don't care if you're black, blue or whatever color, you take care of your guy. Because the last thing you want is your guy questioning everything that he accepted and having to hear all that negative talk. Oh, you signed a deal that was terrible. I mean, a man's trying to feed his family, but at the same time, the owners knew what they was doing."


Zack Britton's contract negotiation education came fast when his telephone buzzed just after New Year's Day 2017. What he heard on the other end sent him into a rage.

"You're not going to like this," Boras, Britton's agent, said by way of an opener to the conversation.

Britton had led the American League in saves (47) and games finished (63) in '16 and was well into contract talks for '17 when, while working out that winter, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. The phone call early that January was from a Baltimore executive who explained to Boras that, because of the injury, the Orioles no longer would go anywhere near the numbers already being discussed for Britton's next contract and instead would cut his salary.

"Yeah," Britton says. "Having been through it, teams will use anything to their advantage to try and lower your salary."

Britton instructed Boras to tell the Orioles to pound feathers, that he would see them at the arbitration hearing. Disagreeing on contract numbers is one thing, but a club punishing a player for trying to get better in the offseason? After all, Britton says, it wasn't like he was off participating in a high-risk activity, like playing basketball or skiing. He was doing sprint work. It was at a gym. He had witnesses.

"I felt like there was no way they could set that precedent because, otherwise, guys wouldn't work out in the offseason because of the risk of getting injured," Britton says.

Eventually, one of owner Peter Angelos' sons, Louis, phoned to assuage Britton's feelings and assure him that the Orioles had reconsidered.

Zack Britton was stung early in his career when his first team, the Orioles, dropped its initial contract extension offer after he had injured himself while training in the offseason.
Zack Britton was stung early in his career when his first team, the Orioles, dropped its initial contract extension offer after he had injured himself while training in the offseason.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

"He said, 'Hey, we're not trying to take advantage, we know you were doing what you're supposed to be doing in the offseason, it's just a freak injury and we want to get something done,'" Britton says.

Besides Boras, Britton had a secret weapon: His wife, Courtney, is an attorney and literally spent the time during her husband's surgery reading pertinent parts of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners.

"She said there's no precedent, and anytime you try to do something that's never been done, it's very, very tough," Britton says. "Especially since we had a bunch of witnesses who knew what I was doing. She was upset, obviously, because I was, but she knew there was no ground [for the Orioles] to stand on."

Not only had Britton led the league in saves the season before, but he ran his streak of consecutive save opportunities converted to an American League-record 60 upon his return.

"All of these things I had done, and it didn't matter," says Britton, who eventually agreed to a one-year, $11.4 million deal for '17, up from $6.8 million in '16. "It was, 'If we can take advantage of the situation, we will.'

"I don't blame them. … MLB is a billion-dollar business, and that's just how it works. Players hopefully understand that. I don't think a lot of them do, that as soon as something isn't going right, it's on to the next guy. That's how it works."

An agent's job is to present his player with as much information as possible: Here's a club's offer, here's how it measures up against comparable players to you (same position, similar level of experience, similar stat lines), and here's where the market is projected to go over the next few years. If you sign now for whatever the guaranteed amount of money is, here is how it will benefit you short-term, but these are the anticipated dollars you may be giving up long-term.

As in all lines of work, some agents do a better job than others. Albies' representative, David Meter of SportsMeter, comparatively speaking, runs a smaller shop (the Cubs' Craig Kimbrel and Cleveland's Francisco Lindor are among his clients). The other end of the spectrum is a large corporation with close to 100 employees, like Boras'. Like many aspects of modern America, many agencies' business model has been disrupted, too.

MLB is a billion-dollar business, and that's just how it works. Players hopefully understand that. I don't think a lot of them do, that as soon as something isn't going right, it's on to the next guy. That's how it works.
— Yankees reliever Zack Britton

"Everybody's looking at the players," Boras says of the flurry of extensions and decisions to bypass free agency. "I'm looking at something different. I'm looking at the agents. Legacy [Agency] blew up, all of their agents left … they sold the baseball portion of their company, a portion of that division went to another entity, that entity has [Ronald Acuna Jr.], they're in a new company, the company wants revenues. All of a sudden, boom, [it] signs a contract where he signs the player's rights for 10 years and getting a max of $17 million a year, and this is one of the most elite talents in the game."

Indeed, nine days before Albies signed his deal in April, the Braves locked up Acuna for eight years and $100 million. That also factors into Albies' deal: The two are exceptionally close. Albies calls Acuna his "brother from another mother," and Acuna says simply, "we're brothers."

Ronald Acuna Jr. (right) signed a deal with the Braves this past April that could keep him in Atlanta through the 2028 season.
Ronald Acuna Jr. (right) signed a deal with the Braves this past April that could keep him in Atlanta through the 2028 season.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

No matter the motivation, the Acuna deal, which tethers him to Atlanta through his age-28 season (and possibly two years after that if the Braves exercise a pair of team options in 2027 and 2028), has been knocked by many, with one agent flatly saying it is "much worse" than Albies' deal because his ceiling is so much higher and he could have been a free agent at 26.

Others disagree.

"Everyone wants to play Monday morning quarterback with these deals, period," another agent says. "You heard whispers that Acuna's deal was light. It's $100 million. It's $100 million."


One former agent had a pet phrase when advising young players who were offered lucrative multiyear deals for the first time: "Don't fuck with your first fortune." Meaning, if it is a deal that comes close to setting you up for life—or even sparks momentum in that direction—take it.

There's a flip side, though, one fueled by a healthy skepticism to ask, "What's the catch?"

"They only give these contracts to players who have such a high level of performance, and the probability of injury … is so lowless than 1 or 2 percent—so it's obviously something that's wise for the team to do or else they would never do it," Boras says. "Because the answer is, if they're offering it, it must tell you something. That it is designed to work in their favor."

Since a player remains tethered to a club for his first six years of MLB service time, some multiyear offers don't prevent the player from playing elsewhere because the team already owns the rights to the player by going year-to-year anyway.

"So what's the reason they're offering it?" Boras asks. "The only motivation they have is to save millions of dollars. And also to gain free-agent rights they don't possess [if the contract extends into a player's free-agent years] and to extend their rights over you."

Milwaukee's Christian Yelich won the National League MVP award last fall four years into a seven-year, $49.6 million deal that includes a $15 million club option in 2022. He signed the deal going into his age-23 season in March 2015 after hitting .284/.362/.402 with nine homers and 54 RBI in his first full big league season in Miami.

"He was on the heels of Miami extending Giancarlo Stanton, who was a good friend of his," Longo says. "The climate was that [the Marlins] were on the way up. Think if they had all those good players they had then— Yelich, Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto. To this day they're good friends.

"I did the contract and I have no regrets. Certainly, he's going to be young enough even with the option that he'll have another bite at the apple."

That Yelich's 2019 salary pales in comparison to, say, Boston's Mookie Betts—whose AL MVP award last year earned him a $20 million salary this summer aloneand others certainly is on Yelich's mind.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't think about it," Yelich, 27, says. "I don't think I can say I regret that decision, but I think it's human nature to think about the what-ifs. But then you go down a whole other thing of what-ifs after you say what if to that one.

"At the time it was the decision that I thought was right for myself and my family. I understood what I was doing. Obviously, now it looks terrible."

Yelich says the Marlins made it "really hard" for him to say no, first offering a multiyear, multimillion deal in October 2014 and then ratcheting it up after Yelich declined the first few offers. Among the benefits of the deal, he says, is that he started slowly in '15 and likely would have been dispatched to the minors if not for having signed the deal.

Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, says he doesn't regret the seven-year, $49.6 million deal he signed in 2015 but admits he does think about whether it's the best contract he could have had.
Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, says he doesn't regret the seven-year, $49.6 million deal he signed in 2015 but admits he does think about whether it's the best contract he could have had.Aaron Gash/Associated Press/Associated Press

Similarly, Paul Goldschmidt primarily was known in Arizona as one of the premier sluggers and nicest men in the gameand for being saddled with the game's most club-friendly contract. In March 2013, he signed a five-year, $32 million deal after his first full big league season.

"It's only team-friendly if you play well," says Goldschmidt, who reached six All-Star Games, ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting four times and won four Silver Slugger Awards over the six seasons after he signed his deal. This March, he signed a five-year, $130 million deal after being traded to St. Louis. "Every contract, as soon as you stop playing well, then it's a bad contract," Goldschmidt says. "So it's kind of this weird situation. It puts a weird taste in my mouth when I hear that because it depends on how you play.

"For me, when I was young like [Albies] and had the opportunity to set my family up for my lifetime. I took advantage of that. I have zero regrets about that. The big thing is, I would hope whatever player it is is fully educated on how everything's working."

Outfielder Juan Lagares, 30, has been represented by Sam and Seth LevinsonACES Baseball, Inc.since 2006, when David Wright and Daniel Murphy, two Levinson clients also in the New York Mets system at the time, helped answer his questions regarding representation. Lagares eventually signed a five-year, $23.6 million deal with the Mets in April 2015 after emerging the previous year as a Gold Glove center fielder. The money helps support his mother, father and four brothers, who live half the year in the Dominican Republic and half the year in New York.

It's only [a] team-friendly [deal] if you play well. Every contract, as soon as you stop playing well, then it's a bad contract. So it's kind of this weird situation. 
— Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt

"All their needs, I just give it to them," Lagares says. "They all work, but they come to me. I'm there for my family."

For other players, these dealseven given the prospect that they could be below market valuehelp lessen the mental strain. Outfielder Randal Grichuk, who hit 25 homers in 124 games last season with the Blue Jays, says he is playing more unencumbered since signing a five-year, $52 million deal this past April with Toronto, knowing that the club "believes in me or I wouldn't be here, so you don't think about the small things."

Adds Yelich: "There's different mindsets and different pressures you feel when you don't have anything guaranteed and you're just fighting for your life every day. But I'd like to say I've been the same player.

"You don't play with any less pressure [on a multiyear deal]. You don't come back after an 0-for-20 and there's a sack of money at your locker."


During his years as the Toronto Blue Jays general manager and assistant GM, Alex Anthopoulos negotiated several extensions with young players, including Brandon Morrow, Aaron Hill, Dustin McGowan, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Vernon Wells and others.

"Some work out, some don't," says Anthopoulos, now in his second season as Atlanta's GM.

In other words, don't expect Anthopoulos or the Braves to feel guilty as the Albies blowback continues. They looked at comps, sized up where Albies is in his career, measured and weighed things and then extended the offer.

"At the end of the day, we're hopeful that there's a second, bigger deal for Ozzie and Acuna," he says. "When I was in Toronto, it was Vernon Wells. That's the hope with these deals, that they're young enough and there's another big deal behind it."

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos says that while many may criticize teams for not offering their young stars bigger contracts, those teams are trying to protect themselves if their player doesn't progress as expected.
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos says that while many may criticize teams for not offering their young stars bigger contracts, those teams are trying to protect themselves if their player doesn't progress as expected.John Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

With Wells, the Jays awarded him a $126 million dealsixth-largest in baseball history at the timea year before he could have become a free agent. It quickly became a disaster for the club.

Then, as GM of the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos agreed with Jose Bautista on a five-year, $65 million deal after the slugger's breakout 54-homer 2010 season.

"At the time, we were roundly criticized," Anthopoulos says. "I remember getting a lot of phone calls, 'How could you give him that kind of money, he only had one season, this is crazy.'

"Then he had another great, fantastic year and now, Oh, he's underpaid. That's the whole point, right? You take the guarantee and you just don't know."

In buying out the first four years of Acuna's free agency, Anthopoulos agreed to the biggest guarantee of his executive career, surpassing Russell Martin's $82 million in Toronto. He cites Goldschmidt, Wells and Evan Longoria as players who were young enough that they signed a second big deal.

"I think all sides hope that there's a second big deal coming because then it means it worked out," Anthopoulos says. "Ozzie's five years from free agency, and a lot can happen. He broke his arm swinging a bat two years ago. I love these kids and hope they're going to continue to be great players, but you don't know what's going to happen."

The way Albies views it, "This is my first contract. There's many more to come."

And the outside "experts"?

"I'm happy," he says. "Regrets for what?"

Goldschmidt spent plenty of years listening to others chirp about how underpaid he was, too. Yet, as a sports fan, he still finds himself sharpshooting when an NFL quarterback or NBA point guard signs a new deal. Sometimes, he'll stop to remind himself.

"It's easy to forget there is a human being and a family and maybe kids or grandparents, different situations going on," he says. "I think going through it and talking to guys, you see the personal side of it a little more.

Paul Goldschmidt says that for all the criticism some players take for agreeing to deals below what many around the game believe is their true value, the critics often fail to consider the financial strain some players are under to accept a deal that will help support their families.
Paul Goldschmidt says that for all the criticism some players take for agreeing to deals below what many around the game believe is their true value, the critics often fail to consider the financial strain some players are under to accept a deal that will help support their families.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press/Associated Press

"You can't dive into every player's personal situation. Players don't even want to share it publicly. It's a very private thing. No guys are talking about their private lives that much. Some share more on social media or in the media, but everybody has stuff going on and it's impossible to know all of it."

Dyson concurs.

"I mean, it's up to us to sign it," he says. "But people who [criticize] probably was born into a wealthy home and have a degree and their parents got a lot of money. Those are the types of guys who say, 'Aw, he shouldn't have signed the deal.' But when you come from where [Albies] came from, you tell a man congratulations on your deal, man.

"Everybody wasn't born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Everybody ain't walked the red carpet. Some people went through trials and tribulations and still go through 'em at this level. A lot of people got mouths to feed, man. This is real talk. You could sit here and say don't let your family take advantage of you, but at the end of the day it's your family. You think I'm going to leave my family high and dry when I'm making this kind of money?

"You've got to be smart. You've got to know when to say no. But at the same time, when you've got a lot of close family members, you've got to start looking at it as if, what if they was in my shoes, would they do that for me? And you know probably nine times out of 10, they would. That's why you take care of people around you when you come from a bad place. I came from a bad place, man. I'm grinding my balls off every day.

"I ain't trying to go back to that lifestyle. Not when I can just do this job and make a living. ... Anytime [guys] can make money, I'm all for it.

"Get it, man. Because somebody is going to get it off of you."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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