- Nolan Arenado opted to sign a long-term contract instead of becoming a free agent after this season. Will other elite players follow suit?
Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado would have entered free agency in November 2019 at age 28 with all the attributes that would make him the primary target of the New York Yankees and several other teams: durability, youth, athleticism, premier defense, elite offense and a grinder’s mentality. But the Rockies stepped up with an offer that essentially asked, “How much more do you really want?”
The Rockies not only put $260 million in front of him (payable over eight years), they also gave him a full no-trade clause (something Manny Machado didn’t get from San Diego) and an opt-out after only three years (Machado has to wait five years for his opt out). That opt out is especially important because it is timed to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. He could leverage the new CBA if it is a more player-friendly one. And, oh, yes, he already has the best ballpark ever in which to hit. Why leave?
Given the control Colorado gave Arenado in the contract, this is a huge win for the player without the leverage of free agency. If the Rockies won anything from these terms it is that they “held” Arenado to eight years, paying him “only” through his age 35 season. Five years ago, Miguel Cabrera was 31 years old and two years away from free agency when the Tigers gave him an eight-year extension—buying 10 years of control through age 40!
“The Rockies knew the Yankees and Dodgers were sitting there ready to pounce,” said one veteran agent. “And once you did the deal [last year] for Charlie Blackmon and the deals for the relievers, you had to keep the centerpiece. Those deals make no sense without Arenado.”
These are important times at the top of baseball’s pay scale. As the game has become younger, the biggest young stars are just now acquiring their prime leverage. If you ask me to name the top five players in baseball, I would go Mike Trout, 27, Mookie Betts, 26, Nolan Arenado, 27, Francisco Lindor, 25, and Aaron Judge, 26. Arenado is the first of the Big Five to lock up his free agent years into his 30s. The others will be lined up for their share like airplanes at O’Hare over the next two or three years. Despite complaints from rank and file players about free agency, service time and roster manipulation, age bias, etc., the market for the elite player is robust.
“We’re seeing fewer but more disparate class systems in baseball,” one agent said. “Instead of six or seven class systems, there are maybe only three or four class systems, and there are bigger gaps between them, especially at the top.”
Here’s what the Arenado contract means for the next three biggest cases in the top tier class:
There is a small impact here as it relates to Arenado’s annual average value of $32.5 million. Harper’s goal was to top the record $325 million in Giancarlo Stanton’s contract. At this point it appears only the Phillies could give him that record. But owner John Middleton has burned plenty of jet fuel trying to convince Harper to sign and four months later he still doesn’t have the player. Instead, the Harper camp re-enlisted the Dodgers to see if there was a deal to be made for fewer years.
The Phillies have to make a decision: blow past the record number to win the player, or at some point feel like you’re looking at a shotgun marriage and maybe the best thing to do is hold your ground at something closer to Machado’s $300 million. And if it costs you Harper, maybe you fall back to Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.
The Dodgers are being rewarded for their patience and discipline. Harper has come back to them offering only his prime years without the decline years attached to them. Of course, that comes with a higher AAV. To sign a four- or five-year deal in Los Angeles, Harper would have to blow away not only Arenado’s AAV but also the record $34.4 AAV of Zack Grienke.
“For half the years you’re going at least two, three [million] above that number,” the agent said. “The big victory for Scott with the Dodgers is to put up a 40. If can put a four on the board—become the first $40 million player—with a five, six million dollar gap [in AAV] he’ll categorize that as a big win. And it would be.”
If the Dodgers do get Harper, lefthanded hitting outfielders Joc Pederson and Alex Verdugo become redundant. They could be packaged with a pitcher to get a top starter such as Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer.
Harper is nowhere near the defender Arenado is, but check out these career comparisons at bat, which clearly favor Harper, especially when you account for the Coors Field effect:
The price just went up. The Red Sox have approached Betts about an extension but it went nowhere. Betts will be 28 as a free agent after the 2020 season.
“Mookie was already looking at mid 200s,” said one club executive. “Probably more like 300 now.”
This guy is in a class system of one. Trout will be 29 as a free agent after 2020. He has two years to answer these two questions: “Are the Angels ever going to win?” and “Do I want to stay on the West Coast?”
As for the money, as one agent said, “Everybody recognizes Trout is sitting there in his own place. This is about what Mike wants. Any number between 40 and 50 [million] is legitimate based on where the growth of the game is and how good he is.”