The only Seattle Mariners player signed past 2021 is a Double-A first baseman. With six guaranteed years and three club options, Evan White, who turns 24 next year, signed away all of his arbitration years and up to three free-agent years. Though hard-line agents and players who want to max out earning power may disagree, White made a safe, smart move.
The Mariners are assuming more risk than the player.
Next spring White can go to camp with the chance to be the team’s Opening Day first baseman (with no worries about service time management) and with $24 million guaranteed. That’s security and peace of mind, which are invaluable to a young player trying to establish a foothold in the majors.
What’s the risk for White? He becomes a huge star and he undersold three free agent years at $10.5 million per year. Okay, think about that: the worst part of the deal for White is that he’s great and he has to get by on $55.5 million over the next nine years.
The worst scenario for the Mariners? They just dropped $24 million on the next Brett Wallace.
Don’t expect the very best prospects to cap their earnings like this, but you may see more of these type of deals for next-tier prospects who teams regard as solid big league contributors. (One team president said it’s much easier to get pre-arbitration extensions done with smaller, boutique agencies. White’s agency, the Toronto-based True Gravity, lists one other Major League player on its website, Drew Steckenrider.)
White, who received a $3.125 million signing bonus out of Kentucky, probably noted how college players are disadvantaged in the economics of the today’s game. White would have been a free agent entering his age 30 season at the earliest. As the game gets younger, teams assume less liability on players as they age through their 30s. (Eric Hosmer, drafted out of high school, already had played 439 big-league games at age 23. He was a free agent at 28.)
Also, as teams emphasize WAR, older first basemen have lost value. Since the Orioles gave Chris Davis $161 million starting with his age 30 season in 2016 (regarded as one of the game’s worst contracts), no free-agent first baseman that old has signed a deal for more than three years.
White is the fourth player to sign a multi-year deal without playing in the big leagues. His predecessors are not exactly direct comps. Eloy Jimenez was a 22-year-old outfielder. Scott Kingery was a 24-year-old middle infielder. Jonathan Singleton was a 22-year-old first baseman drafted out of high school with a small signing bonus and “only” $10 million guaranteed.
To consider the future value White forsook, we should compare him to recent college first basemen. Here’s a partial list of what they earned through age 29 (the guaranteed part of White’s contract) and through age 32:
+Includes club options
The Mariners are guaranteeing White more money through age 29 than Goldschmidt and Belt earned through the same age, and about as much or more than Smoak, Alonso and Duda have earned in their entire careers.
Maybe White becomes a hitting savant like Votto or a two-time home run champion like Davis, but that’s not how he projects as someone outside the top 50 prospects. He is an excellent defender with developing power to the pull side. Seattle GM Jerry DiPoto is betting that White’s exit velocity in Double A last season, which was among the best in the Seattle system, provides an indication that he will be a very good big league hitter.
Let’s examine three scenarios for Seattle with their bet on White:
1. Best case: he’s the next Goldschmidt.
An eighth-round pick out of Texas State, Goldschmidt was rated only as Arizona’s ninth-best prospect heading into 2011, his age-23 season. He struck out often and was not regarded as a good runner. Scouts were not convinced about his hitting ability.
Goldschmidt reached the majors that year, and had a breakout season in 2012, his first full year. The Diamondbacks were sold. They signed him to a five-year, $32 million extension.
White is guaranteed to earn more than Goldschmidt through age 29 and just $5 million less through age 32 if the options are exercised.
2. Most likely case: he’s the next Smoak, Moreland, Alonso, etc.
In other words, White becomes a bona fide big league regular with occasional big years.
White was drafted 17th overall. Smoak was drafted 11th. Check out the similarities between White and Smoak in the years in which they reached Double A–their platform year heading into the majors:
Smoak was considered a star in the making. He was the key player the Mariners acquired in the 2010 deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. But Smoak’s power did not show up in Seattle, where he hit .226 with a .384 slugging percentage over five years. The Mariners finally waived him rather than pay him $3.65 million. Toronto claimed him. He eventually became an All-Star during a 38-homer season in 2017, but his numbers have declined since.
Smoak has played 10 years in the big leagues and hit 191 homers with 7.7 WAR, more than half of it in 2017. The Mariners are betting that White develops into a much better player than Smoak.
3. Worst case: he’s the next Wallace, LaPorta, Mills, etc.
Like White, Wallace (2008), LaPorta (2007) and Mills (2007) all were drafted in the first round, and no lower than 14. All of them hit in the minors (though Mills did not carry his success in A ball to Double A). None of them hit in the majors.
Based on the recent draft history of college first basemen, White will be an outlier if he develops into a superstar and outperforms the contract.
From 1990-2010, teams drafted 23 college first basemen in the first round. Let’s set aside one of them, Sean Doolittle, who converted to pitcher. Here are the career WAR totals of the other 22:
College First Basemen Drafted in First Round, 1990-2010
That’s a lot of failure. Twenty-one years of draft history tell us that 64 percent of college first basemen drafted in the first round returned a career WAR of less than 3.0. In other words, about two-thirds of them were busts.
By age 32, only two of 22 college first rounders at the position out-earned what White can earn with the Mariners (adjusted for inflation): Helton ($81.3 million) and Berkman ($77.7 million), two borderline Hall of Famers. The more you think about what is not guaranteed, what White does have guaranteed makes good sense for him.