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 ESPN Insider: A $420 million star? Predicting how much it would take to lock up MLB's best young players

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PostSubject: ESPN Insider: A $420 million star? Predicting how much it would take to lock up MLB's best young players   Tue Apr 18, 2017 11:22 am

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A $420 million star? Predicting how much it would take to lock up MLB's best young players
Bryce Harper, left, and Kris Bryant will have hundreds of millions of reasons to smile in the not-so-distant future. G Fiume/Getty Images
10:08 AM ET

Jim BowdenESPN Baseball Analyst

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It’s no secret that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are free agents after the 2018 season. But there is a growing sense of urgency if the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles want any chance of extending their young superstars contracts before they hit free agency. It’s only a matter of time before Harper and Machado become the highest-paid players in baseball history.

The best guess is that they’re on the same timetable and that less than 20 months from today they will agree on their next deals -- most likely with new teams. There’s also the possibility that Machado ends up getting more than Harper, but there is no embellishing what they’ll be paid. Here is a quick look at what I’m expecting Harper and Machado to receive if and when they get to free agency:
Setting the market

Recent long-term deals to remember:

• Giancarlo Stanton, 13 years, $325 million, signed as a player under club control through age-37 season.
• Robinson Cano, 10 years, $240 million, signed as a free agent through age 40.
• Albert Pujols, 10 years, $240 million, signed as a free agent through age 41.
• Joey Votto, 10 years, $225 million, signed as a player under club control through age 39.
• Jason Heyward, 8 years, $184 million, signed as a free agent through age 33.

RF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Age: 24 | Free Agent: After 2018

Harper was the best player in baseball in 2015, leading the league in OPS, home runs and WAR, while winning the National League MVP award. And after a down year last season, he’s back to looking like the dominant player he was two years ago. To become the first $400 million player in baseball, he will have to perform this year and next as he did in 2015; but if he does, as I said two years ago, he’ll set that record. The Boras Corp. has a long history of breaking records, and it will make sure he gets the highest average annual value (AAV) deal ever given, a record presently held by Zack Greinke of the Diamondbacks at $34.4 million. Baseball revenues are at an all-time high and continuing to trend upward. History has taught us player salaries always follow accordingly.

Harper will hit free agency at just 26 years old, which will allow him to get an 11- or 12-year deal to bring his last year of his contract through his age-37 or age-38 season. The reason I think he’ll get as many as 12 years is that when Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols got their 10-year deals, it took them to age 40, while a 12-year deal for Harper gets him to only 38. It’s already too late for the Nationals to try to extend Harper. He’s getting to free agency with the only question left: Will the Nationals try to trade him this offseason, rather than letting him just walk the following year?

Early Prediction: 12 years for a $35 million AAV
Total Value: $420 million

3B Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
Age: 24 | Free Agent: After 2018

Machado is possibly the best defensive third baseman in American League history, making plays that even 16-time Gold Glove recipient Brooks Robinson admits he couldn’t have made during his years at the hot corner for the Orioles. Machado also is a 40-homer power bat who would be an elite shortstop if whoever signs him decides to move him to that position. There are many in the business who would prefer Machado over Harper. Frankly, either could end up being the highest paid player in history. Machado is a much better player than Giancarlo Stanton, so he’ll dwarf Stanton’s $325 million pact; and he’ll get more per season than Miguel Cabrera did when he signed his $31 million annual salary, because that’s now considered an “old” contract.

Machado would like to remain an Oriole and finish his career at Camden Yards, and it’s hard to believe Baltimore wouldn't step up and try signing him after giving Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo a combined $36 million per year. It makes way more sense for them to give that money to Machado, especially with the inexpensive young power bat of Trey Mancini on your roster. You can’t sign Davis and Trumbo and then tell Orioles fans you can’t afford Machado. A 12-year deal takes him only to age 38, which is why I think he’ll get that length in his monster contract, as well.

Early Prediction: 12 years, $33 million AAV
Total Value: $396 million
The next superstar duo on deck

Once you’ve got your breath back after the money involved in the projected deals for Harper and Machado, put on your seat belt, because there are more future record-breaking deals to come. Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies and Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox are like Vin Diesel in “The Fate of the Furious,” quickly zooming past most and suddenly threatening both Harper and Machado on the record-breaking roadways, runways and iced rivers. Arenado is a free agent the year after Harper and Machado get to the market, and Betts will follow a year after Arenado. If the Rockies or Red Sox want any chance of getting either one signed to reasonable deals, they need to get them signed as soon as possible, before Harper and Machado strike deals that will dramatically change the market for the next generation.

3B Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Age: 26 | Free Agent: After 2019

Much like Machado in the AL, Arenado is possibly the best defensive third baseman in National League history. He has led the league in home runs, RBIs and total bases in both of the past two seasons, and he already has won four consecutive Gold Glove awards. An MVP trophy is likely in his near future. Coors Field will have to be factored into what he’s worth to other teams, but it will not be enough of a deterrent from his becoming one of the highest paid players in the game.

It will be much cheaper if the Rockies can sign him now before he gets to free agency, where his value will balloon like it will soon for Harper and Machado. It’s reasonable that Arenado gets a 10-year contract in terms of length, like Joey Votto got from the Reds, especially since it would take Arenado to age 35 and not age 40, like it did Votto. Arenado's AAV will have to be just north of what Yoenis Cespedes got ($27.5 million).

Price tag for extending him now: 10 years, $28 million AAV
Total Value: $280 million

RF Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
Age: 24 | Free Agent: After 2020

In my opinion, Betts is the second best position player in baseball right now, behind only Mike Trout of the Angels. Betts is the ultimate five-tool player, and there is nothing he can’t do on the baseball field. He’s an elite defender in right field. He can run, hit, hit for power, throw, bowl and even drive golf carts into ponds. He’s humble, a leader, a competitor and, like Trout, a GM’s dream player. If he were a free agent, he would be the guy breaking all previous contract records, not Harper or Machado.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, he’s not a free agent until after the 2020 season, which means they get to enjoy having him for at least the next four seasons. However, they would be foolish not to try to sign him as soon as possible -- like the Angels did with Trout, the Marlins did with Stanton or the Braves did with Freddie Freeman -- to save millions.

Remember, by signing him this far out, they’ll be able to get him for much less on the surface than both Harper and Machado, because the Red Sox will be paying for three “arbitration years” instead of just “free agent” years, like Harper and Machado are going to be signing for. Betts won’t want to get tied up until the age of 31, because he’ll want to set himself up for another big contract, so he’ll probably prefer to go shorter in term of length but be willing to give up two free-agent years for the guaranteed deal. So the reason his AAV is only $22 million is because 2017 to 2020 will cover one non-arbitration year and three arbitration years. I have his AAV for his free-agent years of this extension set at $35 million, the same as Harper and Machado above. With this deal, Betts goes back on the market at age 28 primed for a 10-year deal that by then could project for him as the first $500 million position player.

Price tag for extending him now: 7 years, $22 million AAV
Total Value: $154 million
Breaking the bank

MLB's largest-ever deals, by total contract value and average annual value (AAV).
Player Total value Player AAV
Giancarlo Stanton $325 million Zack Greinke $34.4 million
Alex Rodriguez $275 million Miguel Cabrera $31 million
Alex Rodriguez $252 million David Price $31 million
Miguel Cabrera $248 million Clayton Kershaw $30.7 million
Albert Pujols $240 million Max Scherzer $30 million
Robinson Cano $240 million Roger Clemens $28 million
Joey Votto $225 million Alex Rodriguez $27.5 million
David Price $217 million Yoenis Cespedes $27.5 million
Clayton Kershaw $215 million Jon Lester $25.8 million
Prince Fielder $214 million Justin Verlander $25.7 million
No urgency for the class of 2022, but prices go up early
Investing in young stars

For the 2022 class, some deals with comparable players under club control to keep in mind:

• 0+ years MLB service time: Evan Longoria, 15 years, $144.5 million.
• 1+ years: Christian Yelich, 7 years, $49.5 million; Andrelton Simmons, 7 years, $58 million; Starling Marte, 6 years, $31 million (8 years, $55 million with option years).
• 2+ years: Buster Posey, 8 years, $159 million; Mike Trout, 6 years, $144.5 million.
• 3+ years: Kyle Seager, 7 years, $100 million; Ryan Zimmerman, 11 years, $135 million.
• 4+ years: Giancarlo Stanton, 13 years, $325 million.

The 2022 free-agent class has a chance to be very special if this generation of stars makes it there. We’ll look at the top five projected players from the 2022 class; teams would be foolish not trying to extend almost all of them for eight- to 10-year deals now, before the 2018 class drastically changes the market. On the flip side, it would be really difficult for their agents to agree to long-term deals for any of them, unless they’re significantly above their present market value. Kris Bryant will separate himself from the shortstops that follow him because of his 40-plus home-run power and because he already has won an MVP award, so he immediately goes to the top of the market. All three of the shortstops have similar value. And if they signed seven- or eight-year deals now, one of those years would be non-arbitration eligible (where the teams pay them relatively little) and then three arbitration seasons -- the first of which would also be cheap -- and finally covering the first two or three years of free-agent eligibility. That’s why their overall dollars look so much lower in this exercise. None of this group belongs in the conversation with recent signings that included Christian Yelich of the Marlins and Andrelton Simmons of the Angels; they're all MVP-caliber talents.

3B Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Age: 25 | Free Agent: After 2021

Bryant has a chance to be the best right-handed power hitter of his generation. To sign the 2016 NL MVP long term, any offer now would have to surpass the $325 million deal Stanton got from the Marlins for him to even consider it. Expect the Cubs to go year by year with him, at least for the next couple of seasons.

What would it take for Bryant to say yes to an extension now? It would depend on upon the Cubs' intent. If they want to just buy out his arbitration years, then as long as that deal breaks records, it can be done, based on the recent track record of the Boras Corp. But if the Cubs wanted to get two of his free-agent years, it would be extremely unlikely Bryant would be willing to give them up this early. The bottom line is that it would either have to be a record-breaking deal that goes well beyond Stanton's or a deal that breaks records for each of his arbitration years.

Pushed to predict: 13 years, $350 million (beating Stanton's deal).

SS Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Age: 23 | Free Agent: After 2021

Lindor might join the 30-homer/30-steals club this season, and most think he’s the best all-around shortstop in the game. He has above-average range to all sides and a strong arm, and he can hit with power. He has the leadership qualities you look for and plays with energy and enthusiasm. The Indians were spoiled over the years by getting many of their top players to sign long-term deals for below-market value. Lindor will not be one of them. If the Indians want to extend him, they’ll have to pay his worth, because a “bad” player contract here would affect everyone else on the players’ side -- like Carlos Correa and Corey Seager -- and there is no way the union is going to let that happen. Although the clubs will point to the Yelich, Simmons and Starling Marte contracts, each of these shortstops will far surpass them. What would it take for Lindor to sign an extension now?

Ballpark: seven years, $116 million.

SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
Age: 22 | Free Agent: After 2021

The Dodgers have had the highest payroll in baseball over the past several years, and dipping into their deep pockets should continue. Along with Clayton Kershaw, Seager is expected to be the face of the franchise for years to come. Eventually, the Dodgers will sign Seager to a long-term mega deal, but there just isn’t any urgency as he develops into one of the game’s best players. It is likely that he’s the player who will set the market for this free-agent class, but he's also the most likely to sign a long-term deal sometime in the next couple of years. What would it take for Seager to sign an extension now?

Ballpark: eight years, $132 million.

SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Age: 22 | Free Agent: After 2021

Like Lindor and Seager, Correa will end up as the face of his team, as well as one for all of baseball. He loves the game, wants to give back and has all the intangibles you look for as a leader. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has a long history of signing young players to long-term contracts, usually below market value; but as with Lindor and the Indians, that’s not going to happen here. Correa is represented by Greg Genske from Legacy, and he’s going to make sure Correa is paid where he belongs -- near the top of his class. Don’t look for any long-term deal anytime soon. What would it take for Correa to sign an extension now?

Ballpark: seven years, $109 million.

RHP Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Age: 24 | Free Agent: After 2022

I would never sign a starting pitcher when he’s five years out from free agency. There is simply too much risk for shoulder or elbow injuries with all of them, no matter how special their talent. Going year to year with Thor and preparing for record-breaking arbitration decisions is the Mets’ best option, not only with Syndergaard, but with all of New York's young starters. It will be a decision reinforced by the experience the Mets have had over the past few years, with so many of their pitchers spending time on the disabled list.
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