Inspired by Steve Adams‘ MLBTR chat on 11/18/14, I thought this was a fascinating topic. What players have the best value contracts in the game right now?
For several years, the answer here was Evan Longoria, who signed a 6yr/$17.5M contract in 2008 and promptly put up three straight seasons north of 7.0 bWAR. We’re into the option years on that original deal, which are still pretty affordable, and Longoria did get a 9-figure extension, so he’s not entirely in this discussion any longer. Call him the “godfather” of ridiculously good value contracts.
Using the obvious websites (baseball-reference.com and Cots’ salary database now at BaseballProspectus.com), lets take a look at some candidates. Note; I refer to a “valuation” of $6M per win above replacement as a way to “value” production. There are some known limitations to equating salary to this figure, and there are others who estimate it even higher, but $6M per is still a decent estimate to use as a quick estimate of a player’s “monetary” production on the field.
Note: we are NOT including the litany of pre-arb players who are putting up huge seasons. This is mostly trying to focus on those players who have signed for affordable contracts but who are delivering huge value. Thus players like Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon, Kyle Seager, Corey Kluber and Starling Marte are not included here.
Candidate contracts: I’ve arranged these in my opinion of the order of value:
- Sal Perez: 5 years/$7M (2012-16), plus 2017-19 club options worth just a *combined* $14.75M. This for a guy who has made the all-star team and won the catcher Gold Glove two years running. Wow.
- Chris Sale: 5 years/$32.5M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options of $12.5M and $13.5M. This for a guy who led the AL this year in ERA+ and has received significant Cy Young votes 3 years running. His bWAR in the last three seasons: 5.9, 6.9 and 6.6. That’s crazy.
- Jose Altuve: 4 years/$12.5M (2014-17), plus 2018-19 options at $6M and $6.5M. Two-time all-star, led the AL in both hits and batting average in 2014. Just put up a 6.6 bWAR season … and the Astros got it for just $1.25M in salary.
- Jonathan Lucroy: 5 years/$11M (2012-16), plus 2017 option at $5.25M. this late bloomer signed an incredibly affordable deal, then had a break out 2014 season where he posted a 6.7 bWAR, made the All-Star team, finished 4th in the MVP voting and should have won the gold glove as the best framing catcher in the game. His total salary for the remaining three years of his contract is just $12.25M.
- Madison Bumgarner. Current contract: 5 years/$35M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options at $12M each. Bumgarner was 4th in Cy Young voting this year with a 4 bWAR season but (as we all know) dominated the playoffs, single-handedly handing the Giants their 3rd World Series title in the last 5 seasons. A 4-war season is worth at least $24M on the open market these days, but he earned just $3.75M this year. His options can vest and increase with certain achievements, but even at their max $16M value he’s still a massive bargain.
- Yasiel Puig: 7 years/$42M (2012-18). Everyone thought the Dodgers were crazy to commit $42M to an unknown; now it looks like a massive bargain. For $2M salaries the last two years he’s put up 4.9 and 5.4 bWAR seasons.
- Julio Teheran: 6 years/$32.4M (2014-19). This contract gets expensive later, but in 2014 he was paid just $800k to put up a 4.0 win season. If Teheran continues to be the #2 pitcher he showed this year, the Braves have great value on their hands.
- Jose Quintana: 5 years/$21M (2014-18). Thanks to the crummy team he toils for, Quintana’s exploits have gone unnoticed. But he’s now got a career 117 ERA+ and has reached 200 innings both of the last two seasons and is signed for a song going forward. Its no wonder analysts scoff when his name is mentioned in trade talks.
- Michael Brantley: 4 years/$25M (2014-17), plus 2018 option of $11M). This is preliminary, but based on his 7 bWAR season in 2014 (for just a $1.5M salary), this could be a huge bargain. Is he a flash in the 2014 pan or is he for real? If he’s for real, the Indians have a fantastic value going forward.
- Ben Zobrist: 4 years/$18M (2010-13), plus 2014-15 options of $7 and $7.5M. This was the poster child for years of affordable contracts (once Evan Longoria got his extension). He’s averaged 4.75 bWAR over the past four seasons while playing six or seven different positions for the Rays. Even in the final 2015 season at $7.5M, he’s projecting at 4 bWAR, still a significant under-value. Keith Law calls him “the best contract value” in MLB history; maybe he should be higher on this list.
- Mike Trout: 6 years/$144.5M (2015-20). No, a $33.25M salary in 2020 isn’t really a bargain, but the Angels are still getting the best player in baseball for $1M in 2014 and $5.25M in 2015. Even if Trout declines to “just” a 6 bWAR player for the next 6 years … the Angels are still coming out ahead on the $6M/WAR evaluation technique.
- John Lackey: 1yr/mlb minimum (2015). He had a quirk in his previous contract that vested a MLB-minimum year thanks to an injury a couple years ago, so the Cardinals get the benefit of a veteran innings-eating 100 ERA+ starter at the league minimum. Nothing to sneeze at, even if its just a one year contract. On the open market you have to think he’s worth $8-$10M/season.
- Steve Pearce: 1 year/$850k (2014). This isn’t really a true candidate like the other players here, but Pearce’s story is worth noting. He was DFA’d and *released* in April and re-signed a couple days later, but still posted a 6 bWAR season for Baltimore this year. He’s arbitration eligible for 2015 but how far could his salary really rise after an 850k salary?
- Jonathan Singleton: 5yrs/$10M plus 3 club options. He may not profile as being worth this contract now … but if he lives up anywhere close to expectations, those later option years at $2-$2.5M are going to look pretty darn good. No wonder the players union howled when he signed this deal.
- Adam Jones: 4yrs/$62M is nothing to shake a stick at, even if his “gold glove” defense is rather suspect.
- Edwin Encarnacion: 3 years/$29M (2013-15), plus 2016 club option of $10M. Yeah that’s a pretty good deal.
- Jose Bautista: 5 years/$65M (2011-15), plus 2016 option of $14M. $14M for a guy who probably would have gotten 33% more had he been a FA two years ago.
How about the same analysis for the Nats? The clear best value players on the team are Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister delivered pretty good WAR/pay value. Denard Span just gave us a 3.6 bWAR season for $6.5M in salary; a pretty good deal. But none of these contracts really contend with the above list.
Did I miss anyone obvious? Do you agree with my rankings above?