Why a Mike Trout contract extension would be a good sign for Bryce Harper and the Nationals


There is strong speculation Mike Trout will soon agree to a contract extension with the Angels.

For Nationals fans who want to see Bryce Harper in a Nationals uniform for as long as possible, isn’t just good news. This is great news.

I’ll explain.

To understand the Mike Trout contract situation and why it matters for Bryce Harper, you have to understand baseball’s bizarre rules about service time, arbitration, and free agency. If you already understand these rules, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

With a few exceptions I won’t get discuss here, baseball players are generally under “team control” for six years after they become a major league baseball player–three “pre arbitration” years and three arbitration years. After the sixth season of “club-control” the player becomes a free agent for the first time. For players who achieve stardom early in their careers, this is usually the best opportunity for a massive payday. Robinson Cano finished his sixth season of club-control with the Yankees last season, and promptly signed a 10-year $240 million contract.

A baseball player’s prime years–for a hitter anyway–are between ages 26 and 32. This is the age range teams most want a player’s services and the ages at which a player can expect to receive his the biggest salaries. Of course, the pre-arbitration and arbitration rules are the same no matter when a player makes his major debut. Therefore, players like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper–who each made their MLB debut at age 19–can expect to hit free agency for the first time at the beginning of their “prime” years. Less fortunate players who take longer to develop in the minors, like the Nationals’ own Ian Desmond, hit free agency at the end of their prime (Desmond will become a free agent for the first time at age 30). As a general rule, the later a player hits free agency, the less total money he will receive over his career.

Alex Rodriguez was one of the youngest superstars to ever hit free agency. As a consequence, he’s earned more money than any player in baseball history, over $350 million to date.

The downside to hitting free agency so early, though, is a player would be likely to only see one big free agent contract. If he hits free agency at age 26 and signs a ten-year contract (the longest MLB contract ever given), he won’t be a free agent again until age 36, well past his prime. At age 36, a player cannot reasonably expect anything longer than a 2 or 3 year deal, at a rate well below what he would have been paid in his prime (look at Carlos Beltran’s 3-year contract with the Yankees this offseason).

Therefore, even in his best case scenario, a young superstar hitting free agency at age 26 will earn 10 years’ worth of “prime” money (his first free agent contract) and then 2-3 years of “post-prime” money (his second contract at age 36).

But let’s look at players who hit free agency later in their careers. Robinson Cano hit free agency at 31 and then signed a 10-year contract (all years at “prime” money). Albert Pujols also hit free agency at 31 and also signed a 10 year deal, also with “prime” money. Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract at age 32 and he, too, signed a 10-year contract at “prime” money. The record demonstrates that teams will pay a player through the age of 40 at prime money if the contract begins while a player is still in his prime.

What does this mean for Harper and Trout? They are better off hitting free agency at age 29 or 30 than they are age 26. Mike Trout is wisely discussing a contract to buy out his first few years of free agency (at prime money), putting him in line to get a 10-year mega deal at age 29 or 30, which is the best time to sign a 10-year mega-deal.

If Bryce Harper follows Mike Trout’s lead and signs a Trout-like extension next year, is this good for Nationals fans? Absolutely.

Bryce Harper is not going to spend his entire career in Washington. The game has changed. Cardinals fans were convinced Albert Pujols would never leave St. Louis. Same with Robinson Cano and the Yankees. When Harper finally hits free agency, some team will be dumb enough to pay him like a superstar until he’s well past his prime. The farther that day is in the future, the better for the Nats.

So here’s betting Harper decides to stick around DC for a few more years before hitting free agency. If that thought doesn’t make you feel better, let me ask you this: would you rather have the first half or last half of a superstar’s career? The story of Albert Pujols and Cardinals should answer that question.


Why the Jose Lobaton Nathan Karns trade happened

The Nationals swapped a MLB-ready prospect for catcher Jose Lobaton and a pair of 22 year-old High A players

Even before the details of the Jose Lobaton-Nathan Karns trade were made public, I declared that the trade “made sense”.  My reasoning was simple: the Nats needed a backup catcher and there was no room for Nathan Karns on the 2014 roster.  At the time, I assumed the Rays would be sending the Nats a lesser prospect or two to bridge the value gap between a MLB-ready starting pitching prospect and a backup catcher.

Now that we know the names of the two prospects sent to the Nationals by the Rays–LHP Felipe Rivero and OF Drew Vettleson–this trade makes even more sense.

Here’s why:

1) Tampa needs Nathan Karns more than the Nationals do. Karns made his major league debut last season, meaning his MLB service clock has already started to run.  This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, except the Nationals have nowhere to put him (unless the Nats want to go with a 8-man rotation). With all of the Nationals current starting pitchers under contract again next season, Karns’s most valuable seasons would have been wasted.

Tampa, by contrast, will likely need Karns in the rotation this season (especially since Jeremy Hellickson is having health issues again). The Rays are known for producing quality players from their farm system, but their talent pipeline has temporarily dried up. Their system was recently ranked 23 out of 30 teams by ESPN. Moreover, among their top prospects, only Jake Odorizzi is ready for MLB action–most of their young pitchers are years away.  Because of their low payroll, the Rays can’t sign a Dan Haren or Edwin Jackson like the Nats did in 2013 and 2012, respectively. If there’s a hole in their rotation, the Rays have to plug someone in from the minor leagues. If no one is available, they have to trade for one. Enter Karns.

2. The Nationals need Rivero and Vettleson more than the Rays do. Rivero and Vettleson are both 22 year-olds who finished the 2013 season in high A. Even on the most optimistic timetable, they are 2, maybe 3, years away from being ready for the majors. This fits the Nationals timeline perfectly. The Nationals roster will see heavy turnover in the next 2-3 seasons as the following players hit free agency: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, and Rafael Soriano. The Nats will soon need to restock the pantry. They’re better off with prospects a little further away from the major leagues.

Tampa, on the other hand, is loaded with lower level prospects. Yes, Tampa loses a 2010 first round pick in Vettleson, but keep in mind Tampa had 3 first round picks that year. And a year later, in the 2011 draft, they had 10 first round picks. That’s not a typo. Through a fluke in the old draft pick compensatory system, the Rays 2010 and 2011 draft classes are like a large rat being digested in the belly of a snake. Of course, a glut of prospects is always a good thing, but if a few aren’t moved somewhere else, there’s always a chance of eventually losing some to the Rule 5 draft or creating a backlog awaiting entry onto the MLB roster (not unlike Karns’s situation this year with the Nationals). If the Rays need a MLB-ready player now, they are smart to trade from an organizational strength.

Jose Lobaton headlined this trade. But even without him, it makes sense for both teams.

You’re not excited about the Nathan Karns for Jose Lobaton trade, but it makes sense

Jose Lobaton

It looks like the final piece is in place for the 2014 Nationals. Mike Rizzo looked all offseason for a suitable backup catcher to Wilson Ramos and came up empty. Now on the eve of Spring Training, he finally found one.

The Nationals send pitcher Nathan Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays for catcher Jose Lobaton and reportedly two minor leaguers.

It’s hard to get excited about this trade. It’s doubtful MLB.com will start printing up Lobaton jerseys this afternoon. But this trade is necessary and it makes sense for a few reasons.

1) The Nationals need a backup catcher. Kurt Suzuki was a fan favorite, but his lack of production last year murdered the 2013 Nationals season. He and Danny Espinosa were the two biggest reasons a consensus preseason World Series favorite only won 86 games.  The numbers aren’t pretty, but they are worth reviewing. Suzuki, in 281 plate appearances, only got on base 79 times for a .283 clip, and that’s including six intentional walks since he often batted in front of the pitcher. Once Suzuki was mercifully sent back to Oakland, Jhonatan Solano was even worse, getting on base only 9 times in 48 plate appearances. The Nationals simply didn’t have a viable backup heading into the season.

2) Wilson Ramos is still a risk. Ramos missed all but 25 games in 2012 and played in only 78 games last season. There’s a good chance the Nationals backup catcher will simply be the catcher some point soon. Until Wilson Ramos shows some ability to play a full season, a backup catcher is not a luxury for the Nats. It’s a necessity.

3) Nathan Karns had nowhere to go. The Nationals have abundance of pitchers this season. Three viable options–Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordon, and Ross Detwiler–will be battling for the fifth starter spot. Karns would likely have spent the entire 2014 season in the bullpen or AAA.  For a 26 year old pitcher who has already made his major league debut, this is a poor allocation of team resources.  The Nationals are better off flipping Karns for someone who can help now.  The Nationals are also better off having younger pitchers further away from the majors, who will arrive when the Nationals actually need them–for instance when Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister leave via free agency two years from now.

4) Jose Lobaton is better than you think. Do you know what Jose Lobaton did last year? He got on base, at least more often than Kurt Suzuki or Jhonathan Solano did. Lobaton had a .320 OBP in 311 PAs. He also had decent power with 7 home runs. No, these are not all-star numbers. But there are no all-stars available right now. Jose Lobaton is available, and he’s a guy that won’t embarrass your home town team when filling in on Sunday afternoon.

Lets Compare Freeman to Zimmerman Battle of the FOF

The Braves stepped up and anointed their new face of the franchise Freddie Freeman when they signed him to an eight year contract through the year 2021.  As Nats fans this means we will be seeing a lot of this mug for then next decade.

For the sake of off-season hijinks lets compare the the Nationals traditional Face of the Franchise Ryan Zimmerman to Mr. Freeman (I say traditional, because it is very quite possible that Bryce has supplanted Zim due to national exposure)

There are some similarities between the two players.  They both broke into the league at the same age, and both play corner infield positions.  Where they differ is in their all around game.  Zim is above average in all aspects of the game according to WAR above league average in running, fielding, and obviously hitting and playing a premium position at 3rd.  Freeman, on the other hand is below league average in running, fielding and plays the least challenging position on the field.

As an aside, the Freeman contract is generally reported incorrectly as a 8 year 135 M cont with an AAV of 16.5 M.  It is actually a 5 year contract because the team already had him under contract for the next 3 years.  It was projected that Freeman would probably (based on arbitration tables) get about 28M over the next 3 years, so the contract works out to 107M over 5 or 21.5 million annual average for his free agent years.

Back to comparing FoFs.  Lets compare both players first 3 years in the league.  Both were called up in September before their rookie year, so I included that data also.  To put perspective in the players performance I also added the current 2014 WAR dollar value 5.45M.

Freeman Zimmerman
WAR Value WAR Value
Sep -0.2 -$1.09 0.7 $3.82
Year 1 0.7 $3.82 3.9 $21.26
Year 2 1.8 $9.81 4.9 $26.71
Year 3 4.8 $26.16 2 $10.90
 Total 7.1 $38.70 11.50 $62.68

Even with Zimmerman missing 1/3 the season due to injury his year three, it is very clear that Freeman is no Ryan Zimmerman.  In case you wondered Zim in year 4 and 5 put up back to back 6.8 WAR 37M dollar seasons.  Your move Freeman.