Yesterday, the Tampa Bay Rays announced to the world that they yet again got out their butterfly net. Yes, the one with the Inspector Gadget-esque super extender grabber arm, and ensnared one of the more beautiful creatures in the game of baseball. Rare is the player that can credibly claim to have post a five-WAR season, but Kevin Kiermaier did that very thing in 2015. This came on the heels of an exciting rookie season the year prior, and he made a strong attempt to replicate that level of excellence this past season despite a poorly timed wrist injury in the heart of the season.
While it is uncommon to see a player explore such rarified air it is even more unlikely to see that player not roll the dice on a potential massive free agent deal in the near future. Many have such unbelievable faith in their otherworldly talent that they’re more than happy to bide their time through the six-meal course known as club control before getting to that delicious dessert called free agency. Sure, there is some risk related to injury or weaknesses getting exposed or simply maxing out their skill set well shy of All Star status, but that is the kind of stuff that happens to other people. It is true that you cannot see what is coming, and that is most true for Major League ballplayers who possess all the confidence of a drunken 20-something trying cocaine for the first time.
The thing about talent, though, is that it can be so fleeting. When everything is going well, and feeling right, it can all seem so easy. There are a lot of days like that when you’re younger, but as you get closer to the dessert cart there are more days when your shoulder hurts or your elbow stings or your knee swelling just won’t go down or that ball you fouled off your foot a week ago still hasn’t stopped barking. Pride is one reason not to mention these things, but nobody wants to pay real money for a guy that complains about being hurt so you don’t say anything. It snowballs from there. The closer you get to the pot of money the more you wish you had taken the guarantee.
The Rays are no stranger to extending their young stars. In fact, players that don’t sign on the line have little chance of ever exchanging the powder blues for the question mark-riddled free agent uniform required for all electees. Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, James Shields, Evan Longoria, Scott Kazmir, Wade Davis, Matt Moore, Chris Archer have all been recipients of extensions that guarantee money in arbitration in exchange for discounted prices on free agent years. Often, team options are involved that give the team even more leverage. One interesting thing is Crawford is the only one that made it to free agency with every other player either still with the team (Archer, Longoria) or traded before the expiration of the contract in order to bring in potentially useful players for the next wave. Baldelli is the only guy that completely fell apart before the deal ended, but it is hard to fault the team for not recognizing a guy with an incredibly rare mitochondrial disorder.
All of those players traded some salary ceiling for certainty. It bears mentioning that the player isn’t the sole party assuming risk here. If the player gets hurt or falls off a performance cliff midway through the deal the team can no longer dismiss the player for no cost via the non-tender, but the increased value provided by the deal can also be enticing on the trade market as a team is more likely to take a risk on a player with some limited salary ceiling. This occurred when Wade Davis proved he could not start games or when Scott Kazmir looked like he was heading towards the precipice. Finding the break-even that keeps both the player and the team happy is the key here, and it looks like the Rays have done it again:
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The Rays have bought out Kiermaier’s four arbitration years for $27.5M, but also purchased his first two years of free agency and have an option for a third. All told, Kiermaier has a chance at $64M with the Rays for up to the next seven years. You would be right to think that is more than fair to the team. I’ve got a surplus value of around $116M for the life of the contract. The thing is, the team was already in line to get a ton of that value via the arbitration process:
Thanks to the collectively bargained way that younger players get paid the team was already looking at something like $84M in surplus without having to extend. Yes, that would involve potentially messy arbitration processes that could leave a sour taste one way or another, but that is the cost of doing business. The thing is, knowing how the Rays operate it would have been exceedingly unlikely that Kiermaier would have played all four years with the Rays. With no hope for an extension Rays fans might have only gotten two to three more years of enjoying the talented center fielder.
With the extension in tow you can guarantee that Kiermaier will be playing in St. Pete for another five to six years, at a minimum, and maybe even the full seven years depending how Kiermaier ages. So the team gets around $32M in surplus on top of what they were realistically looking at, the fans get to look forward to years and years of web gems, and Kiermaier gets the financial security to go buy his pretty fiancé a big ring and a bigger house to match.
While the money gets discounted the same over the years in my model there is one input that can swing the surplus various ways. Maybe you think I’m full of it and way off in evaluating Kiermaier’s present ability and future contributions, which are based on a simple Marcel:
Instead of using my projection of nearly four WAR this year let’s see what some projection systems think:
Pecota is higher than me, Zips and Steamer thinking he will produce 5.3 WAR this year and after discounting you’re looking at around 26 WAR. Zips was on the lower end at exactly my 3.9 WAR figure, and Steamer is a little higher at 4.4 for this year.
Summing up the particulars you can see that the Rays are looking at around $2.0 – 2.5M per win above replacement over the life of the deal. He should provide something like 20+ WAR, discounted for the fact that future wins mean less, and he’s looking at providing between double and triple what he will be paid in surplus value.
Kevin Kiermaier was always going to be a cheap and productive asset for the team over the next few years, but now the Rays can count on getting even more years at good value. Assuming he ages normally, and as an athletic guy on the long side of the platoon I don’t know why you wouldn’t, the Rays will have three true superstars locked up for at least the next five years. The Rays have long made it clear that if you’re willing to play ball they would love to keep you around, and if you don’t then they’ll find a way to extend your shelf life via trade. Kevin Kiermaier just agreed to a life-defining deal, and it looks like everyone affiliated with the team stands to benefit.