Every team, no matter where they are in their competition cycle, always has one eye on the future. A playoff team looks to lengthen their competitive window. A team ready to make the leap looks to the culmination of their drafting, signing, and development. A cellar-dweller looks for growth in the minors and the potential stars that may exist there. Whether you believe the Orioles are in the second or third group doesn’t matter. The point is that every team, even those in win-now mode, always have the future somewhere in their mind.
One playoff team recently tried making moves towards securing their future, and the move/team combo should surprise no one.
The Rays have a long history with this type of deal. Every young star that has come through Tropicana Field has either gotten an early career extension or saw a number of their arbitration years bought out. For a budget-conscious team like Tampa Bay, this process is essential to keeping costs down and extracting maximum value from all aspects of their organization.
|Year||Player||Approx. Service Time||Contract|
|2005||Carl Crawford||1.012||4/$15.25M + 2 options|
|2008||James Shields||0.125||4/$11.25M + 3 options|
|2008||Evan Longoria||0.006||6/$17.5M + 3 options|
|2010||Ben Zobrist||3.160||3/$14.7M + 2 options|
|2011||Wade Davis||1.032||4/$12.6M + 3 options|
|2011||Matt Moore||0.017||5/$19M + 3 options|
|2014||Chris Archer||0.156||6/$25.5M + 2 options|
|2017||Kevin Kiermaier||2.131||6/$53.5M + 1 option|
|2019||Brandon Lowe||0.058||6/$24M + 2 options|
Wander Franco may be the best of all of these. Longoria, and Moore were both top-2 prospects in baseball. Snell was top-10, Davis, Crawford, Archer, and Lowe were top-100. Wander Franco not only was a #1 prospect, but a grade-80. His present/future grades by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen are 60/80 bat, 45/60 game power, 60/60 speed, 50/55 field. He’s something we haven’t seen before in recent prospect history.
That said, Franco’s graduated from the prospect ranks this year, leaving Orioles’ catcher Adley Rutschman. While he’s not in the same league as Franco as a prospect, that’s not an insult as, again, literally no one has been in this sort of air since probably A-Rod. But Rutschman is the most celebrated catching prospect possibly since Joe Mauer.
With a similarly elite player being considered for an extension, it seems reasonable to wonder what it would take to lock up Rutschman to a similarly long-term deal. But before we get to Rutschman, let’s look at a…
Other Recent/Relevant Early-Career Deals
While the Rays have consistently used pre-arbitration deals, the practice is very common amongst many teams. Two weeks apart in 2019, Atlanta extended both Ronald Acuna (8/$100M + 2 options) and Ozzie Albies (7/$35M + 2 options). The two had a combined two years of service time, but an All-Star appearance for Albies and a Rookie of the Year award for Acuna. Before Scott Kingery started a game in Citizen’s Bank Park, the Phillies signed him to a 6/$24M deal, the record for a player with no MLB experience. That deal broke Jon Singleton’s 5/$10M deal the Astros gave him in 2014, again with no MLB experience. These two deals would seem to imply that it would be more prudent for the Orioles to wait and let him prove himself for a year in the majors, but neither Singleton nor Kingery are anywhere close to Rutschman in terms of regard. Closer to Rutschman’s status was Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert; both of whom were 60-grade prospects who signed extensions prior to playing a major league game. Jiminez signed for 6/$43M plus two options, while Robert got 6/$50M plus two options.
Rutschman’s Past and Future
Which brings us to the man himself. The 2019 Draft came down to a question of Adley Rutschman versus Bobby Witt, Jr. While it looks like there was no loser in the choices (Witt is currently ranked the #2 prospect in baseball behind Rutschman), the Orioles can’t help but be thrilled with their choice.
Other than a brief downspell in a short 47 PAs at High-A in 2019, Rutschman has done nothing but hit in the minors. 2021 saw him put up a 145 wRC+ in 358 PAs at Bowie, only to follow it up with a 142 wRC+ in 185 PAs at Norfolk. Across both levels, he showed impressive plate discipline (14.5% BB% and 0.88 BB/K) and a decent amount of pop (.217 ISO). Even better, he showed good defensive instincts and proved adept at handling a pitching staff.
He should’ve been in Baltimore in June. There was foolish hope he’d make a cameo in September. If there is justice (Or if justice can be negotiated in the CBA during the next week), he will be behind the plate of Orioles Park at Camden Yards on March 31st when the Orioles open the 2022 season against the Blue Jays. But…realistically he’s more likely to start out in Norfolk (To work on his…I don’t know…coverage of outside fastballs on the afternoon of the second Tuesday of the month when Mars is in prograde) and then debut in late May or early June.
Even factoring in the late start, he’s expected to be one of the best catchers in the game next year. The Steamer projection system has him chalked up for 2.7 fWAR in 398 PAs, good for fifth in baseball. From an offensive point of view, Steamer has him with a slash like of .260/.338/.448 that becomes a 113 wRC+, tied with Salvador Perez for third-best in baseball, behind Yasmani Grandal and Will Smith.
The further future is equally bright. In their 2021 Trade Value series, FanGraphs placed Adley Rutschman 24th, but more importantly included the 5-year ZiPS projections. In those 5 years, from 2022-2026, Rutschman is projected for a total of 16.4 WAR—in yearly order: 2.9, 3.3, 3.4, 3.4, 3.3—an impressive total to begin a career, particularly when you account for the fact that projections tend to be a little conservative by their nature.
Valuing a Prospect
The most difficult part of putting together an extension for Rutschman is the question of how do you value a player, particularly one with such little experience. FanGraphs assigns a dollar amount to each prospect future value grade between 35 and 70 for pitchers and position players separately. Under this scenario, as a 70-grade catcher, Rutschman is worth $112 million to the team in surplus value. For references sake, Wander Franco is worth $180 million surplus as an 80-grade shortstop. By the time you account for what Rutschman would make in pre-arb and arbitration over the time span, you’d be looking at a fair contract of around $135 million.
FanGraphs methodology is based on the dollar value per fWAR, averaged across all prospects of a certain grade. You could argue we should look at his value over his team control years times an appropriate dollar per win multiplier. Looking at the ZiPS projections, Rutschman’s 20 fWAR times $8M/fWAR yields a fair contract of $160 million.
But teams don’t offer fully fair contracts, particularly for pre-debut players. And there’s additional non-monetary benefits that can be included. With that in mind, let’s look at a few potential contracts.
Option 1: Buy out the pre-FA years
This would be the most disappointing deal in a sense. The Orioles gain no additional years, even if they give cost-certainty. Even though the his 20 fWAR potentially represent his entire pre-free agency service, the Orioles aren’t paying Rutschman $160 million or $135 million. If he went through the pre-arb salaries and arbitration process, Rutschman could probably expect $50-60 million at best—minimum for years 1 and 2, $4-6M for year 3, $9-11M for year 4, $15-18M for year 5, and $20-25M for year 6. But there is risk for Rutschman. Catcher is a tough, demanding position; Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk called it the Dorian Gray position. It would only take a small thing for Rutschman to fall well short of those production and salary numbers.
If the Orioles decided to buy out Rutschman’s pre-free agency service with no intention to adding on options or buying out some free agency, Luis Robert’s extension could be instructive. Even though they did retain options, the White Sox bought out Robert’s first six years for $50 million.
Now, Robert was a 60-grade prospect while Rutschman is 70-grade. Chicago got two club options included, but that honestly nearly evens out the difference in prospect grades. With this in mind, the Orioles would probably be looking at 6/$52M to merely get Rutschman to free agency.
|Total (6 years)||$52 million|
Option 2: Buy out pre-FA plus options
The calculus changes when you start buying out free agency years. This is where teams hope to save major money, and they pay for it earlier. Rutschman’s pre-free agency years would cost more than the 6/$52 million proposed above, but the free agency years come at potentially a major discount.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Orioles try to tack on three options to Rutschman’s contract. A fully free agent Rutschman who performs as projected and continues to play catcher would likely be worth a minimum of $30M AAV over 3 years. The Orioles would likely want to get this down to around $22M AAV on these options, and this saving of ~$25M would probably cost around $15 million spread across Rutschman’s pre-free agency years plus butouts. In some ways, this contract mirrors Ronald Acuna’s deal, who signed for 8/$100M, plus a couple of options. Rutschman is a little more highly-regarded than Acuna as a prospect (65 FV at FanGraphs) and there are three years of inflation to account for, but Acuna was already a Rookie of the Year winner at the time of the extension. That said, I would guess this contract would cost the Orioles 6/$70M guaranteed with the potential to grow to 9/$126M if all three options were picked up.
|Potential Buyout||$10 million|
|2028 (Option)||$22 million|
|2029 (Option)||$22 million|
|2030 (Option)||$22 million|
|Total (6 years /|
6 + 3 options)
Option 3: The Tatis-style Megadeal
Then, there’s the mega deal. The deal that staggers the mind. This February, the Padres signed Fernando Tatis Jr., their former 65-grade prospect turned star shortstop with two years of service time, to a 14-year, $340 million contract. The deal is truly staggering to this about; it buys out Tatis’ four arbitration years for $27 million and follows it with 10 years of free agency worth $313 million.
Conceiving a similar deal for Rutschman is difficult for many reasons. For one, it’s almost hard to conceive of the Orioles giving such a deal to anyone, particularly after the Chris Davis deal. Secondly, these types of deals are rare for any team, which makes finding comparables difficult. Finally, Rutschman is a catcher, which brings all the aging curve difficulties. The best catcher of this generation in Buster Posey just retired, without having even played 14 seasons. But let’s dream on a healthy and productive Rutschman who the Orioles sign to a 12-year deal right out the gate, taking him through his age-36 season.
Again, this deal would buy out all Rutschman’s pre-free agency years plus six years of free agency. Because of the risk catchers present, particularly in those final three years of the deal, Rutschman’s AAV over a six-year free agency deal is probably around $27 million (Conceivably $30 million in the first three years, $24 million over the second three). The Orioles still want this AAV to be closer to $22 million, for a savings of approximately $30 million. These savings likely would require paying out $15-20 million extra in the pre-arb years, with no buyouts likely given the length of the deal. All said, this comes to $12/200M, which would be a record for the Orioles, a record for a player with no MLB service, a record for a player with one or fewer years of service, and one of the twenty richest contracts in baseball by total value. It’s lower by far than Tatis by nearly $90 million if they were both the same length deals, but Tatis has a number of advantages. Tatis had two years of performance prior to his deal, will debut three years younger than Rutschman, and lacks the precipitous decline that catchers potentially face. All this is probably worth at least $90 million, even if Tatis comes with questions of his own.
|Total (12 years)||$200 million|
Hope For the Future
Will the Orioles set records this offseason? Probably not. It’s much more likely that Rutschman comes up in May, accrues just a little under one year of service time, and then the question of extensions may be opened in earnest. With a good first year, he absolutely could set records, assuming Wander Franco doesn’t beat him to it, and he’d likely be well worth it. Of course the great unknown in all this is the CBA negotiations, which could entirely change baseball’s financial system. We just don’t know where it all will go.
Regardless of what he makes or where he starts the year, Rutschman stands likely to be a fixture for years to come. He should be the foundation of the next Oriole playoff team, a prospect like the team hasn’t seen since Manny Machado. Hopefully the powers that be recognize this, and succeed with Rutschman where they fell short with Machado.
Dr. Stephen Loftus received his Ph.D. in Statistics from Virginia Tech in 2015 and is an Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Randolph-Macon College. Prior to that, he worked as an Analyst in Baseball Research and Development for the Tampa Bay Rays, focusing on the Amateur Draft. He formerly wrote at FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. As a lifelong fan of the Orioles, he fondly remembers the playoff teams of 1996-97 and prefers to forget constantly impending doom of Jorge Julio, Albert Belle’s contract, and most years between 1998 and 2011.