Consider the case of Player A and Player B. Player A debuted at 21 years, 230 days. Player B debuted at 21 years, 265 days. As a rookie, Player A slashed .288/.370/.396. As a rookie, Player B slashed .291/.368/.444. In Years 2, 3 and 4, Player A’s OPS+: 123. In Years 2, 3 and 4, Player B’s OPS+: 120. Player A’s fifth season was more of the same, while Player B won an MVP award. Player B’s sixth season was quite excellent, whereas Player A won an MVP in his.
Player A is going to make around $240 million by the time he turns 37.
Player B is going to make well over $400 million by the time he turns 37.
Player A is Christian Yelich. Player B is Mookie Betts. Either is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question: Who is the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout? And yet over the same period of time, Betts is slated to reap the GDP of a small country more than Yelich.
Baseball economics are a fascinating thing, and the decisions made early in a career can not only have a profound effect on individual earning power going forward but filter down to the next generation of players.
At the end of the week, when Yelich’s new megadeal with the Milwaukee Brewers is expected to be finalized, the star outfielder will guarantee himself around $215 million over the next nine years. Tack that onto the $23 million or so Yelich has earned in the first seven seasons of his career and he will make upward of a quarter-billion dollars by the time his new deal runs out.
Criticizing anyone for choosing generational wealth, and doing so in a place with people who clearly are dear to that person’s heart, would be gauche. Yelich had his reasons for agreeing to this deal with the Brewers. Whatever the reasons, they are valid, and no criticism from the outside can invalidate them.
At the same time, baseball contracts do not exist in a vacuum. Deals affect other deals, particularly at the top ends of markets, where players of Yelich’s caliber are the ones expected by the Major League Baseball Players Association to set new standards. Yelich’s case is instructive, and not just in that the new money in his deal slots in well below market value. It’s more about how one team-friendly deal signed years earlier can beget another — and cause a player to leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.
During spring training five years ago, a 23-year-old Yelich, coming off his second full season with the Miami Marlins, agreed to a seven-year contract extension that guaranteed him $49.57 million. Instead of reaching free agency as a 28-year-old following the 2019 season, Yelich would be locked into his deal through 2022, when he would turn 31. He exchanged upside for security.
This is a tradeoff plenty in baseball make. Pre-arbitration contract extensions, a favorite of teams because the potential for surplus value is enormous while the opportunity for catastrophe is minimal, prey on players ready to strike that deal. There is no greater coup for a team than to have a superstar on a contract signed just two years into his career, and the Brewers reaped that when they traded for Yelich before the 2018 season and he won the National League MVP award earning just $7 million.
Best of all, the Brewers had him under contract for four more seasons, and when Yelich was even better in 2019 while making $9.75 million, they recognized this as the moment to compound one below-market deal with another.
Yelich was compromised. He was coming off two unimaginably good years. He wasn’t going to be a free agent until 31. This was not an unreasonable time to pursue an extension, especially with teams more hesitant to spend on free agents in their 30s. But what incentive did the Brewers have to pay market value? They had Yelich for three more years already, and at $41.5 million, no less. What was the impetus to overpay for what presumably would be less productive years as he extended into his 30s?
Well, how about keeping Christian Yelich, arguably the second-best player in baseball, inarguably one of the top five — and keeping him happy? If it took essentially paying $175 million or so for his ages 31-36 seasons to ensure that he’d spend the remainder of his best years in a market like Milwaukee, where it’s so difficult to keep stars, that’s a price the Brewers pay every single day.
This could have gone differently, and though that barges into the suppositional, there happens to be a case about as similar to Yelich’s as one can get — and one who took the opposite road: Betts, the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Betts rejected all extension overtures from his former team, the Boston Red Sox. Not only did he want to test the full capacity of the market to compensate him, he holds dear the aforementioned standard-setting principle for the union. Betts’ pre-free agency earning power was bolstered by a victory in his first arbitration year — $10.5 million over the $7.5 million Boston offered. His MVP year bumped his second-year arbitration salary to $20 million, and this season, before his foray into free agency, Betts will pocket $27 million.
Yelich’s arbitration years wouldn’t have been nearly as lucrative. According to two people well-versed in the system, had Yelich not signed his extension, his arbitration salaries would have been more like $4 million, $8 million and $18 million. More important, he would have hit free agency coming off a 2019 season in which he hit .329/.429/.671.
Imagine that: an 1.100-OPSing, marketable-as-hell 28-year-old coming off what would’ve been back-to-back MVP seasons if not for a freak injury at the end of 2019. If Anthony Rendon, nearly two years older than Yelich, is getting seven years and $245 million, then Yelich is getting at least 10 years and at least $350 million.
All of this is hypothetical, yes, and perhaps the security of the first deal allowed Yelich to flourish, sure, and maybe he never turns into an MVP with a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame by taking a different path. But talent is talent, and the notion that Yelich needed something like money to find his best self strains credulity.
Which brings us back to Betts. Consider the range of outcomes for his 2020 season. In his worst full season, he put up 5.9 wins above replacement. His best: 10.9 WAR. The average over the past five years: 7.9 WAR. If Betts is even average, he is an MVP candidate, and if he is an MVP candidate, he will laugh at those 10 years and $350 million and rightly push and possibly exceed $400 million. Which is probably what Yelich would’ve done too, actually.
Point is, Mookie Betts, who didn’t take a bite of the apple on the extension tree, has made nearly $60 million and may well go into 2021 with another $400 million-plus — or $200 million-plus more than his practical equal, Christian Yelich.
Again: This is not an indictment on Yelich. He chose what he chose, and as the players’ association likes to remind — through gritted teeth, but still — it exists so players have that choice. This is simply a reminder to other players. The apple looks tasty, and those tempted to take that nibble ought to ensure it’s for the right reasons. Teams are always looking for the next great deal, knowing that it has a chance to turn into another just as good.