Rosenthal: Julio Rodríguez’s complex contract with Mariners offers different path for young stars

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Less than five months into his major league career, Rodríguez, 21, has already secured enough money to keep his family comfortable for generations. He will likely spend his entire career in Seattle, an outcome that most fans will consider good for baseball. Still, some player representatives believe that Rodríguez, like so many other youngsters who sign extras before the arbitration, was selling himself short.

The average fan will find such talk ridiculous, and rightly so. The $209.3 million is Rodríguez’ worst case scenario, which he will only end up with if his career definitely goes off track. The Mariners are more likely to exercise a club option of at least eight years after 2028, with a guarantee of at least $320 million over 16 years and likely more because of escalators in his contract based on MVP finishes.

No fan would want to see a player change too short, not when the owners are much richer and stay in the game much longer. But Rodríguez’s contract, like Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year $340 million deal with the Padres, deviates from the typical club-friendly, pre-arbitration deals that the players’ side finds so disgusting. In fact, the contract structure, as negotiated by Rodríguez’ agent, Ulises Cabrera of Octagon, represents a new paradigm for young players, one that could help them negotiate more attractive deals in the future.

How could a player’s representative ever object, especially when almost every 21-year-old would find the Rodríguez deal irresistible? The answer lies with another player who is 23, significantly more talented than Rodríguez and determined enough to say no to a 15-year offer of $440 million without his agent even going against it.

That player is, of course, Juan Soto.

Soto’s $440 million rejection led to his trade from the Nationals to the Padres. He and his agent, Scott Boras, almost certainly look to be looking for at least $500 million, and in the short term, that would push the average annual value to a record high.

Maybe Soto will get such a deal from the free-spending Padres once this is off-season. Perhaps he will wait until after 2024, when he will reach the free agency starting his 26-year campaign. Only one thing seems certain: Soto intends to set a new standard for the sport.

The highest average salary for a position player is currently Mike Trout at $35.5 million. The higher luxury tax thresholds in the collective bargaining agreement should drive that number up, perhaps even to $50 million. Rodríguez, had he gone from year to year, could have followed Soto’s lead and made it rich on the open market after 2027, ahead of his 27-year season.

If Soto gets $500 million, Rodríguez may have secured $450 million, on top of the tens of millions he would have already earned from the higher minimum salaries in the new CBA, pre-arbitration bonus pools and three years of arbitration. He didn’t have to jump right away. Its long-term value would only have increased.

The union needs players like Soto and Rodríguez to push boundaries in arbitration and free choice, on the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats. The emphasis clubs place on aging curves makes that theory somewhat obsolete. But Rodríguez, being so young, was a perfect candidate to boost the market. A top five prospect who developed into a Rookie of the Year frontrunner. A player confident enough to tie his financial advantage to MVP voting. A potential unicorn.

At least, so he seems.

In baseball, as in life, no one can predict the future. Christian Yelich looked like a steal when he signed his $215 million nine-year contract with the Brewers, after taking the top two MVPs side by side; its impact is now nowhere near the same level. Cody Bellinger looked like a $300 million future man as he won Rookie of the Year, NLCS MVP, and NL MVP in his first three seasons; now there’s some question of whether the Dodgers will give him a $17 million raise in his final year of arbitration, let alone sign him long-term.

Do you remember the Padres’ giddiness when Tatis accepted their ‘statue’ contract in February 2021? They hadn’t factored in his repeated injuries or questionable choices off the field, one of which led to an 80-game ban for violating baseball’s joint drug policy. Even locking up Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez by the White Sox for a grand total of $163 million doesn’t seem as smart as it once was, given the number of missed games with injuries and the team’s disappointing performance this season.

So here was Rodríguez, faced with the choice between a probable $319 million plus or a potential $450 million plus. Was the chance of hitting the higher number worth the uncertainty he would face over the next five seasons, when the lower number would currently be one of the top 10 contracts in baseball history and likely finish higher?

Position players often place too much weight on the fear of injury; Acuña is still feeling the effects of the torn ACL he sustained in his right knee shortly before the 2021 All-Star break, but in the end it should be fine. Players also misjudge if they think the choice in a pre-arb deal is the club’s offer or nothing. From year to year, Harris could have easily made a significant chunk of the $72 million the Braves guaranteed him, and more in free agency. Yes, Harris wanted to stay home in Atlanta, but the Braves are not issuing no-trade clauses and his contract will make him quite attractive to clubs looking to take him over.

The new CBA would make such deals less enticing, but the $50 million pre-arbitration bonus pool will be split among 100 players, distributing wealth rather than creating bigger rewards for the very best. Would Harris or even Rodríguez have said no to their renewals if they were sure to make $5-7 million this season instead of an estimated $1.5-2 million? Maybe not. But at least their choices would have been more difficult.

One of baseball’s dirty little secrets—agents stripping clients from each other—also leads to some of the pre-arbitration deals. The fear of losing players forces some agents to put in a commission, even on a smaller contract than the player warrants, rather than ending up with nothing if the player goes to another rep before signing his first big deal .

In any case, Albies, Acuña and Harris are eligible to become free agents in their early thirties, even if all their club options are exercised. Rodríguez, on the other hand, essentially lost his right to a legitimate twist in the open market. After making $119.3 million in his first eight years, he would only achieve free agency if the Mariners decline their option and he declines his player option. Neither is likely unless he is injured or fails. And if he is injured or fails, he will not be an attractive free agent.

On the other hand, if Rodríguez becomes the player that both he and the Mariners have in mind, he will almost certainly become one of the highest paid players in the game, in total dollars, if not average annual value.

Rodríguez’ club option is valued at $200 million over eight years, but that’s only if he doesn’t get an MVP vote from 2022 to 2028. Two top 10 MVP spots would increase the value to $240 million in eight years . Four top 10s would bring in $260 million. One MVP award and another top five or three top five would make it $280 million. Two MVP awards or four top fives would make it $350 million over 10, bringing the total value to $469.3 million over 17 years and making it the longest and most lucrative contract in Major League history .

The last escalator is probably inaccessible. Trout and Albert Pujols are the only two current players to have won two MVPs in their first seven years. Andrew McCutchen is the only other player to have four top five finishes in that time frame, according to STATS Perform. However, two top 10 MVP spots should be within Rodríguez’s reach. He could earn his first this season.

Four top 10 finishes could push it – Trout, Pujols, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, McCutchen and Josh Donaldson are the only current players to have achieved this much in their first seven full seasons. But two top 10s alone would raise the total value of Rodríguez’s deal to $359.3 million. That’s more than all but three of the current players (Trout, Betts and Francisco Lindor) are expected to earn in their careers. And if Rodríguez wins an MVP and finishes in the top five for another year — a tough task no doubt — he’ll make nearly $400 million.

By contrast, Carlos Correa has a career income of $61.85 million. He may forgo his deal with the Twins and re-enter the market for his 28-year season, but his performance this season and his overall track record may not justify his desired $300 million contract. Again, not every player wins the jackpot in free agency.

Rodríguez’s deal includes a record floor and ceiling for a player with less than a year of service. The payment structure is front-loaded; he will receive a $15 million signing bonus and earn $54 million in what would have been his three arbitration years, surpassing Trout and Bryce Harper at trial. He no longer has to worry about injuries. About new ways in which clubs can suppress salaries. About the financial ramifications if the Mariners eventually want to take him out of midfield.

He starts at $209.3 million. Looks like he did a good job.

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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