When word started to leak out over Twitter early Monday morning that the Texas Rangers were on the verge of coming to an agreement with franchise shortstop Elvis Andrus, there was understandable concern about their veracity. It seemed unlikely that someone such as Ken Rosenthal would jeopardize his professional reputation by knowingly reporting a false story, but then, it also seems unlikely in retrospect that a country advanced enough to build and maintain an interstate highway system would find it sensible to set aside one day of the year specifically for lying to others about non-trivial matters, and yet here we are. It didn't help that another group of rogues had floated a similar story about another elite middle infielder mere minutes earlier as the clock hit midnight on the East Coast, though to their credit every single aspect of the Yankees offering Robinson Cano a 12-year extension at the very beginning of the season is so wildly insane that with five seconds of thought and one check of the calendar it became clear that, well, April Fool's.
Not so with Andrus. As the story developed overnight and on through Opening Day, the sourcing on and terms of the proposed deal solidified: It is an eight-year, $120 million base contract with a vesting option for a ninth year and a player opt-out after the fourth, and as Andrus passed an extensive physical on the Rangers' off day Monday per the Dallas Morning News, the only substantial hurdle to him signing it has been cleared. Which of course leaves only the most important question: Why?
Going into the offseason Andrus looked to be in prime position to get dealt. The Rangers had Jurickson Profar, the game's best young prospect, generally seen to be ready for everyday responsibilities in the majors or very close to it. Much of Profar's value is tied up in his defense and ability to play shortstop at an elite level -- which as always is a nicer way of saying that it's not so much tied up in his offense. Profar will hit on the major league level, but he'll probably be above-average to the very tip-top of good instead of elite. That's not a knock on him there; very few players are all around elite players. That's the whole point of the word. But for as great of a prospect as he is, Jurickson Profar hasn't actually done anything yet. He shouldn't bust, no, but neither should've guys like Matt Bush, Brandon Wood or Billy Rowell, and while Profar's made it farther through the minor league ranks than they have for various reasons, he's not safe from the myriad weird things that could derail his career until he's actually up and starting every day, and even then who knows. Will he adjust to the league as well as the league will adjust to him?
The Rangers already have a fairly good answer to that question on Andrus: Yes, he will. The Rangers' shortstop for the next decade will never slug as well as many would hope, especially for playing half his games in Arlington, but he should add a little bit of power to his batting line as he moves into his mid to late 20s, and lack of power is the only real dent in his game at the MLB level. The fact that the Rangers can say that about Andrus right now and not Profar is why they've kept Andrus; the fact that now they can lock in precisely how much his services will cost them and move on to other business is why they've given him an eight-year extension.
Across baseball, that concept has been getting more and more traction in front offices as the face of free agency changes in response to the economics of television and the new collective bargaining agreement: cost certainty. Every team is a fan of cost certainty to an extent, but some teams place a far higher priority on it than others. While the Baltimore Orioles have made no long-term moves recently except to sign their franchise player, centerfielder Adam Jones, to a deal last season, the Toronto Blue Jays have been locking down basically any player that is still breathing and Alex Anthopoulos has good feelings for: Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion both got larger deals than one would expect for a fluke season's performance, the gamble being that the season was not actually a fluke and the money would turn out to be a steal. On Bautista, of course, that gamble paid off (though he's been less healthy than the Jays or anyone who likes good comeback stories or home runs would like); the jury's still out on Edwin. But then the Jays gave Jeff Mathis a multi-year deal because they liked how he handled the pitching staff for a few months, and gave Dustin McGowan more than $3 million across three years just because he came off the DL, which he then promptly returned to. Overpays both of them, yes, but they're safeguards against the players actually making good on their alleged upsides (still trying to see that one in the Mathis and McGowan deals), hitting free agency and creating a bidding war with the Dodgers, Cubs, Angels or Yankees that Toronto likely wouldn't win.
And there are different kinds of cost certainty. In making these deals, are the clubs buying out years of arbitration, or years of free agency? Arbitration years are almost always bought out now beforehand, without a hearing, by every team that values a good relationship with its players -- so basically everyone but the Marlins -- and are fundamentally cheaper than free agent years because the alternative is a combative hearing with an arbitrator, not a bidding war. By looking at the salaries of players across the league comparable to the guy in question, it's fairly easy to build a value for those years. Not so with free agency years, where just about anything could happen if a guy has a great walk year given the deep pockets around the league right now. Therefore, a contract that buys out just arbitration years, or a combination of arbitration years and free agency years, should be cheaper for the team than a contract that buys out only years of free agency.
When the Giants signed Buster Posey to a nine-year, $167 million extension this offseason, some commenters pointed at the most recent benchmark megadeal contract for a catcher -- Joe Mauer's eight years, $184 million -- and concluded that, because of the extra year and the slightly smaller sticker price, the Giants had gotten a bargain. The first four years of that extension, however, buy out all four of Posey's arbitration years (Posey achieved Super 2 status, meaning he has one more arbitration year than the usual major leaguer, for generally uninteresting service time reasons). One would hope that four years of arbitration and five years of free agency would, for the same player, cost less than eight years of free agency. And it's far from certain that Posey, who won the National League MVP last year and still didn't post near as great a season at the plate as Joe Mauer did in 2010, is actually worth the deal that 2010 Mauer got. In fact, it's looking like 2011-12 Mauer wasn't worth the deal 2010 Mauer got, let alone whatever might happen to him from 2013 onward.
Which brings us back to Elvis. Andrus' new contract is an extension, meaning it takes effect at the conclusion of his current deal (Posey's deal, in contrast, replaced the one-year, $8 million deal he'd signed earlier in the offseason to avoid arbitration). Currently the Rangers shortstop is playing under a three-year contract worth $14.4 million signed in 2012 that bought out all of Andrus's arbitration years, since unlike Posey he's not a Super 2. So all eight years of the Andrus extension are buying free agent years, and when we consider that Andrus' agent is Scott Boras, we realize that the Rangers will have to pay free agent market money -- the low end of what he might get if he remains this good, perhaps even lower should he improve his power swing over the next three seasons, but still something close to a fair market price for someone with Andrus' skill set not under team control -- to get Boras to consider not testing the waters on principle.
Eight years, $120 million is $15 million a year, and that's certainly elite open-market free agent shortstop money, a tad under $3 million a year less than what Jose Reyes will earn over the life of the deal he signed with Miami in 2011. Reyes' deal was weird for a number of reasons, most obviously the lack of a no-trade clause. A no-trade clause is something of extreme interest to both parties in these negotiations, so we can assume that Reyes' agent demanded more cash on the deal to compensate for its omission -- but probably not enough to make it so that with a NTC, Reyes would be making less than $2 million a year more than Andrus.
(Incidentally, Troy Tulowitzki's deal with Colorado pays him $15.75 million a year, but it's both longer than Andrus' extension and replaced a contract buying out 2011 and 2012, his last two years of arbitration, so that's to be expected. The Rockies are another team that's recently been very cost certain on guys they think are their stars.)
Glancing at their careers so far, one would be hard pressed to conclude that Jose Reyes should be making "only" $2-3 million more than Elvis Andrus. When he signed his deal, Reyes was coming off a string of six straight seasons in the majors as an everyday player with an at least MLB-average bat at shortstop -- as in, an average bat compared to all non-pitchers in the bigs as his peer group, not just other shortstops -- and elite defense, speed and baserunning instincts. He was also coming off a walk year where he won the NL batting title with a .335 average and was a legitimate if distant candidate for league MVP. Andrus has been a starter for four seasons, and while he's perhaps an even better defender than Reyes -- we'll give youth its due here, especially since Jose has been slowed down by leg injuries over the past year or two -- he's never come close to being in the same conversation as Reyes either at the plate or on the bases. Last year he managed a 91 OPS+ at the plate in more than 700 PA, meaning that his .727 OPS was nine percent worse than a league average hitter's. It's the best hitting year he's put up so far. So on the one hand, paying Jose Reyes money to a guy who in very real ways is a shadow of the player Reyes appears a bit silly. Why not let him test the market and see what he gets?
That's where cost certainty comes in. Sometimes when discussing these megadeals as "eight-year, $120 million extensions" we lose sight of the fact that on Monday the Rangers did not in fact hand Andrus a comically oversized check bearing Nolan Ryan's signature and the amount of $120,000,000 and say "go hog wild." They didn't spend a dime, or even budget to spend any more money than they otherwise would have spent. By giving Andrus this deal, the Rangers now know that their books for the 2015 through 2022 seasons will have an additional $15 million commitment on them to begin with. And since they will be spending to whatever budget limit their ownership sets (with a brand new TV deal in place, and who knows what untold riches that's going to bring from the pockets of cable consumers who want desperately to have nothing to do with inflating MLB payrolls), the only real change is they have $15 million less payroll flexibility that year to build a team that should be spending up near the luxury tax threshold. Is it an overpay for the quality of player they see on the field right now in 2012? Absolutely. Does that really bother them all that much? No, not really.
The baseball blogging community, and to an extent the sabermetric community in general, worship at the altar of financial efficiency because … well, in all honesty because it's one of the very few things that from the outside we feel we can both properly evaluate and discuss on something close to the same footing as the guys running the teams. But there's a lot to be said for the fact that, for all the surety in the world, 2012 Elvis Andrus is not worth the yearly value of the contract he's just been offered. Here is the sum total of everything relevant that we know right now about the year 2015: Elvis Andrus will be 26 years old and will make $15 million.
We have no idea what sort of power he'll hit for; we have no idea how many bases he'll steal; we certainly have no clue what the economics of free agency will have done to salary benchmarks across the league and where Elvis Andrus would fall on those sliding scales. The Rangers don't know any of that either, though I'm sure in private they'll hazard some guesses. And now it doesn't matter, because they don't have to try to sign him in the winter of 2014. They just have to trust that their assessment of Andrus is the correct one, and that if it's not, that they have acceptable financial resources to minimize the fallout. It helps that Andrus is a team leader in the clubhouse and a positive influence and basically all the things Josh Hamilton, rightly or wrongly, got tagged with not being on his way out the door, but while $15 million a year for eight years is a noticeable bit of payroll (and generationally life-changing money for Andrus and his family), in the context of the Texas Rangers business enterprise it's not an especially dangerous risk. If Andrus gets hurt, the insurance policy they have on the deal will help cover it; if Andrus collapses for whatever reason -- or even just never takes the next step -- I defy you to tell me any contract in baseball is untradeable less than a week after the Vernon Wells monstrosity got dealt for the second time.
Which all brings us back to Jurickson Profar, and the value of a cheap gamble over an expensive sure thing. There's nothing that says the Rangers have to trade Profar now. In fact, the book on Jon Daniels' front office is that they're about as invested in holding onto Their Guys on the farm as Tony Reagins' Angels were the four or five straight years they declined to deal Brandon Wood for someone who'd actually do something on the major league level. But there are crazier things to do in the world than make a play for the Marlins' erstwhile Giancarlo Stanton with their newly blocked elite shortstop prospect. Should the Rangers acquire the Miami right fielder, he would go to arbitration for the first time this winter. If I'm reading the last couple years of contracts right, that means it's just about time to lock him up until the next apocalypse.