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Signed OF-L Ender Inciarte to a five-year, $30.525 million contract. [12/23]
Dansby Swanson got most of the attention as the sweetest name that came to Atlanta in the Shelby Miller deal and he may provide the most long-term value, but first he'll have to overcome Inciarte’s 3.5 WARP head start in a Braves uniform. A stat-head favorite at the time of the trade thanks largely to his defensive ability in center field, Inciarte had an All-Star-caliber 2016 season on the strength of that phenomenal defense and an above-average bat. And now he’ll cash in on a very team-friendly extension.
Inciarte is fast, but he also takes smart routes and gets good jumps on the ball. FRAA has him averaging 15 runs above average as a fielder in three major-league seasons despite never playing more than 132 games in a year. Without much power to speak of Inciarte needs to supplement his leather with an ability to reach base. He's hit .292 as a big leaguer so far and even upped his walk rate in 2016, laying the groundwork for future offensive competence.
Inciarte was a well-kept secret in Arizona and this contract extension will likely underpay a player who's been worth 11.7 WARP through 381 career games, compensating him more like someone worth 1-2 WAR per year. Or, put another way: You could buy three of these Inciartes (InciartII?) for the cost of one Aroldis Chapman. So what gives? Well, there’s the argument that the Braves could’ve just let Inciarte play out the string of his arbitration years and avoided paying a ton that way. After all, defense-first outfielders rarely get compensated appropriately in team-versus-player hearings.
However, I like to think that this is the type of move with which the Braves are pumping up an asset to make it more valuable to another team later. By smoothing out the cost control on Inciarte and front-loading more of his contract than the arbitration system might allow, Atlanta could be making him an even more attractive trade target to a 2017 or 2018 contender. After all, it was reported that Inciarte was drawing substantial trade interest this past deadline. Heading into his age-26 season with two years of star-level performance should make him even more sought after. Getting one Swanson-level prospect for the shell of Shelby Miller was a coup, but what if the Braves could turn two and get a second one by flipping Inciarte?
In the interim, they’ll likely benefit from reaping four-win performance from a player getting paid about as much as Sean Rodriguez and less than R.A. Dickey. That’s remarkable. While I’d rather have Odubel Herrera on the same deal as Inciarte because of the more predictable offensive value, there’s little overall difference between the two center fielders and Inciarte has proven that he can live in this tier for two straight seasons. This is a deal that benefits both parties, but doesn’t quite give Ender the shine he deserves just yet.
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Signed OF-L Odubel Herrera to a five-year, $30.5 million contract. [12/17]
Herrera’s 2015 breakout came out of nowhere—a Rule 5 pick who changed positions and miraculously became an above-average regular. He toiled for the Phillies in relative obscurity, or as relative as it gets. As an above-average hitter and an improving defender, he was found money in 2015 and then made his money in 2016. Herrera surprisingly improved by another leap last season, more than doubling his walks and posting improved defensive numbers in center field. He was, surprisingly, something akin to the platonic ideal of the leadoff-hitting center fielder, with youth, speed, defense, on-base skills, and enough pop to drive himself in every so often. All for the cost of one Rule 5 pick.
Now Herrera is going to get paid, although certainly not as much as the market might bear were he a free agent. The deal buys out one year of Herrera’s free agency without taking into account the two option years (valued at a combined $24 million, with $3.5 million in buyouts). The low dollar amount and the length of the contract seem to make this a no-brainer, especially for a Phillies team that has enough post-Ryan-Howard cash to buy Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox. It’s about as team-friendly a move as you can make, so the only question is this: Did the Phillies substantially overspend what they might have paid Herrera in arbitration to buy the extra year of free agency and options? Maybe!
I’d vote that this is an especially good deal since Herrera has a chance to start racking up real cash in arbitration. While most defensive-minded players without premium counting stats get undervalued in arbitration, Herrera could post a batting average over .300 in one of the next few years. Plus, the Phillies aren’t exactly loaded with other sure-fire All-Star candidates and a few Midsummer Classic nods could equal higher pay.
About a week after the Phillies made their move, the Braves appeared to say “oooh, that looks nice!” and inked Ender Inciarte to an almost identical extension. If you want, you can look at this from a very pro-Phillies perspective in that Herrera is younger than Inciarte, his offense has proven slightly better, and he’s had the best overall season of the two players. Truthfully, I think the offensive gap matters the most; speed and defense will eventually fail you, and sometimes they go in the middle of a career without warning. If you bank too hard on defense, you can end up like a different NL East center fielder, Juan Lagares, who parlayed high-flying defensive metrics into a four-year, $40 million deal with the Mets and now looks more like a fourth outfielder.
At the end of 2015, one might have said that the Rangers made a justifiable decision choosing a different infielder-turned-outfielder over Herrera. But after 2016—and Herrera’s ascension to All-Star status—the Phillies look like geniuses and the Rangers … well, let’s just say that all’s well that ends well. You can pick what seemed more improbable in December 2014: Herrera becoming one of the top young center fielders in the game or a Baseball Prospectus writer lavishing praise on the Phillies for yet another smart, cost-efficient baseball move.