The offseason deals handed out to Japanese superstar Yu Darvish and Cuban tools king Yoenis Cespedes, as well as the returns generated in the trade market for young talent like Gio Gonzalez, are further proof that there is nothing more valuable to a baseball team than a cost-controlled star player.
While free agents get huge money, both the draft and the CBA-imposed system of team control prior to free agency are designed to keep costs down. My good friend Sam Miller of the Orange County Register (@SamMillerOCR), however, asked an interesting question (via Twitter) in January that has been bouncing around in my head for some time now:
@Kevin_Goldstein If Trout and/or Harper were a free agent, no strings, service time irrelevant, would either get paid what TEX paid for Yu?
Just think about that one for a moment. And since he's part of the big three when it comes to the top prospects in the game, let's throw Tampa left-hander Matt Moore into the mix as well. Three players universally considered the top trio of prospects in baseball. Three players universally seen as future stars and, by many, as MVP or Cy Young candidates. Three players who are as much as half a decade, if not more, away from their primes. If Cespedes is worth nearly $40 million for four years and Darvish is worth a total outlay of well over $100 million for six, what would teams be willing to pay for these kind of once in a generation talents?
To find out, I posed the following question to a variety of industry insiders at every level of baseball operations, from area scout to general manager. “The agents for the three top prospects in baseball discover a loophole and Rays’ lefty Matt Moore, Nationals’ slugger Bryce Harper, and Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout are all made free agents. Your predictions for how crazy the bidding would get and which player would get the most money?
The answers were wide ranging, but in the end, teams are all-in on the trio.
Nearly all respondents focused on how these hypothetical deals require a different approach; in many ways, they are the opposite of free agent deals. “The toughest thing for me is how the contract structure would go,” said an American League scouting official. “If I’m to spend money on an untested player that probably hasn't fully physically matured yet and lose him before his prime physical years, I would want added club protection on the back side. It's the inverse of a major free agent deal where you pay for the first couple of years in prime production and usually suck on the back end. With these players, you would be sucking on the front end (in all likelihood) in order to reap the back-end benefits of years three to seven-plus.” Contract length quickly turned into the big issue for teams; six years from now, the three might be just hitting their peaks, set to become high-priced free agents at maximum productivity. “I'm not sure this should play into the discussion, but how valuable are Harper or Trout for their age 24-27 seasons?” asked a National League team official. “It would be interesting to see if agents would prefer a shorter or longer deal for their clients in search of not only money now but bigger paydays down the road.”
In addition, Moore's position worked against him in the open market, at least in comparison to the two outfielders. For Harper and Trout, insiders split into two camps: those looking at a five or six-year deal in the neighborhood of $80 million and those looking to go a decade or more, well exceeding nine figures. For Moore, no team was willing to commit to a deal that long, but he often had the best deal in terms of annual salary. “I think Moore gets the biggest deal just based on the starting pitching market and major league readiness,” said an American League GM. “He'd get fewer years for sure, but he might get the most guaranteed money,” added a National League front office member, while another official with an American League team predicted teams would throw rationality to the wind. “We'd have some caution doing [a huge deal] for a relatively untested pitcher but would pay him those dollars anyway to land that type of talent.”
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
Average offer: Eight years, $113 million
Best offer: Eight years, $150 million
“I would place the highest value on Harper,” said an American League official, “when given the lockup period for a young, All-Star-caliber position player with elite hit and power skills.”
Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Average offer: Eight years, $102 million
Best offer: Eight years, $120 million
“I favor Trout because I think teams would have more certainty that he's big-league-ready right now and can step in as an average major league player at his position,” said a National League front office member. “Harper might be a tick behind that.”
Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Average offer: Six years, $83 million
Best offer: Eight years, $144 million
“Moore has a ton of talent, and the Rays signed him to a great deal,” said a National League front office member, “But there is some risk involved with him just because he's a pitcher. Plus, he's somebody who has struggled in the past to control the strike zone.”
Those numbers might be shocking, but they shouldn't be. One American League official said, “Based on our organizational assessments, all three would be ahead of Darvish and Cespedes.” But beyond all of the hypothetical offers, nearly all respondents made a point of discussing how fascinating, if not downright entertaining, the entire process would be. Even the official who submitted the highest bid on Harper added, “…and I might be way light on the position players.”
One of the most interesting dynamics of this market that will never exist is the numbers of teams potentially involved in the bidding. In traditional free agency, part of the way clubs assess the market on a player is by counting potential suitors, but on these prospective long-term deals, both good teams and rebuilding teams buying into a future prime would be interested. “The bidding would be insane because what team would not at least check in with all three of these guys' agents?” asked a National League official. “Wouldn't twenty-plus teams make serious offers and at least half the teams make competitive ones?
That kind of unprecedented bidding war could produce final tallies far higher than the predicted numbers that, at first blush, already seem inflated. “We may be building on contracts that lack rationality to some extent,” said an American League assistant GM. “In the universe of free agent contracts, we are usually surprised by the size of the deals—and rarely the opposite. I would guess this hypothetical situation would turn out the same and we would be stunned by the size of the deals these players would receive.”
While an American League scouting official agreed, he actually found the numbers to be quite rational considering the youth and talent level. “I hesitate to put a figure out there, but honestly, nothing would surprise me,” he explained. “I also think they'd have a chance to be on par with the best of the best free agent contracts in the game.”