How Much Would Paul Skenes Earn As A Free Agent?


Image credit: Bradenton Marauders RHP Paul Skenes during an FSL game against the Lakeland Tigers (Photo/Tom DiPace)

When Yoshinobu Yamamoto signed for 12 years and $325 million, it led to a couple of very interesting questions.

1. How can Yamamoto sign a contract that is the largest for a pitcher in MLB history, even before he throws his first MLB pitch?

2. If Yamamoto is a $325 million pitcher, what would Paul Skenes, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 MLB draft, have earned as a free agent instead of entering professional baseball as a draftee allowed to negotiate with one team in a strictly regulated bonus pool system?

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How Can Yamamoto Sign Such A Big Deal?

The first question is actually the easier one to answer. While Josh Reddick and others questioned how a pitcher with no MLB time could land such a large contract, it’s worth reminding everyone that free agent contracts are not based on rewarding players for past success. They are based on trying to land the players who will produce the most value in the future.

In that form, Yamamoto is somewhat of a unicorn. He was part of the international posting system, which means he was eligible to come to the U.S. as a foreign professional (eligible to sign an MLB contract) before he reached free agency in Japan. 

Yamamoto turned 25 in August 2023. He needed to be 25 to be eligible to be treated as a foreign professional for MLB contact purposes, but he’ll pitch most of his 2024 season at 25 years old.

A 25-year-old pitcher with a track record of durability and success is sitting in the near-perfect sweet spot for how front offices evaluate pitchers. Such a pitcher has safely made it through their early 20s, which seems to be the age that often swallows promising pitchers in a raft of career-altering injuries. But they are also young enough that they still have the vast majority of their pro careers ahead of them.

Pitchers developing through MLB systems don’t reach free agency at age 25 because they need six (or more) years of MLB service time to reach free agency. Only two pitchers have thrown 50+ innings in an MLB season as a 19-year-old this century (Felix Hernandez and Julio Urias).

So in the case of Yamamoto, we have one of the best pitchers in the world becoming a free agent in a market with limited starting pitching, at an age that means he could pitch another 10-15 years if he stays healthy.

Yamamoto’s contract topped that of Yankees righthander Gerrit Cole. Cole reached free agency heading into his age-29 season. He signed a nine-year deal that will carry him through his age-37 season. If Yamamoto doesn’t opt out during his contract, his new deal will carry him through his age-36 season.

So we can answer the first question by saying that teams rarely get to sign a player of Yamamoto’s talents at this age, and the success rate of top Japanese starting pitchers coming to the States (Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Shohei Ohtani, Kodai Senga) makes him an arguably safer bet than any of the other starting pitchers in the free agent market.

So what does Yamamoto’s contract imply as far as what Skenes could get on the free agent market?

This is the tougher question to answer, because it relies on many more assumptions.

We have Yamamoto rated as a 70/Medium as far as his BA grade. That’s our attempt to marry a player’s potential role and the risk involved in reaching that role. In Yamamoto’s case, the grade would make him the No. 1 or 2 prospect in all of baseball if he was eligible for our Top 100. (He’s not, as Matt Eddy explained here).

Yamamoto would be the top-ranked pitcher on our prospect list as well, a notch above Skenes, who the Pirates drafted No. 1 overall in 2023. Skenes rates as a 65/High entering 2024.

Skenes is an impressive pitching prospect. But in our view, Yamamoto’s ceiling is slightly higher due to his wide array of elite pitches. His risk is also lower as a 25-year-old who has shown he can hold up and excel under a starter’s workload for numerous years.

Yamamoto led Orix in innings pitched in each of the past four seasons and has thrown 149 or more innings in every season since 2019 other than the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He also averaged seven innings per start in each of the past five seasons.

Yamamoto has been the best pitcher in Japan in each of the past three seasons. He is the first pitcher to win three consecutive Sawamura Awards since the 1950s. It’s easy to say that the Sawamura Award is the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award in the U.S., but only if we add a couple of caveats. There is only one award for Japanese baseball as a whole, instead of one for the Central and one for the Pacific League. And there are years when it’s not awarded at all. If no one is deemed to meet the lofty requirements to win the Sawamura Award (in which durability is a factor), then no one wins it. That happened as recently as 2019.

Skenes is one of the best pitching prospects to come out of college baseball in years. But he’s a 21-year-old who has thrown more than 100 innings only once in his college career. Yamamoto has a longer track record of demonstrating that he can handle a professional workload.

But to try to answer the question of how much the draft suppresses Skenes’ potential contract, we have to make a number of assumptions to even start to answer this question. Most importantly: there is a massive difference between one amateur player being available in free agency and a massive number of players being available. 

One of the reasons Yamamoto signed such a massive contract is because he was viewed as the best available pitcher from a limited group of free agents.

How Much Could Skenes Make?

If Skenes became available as a free agent because of some loophole, it would create a vastly different market than if every 2023 draftee became a free agent. If teams can also try to sign Rhett Lowder, Chase Dollander, Ty Floyd or a few dozen other top college arms, the market for Skenes would not be as significant as if Skenes was the lone college pitcher who became a free agent.

But even then, we’re comparing apples to pinto beans. Yamamoto signed a 12-year MLB contract. His deal covers his contracts for what is likely to be the entirety or close to the entirety of his MLB career.

As an amateur, Skenes would be signing a minor league deal with a signing bonus (unless the rules that prohibit draft-eligible players from signing MLB deals are changed in this theoretical world). So a team signing Skenes would then be paying him through the normal pre-free agency rules of minimum salaries and eventually salary arbitration.

So we can’t really offer a true equivalent contract for Skenes even with some hypotheticals. As good as Skenes is, it’s hard to imagine a team wanting to offer him a 12-year deal, even if it was allowed. And if it was, it’s also hard to imagine signing such a deal would be in Skenes’ best interest without a number of opt outs.

So let’s focus on how much Skenes could get as a signing bonus. The closest examples we have to this require us to look far back into baseball history. The most recent useful comparison is 1996, when there were a number of “loophole free agents.”

Draft Rule 4(E) required teams to make a formal offer to drafted players within 15 days of their selection. Teams didn’t consider this formality a significant issue and sometimes overlooked or ignored it, especially in an Olympics year in 1996. But when agent Scott Boras realized it, it created grounds for players to be declared free agents once teams missed the window to offer a contract.

No, 1 pick Kris Benson signed for $2 million. First baseman Travis Lee, the second pick, signed for $10 million as a free agent. Matt White, the top high school pitcher in the draft class, topped that with a $10.2 million deal. Another pair of high school pitchers, Bobby Seay ($3 million) and John Patterson ($6.075 million), also landed deals far in excess of what Benson received.

It didn’t hurt that two expansion teams (Arizona and Tampa Bay) were looking to stock their systems. Lee and Patterson signed with Arizona. White and Seay signed with Tampa Bay.

At a minimum, the examples of the loophole free agents would indicate that quintupling a player’s draft bonus is possible. That would put Paul Skenes’ bonus at $46 million. But that is likely an underestimate.

The current bonus rules are strictly regulated by the collective bargaining agreement. No team has proven willing to give up future draft picks to exceed the overall bonus limits for their draft class. That has led to a drastic reduction in the growth of draft bonuses. In 2009, Stephen Strasburg signed for a $7.5 million bonus as part of a major league contract (something that is now prohibited). In 2011, Cole signed for $8 million. His record wasn’t broken until Adley Rutschman signed for $8.1 million in 2019.

If a less regulated bonus system had seen the same 50% rate of increase on the top bonus as we saw from 2002 to 2012 (which is still a reduction from the 241% increase from 1992 to 2002), then Skenes would be looking at roughly a $60 million bonus.

But maybe that’s too modest of an estimate. If we rewind the calendar to the 1950s and 1960s before the draft system was enacted, the top bonuses for amateur players nearly doubled what the best MLB players made in a season. Rick Reichart signed with the Angels for $205,000 at a time when Willie Mays’ $105,000 contract led the major leagues.

Bob Taylor signed for $112,000 in 1957 at a time when Yogi Berra’s $65,000 was the biggest contract in the major leagues.

Now it’s hard to use a nearly 75-year-old data point of an era before MLB free agency as any sort of hard estimate, but a bonus that was double the largest single-season contract (Shohei Ohtani, $46 million AAV) in the majors right now would push a bonus to $90 million or so.

So we can make an argument that Skenes would receive a $50-$100 million signing bonus as a loophole free agent, although that number would likely be less if the draft was eliminated entirely. Those numbers could be light. They could be too much, as it’s hard to estimate something that hasn’t happened in decades.

But it does give us a ballpark estimate.

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