Manny Machado's Career Makes Case For A Seven-Year Deal
Buster Olney reported on Wednesday that the White Sox have offered Manny Machado seven years and $175 million. In the world of free agent contract negotiations everything is subject to interpretation, obfuscation and fabrication until the day the deal is finalized, and Ken Rosenthal has now Tweeted that that number is inaccurate.
We’ll leave to others to parse whether Machado’s offer is accurate or if there is a longer or bigger one already on the table. But one aspect of the rumor that stood out was the length of Machado’s deal. In an era where Albert Pujols is struggling to finish out the final years of his 10-year deal, Robinson Cano is being traded midway through his lengthy free agent contract and Miguel Cabrera’s contract extension seems to stretch way too far into the future, fans have been conditioned to think of long-term deals as club-killing poison.
But seven years for a player of Machado’s age and performance level is actually a quite reasonable proposition. It wouldn’t be surprising if Machado’s final deal actually had an optional out before that point (to allow him to at least weigh the idea of entering back into the market as a 29 or 30-year-old), but seven years for a player getting ready to enter his age-27 season is a case of a long contract being matched to a very young player hitting free agency.
Thanks to Baseball Reference’s outstanding Play Index, we were able to look at every player in the expansion era (1961 to present) who produced 30 or more career Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement or more by their age 26 season. Machado is part of a very select group. There are only 22 players who fit that criteria.
Mike Trout and Mookie Betts both fit the criteria, but have yet to play any baseball beyond their age-26 season, so for the purposes of this study, they have been thrown out. Jason Heyward has only two seasons so far since he joined that group. Those two years have been quite poor, and if you want to count him as a cautionary tale, feel free, but we don’t have the totality of his career to look at in this comparison and he’s also been thrown out.
Here's the link to see all the players who meet the criteria.
So that leaves only 18 other players of the past 50+ years who have matched or exceeded Machado’s production. We wanted to know what past history has told us about those player’s production over the next seven seasons.
The short answer is what you might expect, it’s hard to go wrong if you sign someone who is producing at a Hall of Fame level in his early 20s. Those players with few exceptions produce at exceptional levels in their late 20s and early 30s.
The standard caveats about different eras of baseball do apply. This study includes the late 1960s/1970s when sports medicine wasn’t nearly as advanced as today. It also includes the late 1990s/early 2000s when performance-enhancing drugs helped players extend their careers.
But overall, what stands out is how rarely players who are this good this young fail to be exceptionally productive over their next seven seasons. Of the 18 players who fit the criteria, only three (Andruw Jones, Jim Fregosi and Cesar Cedeno) failed to top 20 bWAR over their age 27-33 seasons.
Cedeno is a player who was exceptional in the early years of his career and quite mediocre in his late 20s. And Fregosi averaged only 2.2 WAR per season from age 27 to 33. But if the current standardly accepted valuation of $10 million per win is accurate, every other player in the study would have exceeded the $25 million per year AAV of Machado’s rumored offer. Jones averaged 2.7 WAR per season over his next seven seasons. The next lowest production was Joe Torre at 3.5 WAR per season.
At the other end of the spectrum, three players produced 40 or more WAR over those seven seasons. Bonds (8.3 WAR per season), Rodriguez (7.2 WAR per season) and Pujols (6.7 WAR per season) produced at an MVP level pretty much throughout their seven-year stretches.
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Taken as a whole, the 18 players averaged 34 WAR over those seven seasons (4.9 WAR per season). In the expansion era, there have only been 60 players who have produced 34 WAR or more in their age 27-33 seasons. Nine of the 18 players in this group met that criteria or exceeded it.
Comparing all of these players to Machado isn’t perfect, because Machado has not been as productive so far as Pujols, Bonds or several others in the study were early in their careers. So we also compared each player to himself. We looked at how the each player performed in the early years of his big league career compared to how he played from age 27 to 33. On a WAR/season basis, half (nine) of the players were more productive in the next seven seasons after they turned 27 while the other nine were less productive.
On average, players in the study produced 90 percent of their pre-age 27 production during their age 27-33 seasons. If Machado matches that production, he would produce 30 WAR over the next seven seasons, which would make him one of the best players in the game.
Signing a player of Machado (or Harper’s) productivity to a long-term deal in free agency is not a sure thing, because there are never sure things in baseball, but as risks go, it’s a very modest one. And for many fans conditioned to believe that long-term deals almost always end in nightmares, seven years for a player of Machado's age is not as risky as it may appear.