Ronald Acuña's Contract Extension All Upside For Atlanta
Ronald Acuña Jr. is going to be a very rich man.
Acuña has agreed to a deal with the Braves that ensures he’s under team control for much of the next decade. His eight year, $90 million deal buys out the first two years of free agency. There are two team options that could push the deal to $124 million over 10 years, or the Braves would have to pay him a $10 million buyout if they don't exercise the options.
Acuña signed as an international amateur for only $100,000. Even coming off a Rookie of the Year season, he’s slated to make only $560,000 this season. He would not have been arbitration eligible for another two seasons, so he was still several years away from a big payday. Now, he’s financially set for life, as are his descendants. There are some powerful reasons for him to agree to this deal, as the first $100 million is the most important $100 million.
But it's hard not to see this as a win for the Braves and ownership in general. In the Braves' front office, the celebration of this contract should go on for days. The Braves just signed a new deal with one of the best young players in the game. It's a deal that has extreme upside for the organization and has very little downside. If Acuña is less of a player than everyone in baseball believes he will be, this is still a good deal for the Braves.
If Acuña is as good as everyone thinks, this will rank as one of the biggest bargains of the 21st century.
Acuña came into last year as the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball. He lived up to those expectations by hitting .293/.366/.552 in 111 games for Atlanta last season. He was held back in Triple-A Gwinnett to start the season and then spent some time on the disabled list during the summer. But when he played, he was one of the best players in the Braves’ lineup.
Players with Acuña’s pedigree and performance as 20-year-olds rarely fail to be stars.
Acuña produced 4.1 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) in his age-20 season. According to Baseball Reference's Play Index, there have only been 14 better seasons by a hitter age 20 or younger since Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. Of that group, there are 10 players who produced 5.1 bWAR or better. Since that group played significantly better than Acuña as a 20-year-old, we won’t compare him to them. But in a more similar group, there have have been 16 players who have produced between 3.1 and 5.0 bWAR in a season at age 20 or younger. Of those 16, six are in the Hall of Fame. Another (Adrian Beltre) is a likely Hall of Famer but is not yet eligible. Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa and Elvis Andrus are the only three players in the sample who have not played a full 10 years after their comparable season to Acuña’s age-20 season.
Of those 16 players, the only true disappointments were Tony Conigliaro and Claudell Washington. In Conigliaro’s case, a hit by pitch ruined his career—the type of freak injury that Acuña’s guaranteed contract protects him from. In Washington’s case, he had an outstanding first two seasons, but then settled in to be a productive but unspectacular regular for another 15 years.
Conigliaro and Washington are the only two players in the sample that failed to produce more than 20 bWAR in their age 21-30 seasons combined. As a group, the players averaged producing 3.9 bWAR per season for their next 10 seasons.
The chances of Acuña failing to live up to the contract are very slim. There are many reasons to think that Acuña might better those numbers, but that’s a reasonable and almost conservative expectation to put on the budding star. If Acuña just matched that group (which would mean he was less productive than he was as a rookie), he would produce 39 bWAR over the next 10 seasons (3.9 bWAR per season). That would make him one of the better players in baseball. Bryce Harper has produced 27.1 bWAR so far in his career, an average of 3.9 bWAR a year. He just signed a $330 million free agent contract.
On the open market, front office valuations would put 39 bWAR as being worth roughly $350 million. That's not a fully fair comparison because Acuña wouldn’t be on the open market. He would have played the next two seasons under an assigned salary, followed by four years of arbitration followed by free agency.
Players often trade off potential riches for security. The risk for a team having a bad contract on the books can be mitigated by spreading the risk among many contracts. If you are a billion dollar company and a $150 million deal goes bad, the cost can be absorbed. And if the $150 million contract turns out to be a bargain, the team wins more and may make more money.
It’s much harder for a player to take such risks. Each player only gets one career to cash in on. If he gets hurt before he gets a big payday, he may have ruined his one chance at enough money to set up his family for life. For pitchers, that’s understandably a constant fear. For hitters, there is less risk, but a freak injury (a concussion or a hit by pitch causing serious harm) could still alter a career path on any given day.
So normally the player trades away one year of free agency in exchange for millions of dollars. In Acuña’s case, he traded away two. If that was it, it would be a team-friendly deal, but Acuña would still hit free agency at age 29.
It’s the two team options that turn this into a truly head-scratching contract for Acuña. If he plays reasonably well, he could be expected to earn somewhere around $60 million through arbitration before he would have reached free agency. That means the Braves are paying him $15 million or so per year for the two years of free agency he’s giving up.
That’s potentially a massive discount, as Acuña would have hit free agency as he got ready to turn 27. Stars can make $25 million or more per year right now when they hit the free market at that age, something Harper and Manny Machado just demonstrated.
But Acuña’s trading off $20 million or so in those two years for financial certainty. It’s a decision that’s his to make.
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It's the team options that make this deal a head-scratcher. A team option means that if the Braves want to keep Acuña at $17 million in 2027 and $17 million in 2028, they can. If Acuña doesn’t turn out to be the player we all expect, the Braves can turn down the option years for a $10 million buyout. But if Acuña is a star, the Braves can pay him $34 million for two years at an age where Acuña might have been able to get that much in one year on the open market. Those two team options are all upside and no risk for Atlanta.
It’s unlikely that Acuña will be traded any time soon, but this deal—because it gives teams cost certainty—would also make him one of the most attractive players as far as trade value, something Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton learned a few years after they signed their extensions. The possibility of getting a star player at less than his market value on the free agent market is always coveted by teams.
If ownership handed out a belt for best contract extension, the Braves would be hoisting the belt for years to come with this deal. Acuña received financial security. The Braves may have locked up one of the stars of the 2020s while paying him to be a solid but unspectacular player.