Yesterday, catchers stepped out from behind the plate and into the headlines. Early in the afternoon, word of Jason Varitek’s pending, but inevitable, retirement surfaced. Then, news came that the Royals had agreed to a five-year deal with 21-year old backstop Salvador Perez. Finally, the day concluded with a report stating the Cardinals and Yadier Molina were nearing a five-year contract extension worth around $75 million. Although unrelated, these items pertaining to the past, present, and future of the catching position provided a nice illustration of baseball’s generational history, while also highlighting a developing trend within the game.
From a statistical standpoint, Jason Varitek may have been overrated, but his leadership skills were often lauded by teammates and close observers. So, even though Varitek hasn’t been particularly productive in five seasons, the impact on his departure from the Red Sox could be a development worth watching, especially as the team tries to heal the wounds from last year’s collapse while adapting to Bobby Valentine’s managerial style. Regardless of how accurately his contribution is quantified, Varitek was an important part of two championship teams, which, perhaps, anecdotally illustrates the significance of having a productive catcher.
The Royals’ teased their announcement of the Perez contract with a press release stating that a “major announcement” was in the offing. When it turned out to be an extension for the team’s young catcher, the eyes of the twitter universe did a collective roll, but the announcement really was a big deal, in more ways than one. Despite having fewer than 160 plate appearances in 2011, the Royals apparently saw enough from their young catcher to offer him a five-year deal worth $7 million, with three club options and performance incentives that could increase the total value from $21.75 million to $26.75 million. Needless to say, the risk associated with such a young player is exponential, but in this case, the potential upside dwarfs the uncertainty.
In his two months with the Royals, Perez posted an OPS+ of 128 and compiled a bWAR of 1.1. For perspective, those totals were the sixth (minimum 100 plate appearances) and 19th highest ever recorded by a catcher in a season before turning 22. Based on the other members of the list, it seems as if the Royals have made a good bet. In fact, the terms of the deal are so favorable that even if Perez develops into nothing more than a league average backstop, the team will still come away with a significant bargain.
Over the past few seasons, long-term extensions for pre-arbitration players have become more common, but the Royals’ deal with the 21-year old Perez takes the practice to an extreme. However, the decision to extend such a young player is not without precedent. In fact, the Rays have recently done it twice. In December, Tampa signed rookie pitcher Matt Moore to a five-year deal worth $14 million with three club options that could increase the value to $40 million, but the gold standard remains the extension given to Evan Longoria just one week into his major league career. At the time the third baseman signed the six-year deal worth $17.5 million (with two options that could extend the term to nine years and the value to $44 million), the Rays committed as many years to the rookie as games he had played in the major leagues.
It’s not surprising that the Rays and Royals would be at the forefront of this new strategy. Whereas teams like the Yankees can afford to let its young players establish a track record, smaller revenue clubs usually do not have that luxury. So, instead of trying to extract maximum value from the first three years of a player’s career, it makes more sense for teams with limited means to leverage their resources by buying out the costly years of arbitration and initial free agency. Not only does that allow lower payroll clubs to retain star players, but it has the added benefit of thinning the free agent options available to big money teams. With so much reward at stake, a team’s ability to scout its own talent is becoming as important as rating amateur players. And, as the new CBA starts to reign in the level of spending allowed in the draft and international amateur free agent market, the importance of indentifying those players worthy of early, long-term extensions will only increase.
It was fitting that the news about Yadier Molina’s $75 million extension followed the announcement of Perez’ new contract because that kind of payout is exactly what the Royals are hoping to avoid (although, even if the deal lasts eight years, Perez will reach free agency before age-30, just like Molina). The terms of the deal have not been confirmed, but the agents for Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, and Miguel Montero have to be very pleased with the early indications. After all, in addition to raising the bar for upcoming free agents, Molina’s extension also thins the pool of available catchers.
If the reported five-year, $75 million figures are correct, Molina will become the second highest paid catcher in major league history: his $15 million AAV would only trail Joe Mauer’s $23 million salary. That comparison is particularly relevant because it brings the issue of locking up young players full circle. Had the Twins approached Joe Mauer with an eight-year extension in 2004, and enticed him to sign it, the team would still be enjoying the benefits. However, because the Twins waited until 2010, when Mauer was on the cusp of free agency, they are now in the second year of an eight-year contract that will pay the catcher $184 million by the time it expires in 2018 (or nearly twice as much as the maximum combined value of the long-term deals signed by Longoria, Moore, and Perez). Considering Mauer’s injury plagued 2011, not to mention the precipitous decline in performance since his peak season in 2009, it’s increasingly looking as if the Twins will be regretting their reticence for many years to come.