Dodgers’ fans are probably still smarting after the Angels rallied to win the first game of the Freeway Series, but at least there was a consolation. After the loss, the team confirmed it had reached a contract extension with Andre Ethier, ensuring the outfielder will remain in Los Angeles for at least the next five seasons.
The new contract, which the Dodgers are expected to announce during a press conference today, will reportedly pay Ethier $85 million over the next five years with a vesting option worth an additional $17.5 million. Based on average annual value, the new deal makes Ethier the eleventh highest paid outfielder in baseball history, but does fall just below recent contracts signed by Ryan Braun, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Jayson Werth. More important than how it compares to past deals, however, is the implication it could have on the crop of outfielders poised for free agency this off season.
Even with Ethier off the market, this winter promises to have an attractive group of free agent outfielders, including Michael Bourn, Melky Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino. How many of those players actually make it to the market remains to be seen, but Ethier’s contract will likely be the reference point used by their agents to formulate a negotiating strategy.
Andre Ethier vs. Potential Class of Free Agent Outfielders
Note: Age refers to the first year the player would play under his new contract. UZR/150 provided only for the primary position, which was determined based on recent playing time.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
In more ways than one, Hamilton is a special case. In terms of talent and name value, he is a clear cut above the rest of the upcoming free agent class. At the same time, he also presents unique risks pertaining to his history of substance abuse and a relative inability to stay on the field (Hamilton has played over 135 games in only one season). What’s more, he also seems to be one of those players who has more value to his current team. For those reasons, Ethier’s deal probably won’t have much of an impact on Hamilton’s demands, which were already likely to be much higher. Similarly, because Hamilton stands out from the crowd, Ethier’s contract, and not his, will probably be the barometer used to measure the value of the others.
The closest comp to Ethier is Nick Swisher, who plays the same position and is only one year older. Also, aside from Hamilton, Swisher is the only outfielder from the upcoming free agent class whose career offensive production comes close to matching Ethier’s. And, when you factor in defensive metrics, which are admittedly suspect, the advantage swings in Swisher’s favor. Using B-R.com’s version of WAR as a guide, the two players have been equally valuable since 2006 (13.8 for Ethier vs. 13.5 for Swisher), while fangraphs.com gives the Yankees’ right fielder an edge (20.5 vs. 18.0). He may not be into sabermetrics now, but after reading the details of Ethier’s contract, Swisher’s agent will probably start boning up. If so, that could slam the door on Swisher’s career with the Yankees, who will probably be more pre-occupied with what Ethier’s deal means for Curtis Granderson, who is eligible to be a free agent after the 2013 season.
Aside from Swisher and excluding Hamilton, none of the other potential outfield free agents come close to matching Ethier’s offensive prowess. However, primary position and age are two important differentiating factors to consider. Cabrera and Upton seem like they’ve been around forever, but each player will only be 28 next season. The two outfielders have also shown improvement over the past two seasons, so their next contracts could benefit from an upside premium. Similarly, strong defensive centerfielders like Upton, Bourn and Victorino, who also add an element of speed, could get a bump because of that skillset. However, considering the number of at bats each of these players has already amassed, the factors mentioned above don’t seem significant enough to mitigate Ethier’s superior offense. As a result, Ethier’s contract could serve as a price ceiling, albeit a very high one.
The free agent market is very difficult to predict. Although Ethier’s contract seems like an overpay, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have gotten more if he went to the highest bidder. After all, no one predicted Jayson Werth’s mega-deal, and most would probably agree that Ethier is a superior player. Then again, with so many outfielder potentially available this winter, there might not be enough demand to support a salary as high as Ethier’s. Frankly, the new Dodgers’ ownership group probably isn’t too concerned about whether or not they got a fair price; they are likely more pre-occupied with rebuilding the franchise and re-connecting with the fan base. However, you can bet those teams who will be in the market for an outfielder feel differently. Goodwill might be a worthy cost of doing business for the Dodgers, but if salary inflation trickles down throughout the market, those feelings won’t be shared by the rest of the league.