On Thursday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies made their first (and perhaps only) major signing of the offseason, inking center fielder Odubel Herrera to a long-term deal:
Source: Odubel Herrera’s 5-year contract guarantees him $30.5 million. Options for 2022 and 2023, too. Delays his FA by at least one year.— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) December 15, 2016
Herrera isn’t the most exciting player. He lacks a single elite skill. Yet as a 2014 Rule 5 pickup from the Rangers, he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations from when he first debuted in Philadelphia in 2015.
Primarily a second baseman in the Texas system, Herrera was left Rule 5 eligible because they felt they had enough middle infield depth to sustain the loss, despite the fact Herrera was coming off the Texas League batting crown. But the Rangers’ loss has been the Phillies gain, as Philadelphia gave him their full-time gig in center. Herrera hasn’t looked back since.
Here is a list of the active players who were worth more wins above replacement as a center fielder, according to Baseball-Reference, during their age-23 and 24 seasons than Herrera:
- Mike Trout
- Austin Jackson
- Andrew McCutchen
- Matt Kemp
That’s the whole list. At the same ages, guys like Carlos Beltran, Adam Jones, and Joc Pederson were all less valuable, by rWAR, than Herrera was in 2015-16.
Now, outside Jackson, Herrera has a distinctly different playing style than all of those guys. There’s a lot of power in that group, and that’s not Herrera’s game.
But like we just said, his game isn’t predicated on anything in particular — not power, or speed, or an elite hit tool. Rather, what’s made him so valuable has been a lack of weaknesses.
Since debuting, Herrera has slashed .291/.353/.419, all above-average figures for a center fielder, and good for a 111 wRC+. He’s been a positive defender by almost all advanced metrics. Same thing goes when evaluating him as a baserunner. It’s a small group of players who can lay claim to being a positive contributor in all three areas.
However, Herrera’s shown not only that he’s a valuable player, but that he is still improving along the way. After never slugging above .402 as a minor-leaguer, Herrera has slugged .418 and .420 in the majors, and he’s gone from eight to 15 homers in his two seasons after never hitting more than five at any minor league level.
On top of that power surge, he's displayed the ability to improve his selectivity at the plate. There was concern after his rookie season that a .387 BABIP and 24 percent strikeout rate would not be feasible going forward. And although he still had a fairly high BABIP this season (.349), he made up for a drop in that area by almost doubling his walk rate and cutting his shrinking his strikeout rate to just a little over 20 percent.
If the power, BABIP, and plate discipline are sustainable — and it would be fair to want to see another year of the same type of performance first — then the Phillies have gotten a borderline All-Star for about the same average annual value the Rockies just gave Mike Dunn.
It’s interesting to note that Herrera is the first player in the team’s rebuild to sign on long-term:
Odubel Herrera is the first member of the Phillies core to get a long-term deal. They have no one else under under contract beyond 2017— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) December 15, 2016
That’s not necessarily to say that the Phillies have looked at all their young talent and decided Herrera was the first piece they needed to lock in. He’s still probably not as central to the team’s plans as, say, J.P. Crawford or Aaron Nola, and it’s certainly no guarantee that either those guys or others would have taken the type of discount Herrera appears to have taken here.
And yet, Herrera seems like a perfectly reasonable place to start. Four-win players, as he’s been in each of his two seasons, are worth about $30 million per season, let alone over five years. This is a heist even if you think Herrera is no more than an average regular long-term.
The concern is that “average regular” is a more realistic ceiling for Herrera. That’s not uncommon for mediocre prospects who become above-average major-leaguers. We’ve already discussed his high BABIP, and there may be some noise in his defensive numbers as well — they’re solid, but not so overwhelmingly positive that everyone should be convinced he'll be a plus defender year in and year out. Perhaps signing for what seems like a massive discount should be a warning sign that even Herrera thinks he’s playing over his head.
Those are all questions we won’t have answers for until we see Herrera out on the field once again. But if he plays anything like he has so far with the Phillies, this isn’t just a nice signing, it’s a building block for the next contender in Philadelphia.
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Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.