The last 12 to 18 months have been a new age of contract extensions, where teams lock up young players before they hit the free agency market. Just over just the last few weeks, we’ve seen a number of all stars ink lucrative multi-year deals, including the Angels’ Mike Trout, the Red Sox’ Xander Bogaerts, and the Rays’ Blake Snell.
Ronald Acuña Jr. now joins this list, as the Braves announced Tuesday night that they have signed their star outfielder (and former number one prospect) to a $100 million extension that will make Acuña a Brave for at least the next eight years, and possibly ten. This long-term commitment bought Acuña out from his arbitration years, while guaranteeing him to be in Atlanta until he’s as old as 31.
Acuña won the National League Rookie of the Year award last year in a near-unanimous vote, earning 96 percent of the voting share. Despite losing a month to injury, he played in 111 games, where he posted a .293/.366/.429 (143 wRC+) slash line, mashed 26 home runs, and showed solid speed, swiping 16 of 21 stolen bases.
Although he missed being considered a ‘qualified player’ by 15 plate appearances in 2018, Acuña finished with the eighth-best wRC+ of all players who came to bat at least 450 times, and looked like a complete and productive player despite being only 20 years old.
Since July 2014 at the age of 16, Acuña has only known the Braves’ organization. Signed out of Venezuela, Atlanta inked him for a meager $100,000 signing bonus. From 2015 to 2018, Acuña played across multiple minor league levels, earning his way to the big leagues in less than four calendar years from the day he signed with Atlanta scout Rolando Petit. Over his relatively short minor league career, Acuña worked his way up from Baseball America’s 26th ranked Atlanta prospect to sixth (at the age of 18!), to the top-rated farmhand going into 2018.
There is something to be said for stability; after all, no player knows what injurious fate they may endure in their career, particularity those in their arbitration years. Still, this is a steal for the Braves, who basically incur little risk on a player who has already proven he can be a major league star.
Mookie Betts is an interesting comparison to Acuña, since he had a meteoric rise through the minors and a red-hot start to his career. Betts stayed shockingly underpaid through his second and third MLB seasons, earning $566,000 in his 8.3 fWAR 2016 season and $950,000 in 2017. That sub-one-million salary got bumped up to $10.5 million in 2018 and doubled to $20 million via arbitration in 2018 and 2019.
Taking those numbers as an example, and projecting a conservative $20 million arbitration in 2020, Betts will have earned a total $52 million over his first five seasons, and then will be primed for free agency, where he will command a ton more than the $48 million that would make him even with Acuña.
Acuña is not Mookie Betts, but this example shows how Acuña very likely would have earned life-changing money through arbitration while continuing to enhance his standing and potential earning profile by doing much the same as he did last year. It objectively looks like he preferred stability and guaranteed money rather than betting on himself, wading through the arbitration years (another story entirely), and maximizing his career earnings.
It’s tough to blame a player for agreeing to a super-profitable extension. Money today is often more valuable to people than money in the future. Yet still, it’s surprising that a player who comes from a lineage of successful ball players would not bet on himself to maximize his future earning potential, and hold out longer before signing an extension.
Acuña’s father, Ronald Acuña Sr. played in the minors with the Mets, his grandfather Romualdo Blanco played in the minor leagues, his uncle Jose Escobar is a former MLB shortstop (there are other cousins who have played in the big leagues as well). While Ronald Jr. will surpass all their earnings combined with this deal, it is nevertheless surprising how affordable it is to the Braves.
It’s hard to look at a player commanding this type of money and this type of stability as being taken advantage of, but the surplus value that the Braves are likely to receive will speak for itself as Acuña continues to play at a high level over the next handful of years. Since he’s only 21, and with fewer than 500 plate appearances against major league pitching, he likely has yet to come into his prime. While this is a scary prospect to the rest of the National League East, it’s nevertheless great news for Atlanta.
Last season, Acuña was a 3.7 win player per FanGraphs’ WAR. For this $100 million extension to match production, even if he didn’t improve at all, this contract will pay for itself in less than four years (figuring $7.5 million per win). There’s a very good chance the Braves will benefit from Acuña’s services between the ages of 25 to 31 with him having already provided more value than this contract is worth.
Congratulations to Ronald Acuña for earning this type of money and this type of contract, but this is an example of a deal that is far more beneficial to Liberty Media Holdings, the Braves owner, than it is for the player. While Acuña may not care about the difference between $100 million and $150 or $200 million (or more), future free agents (especially the free agent middle class the Braves and other owners have largely ignored) may look at extensions like this as stifling their own earning potential based on precedent. It’s game theory at its finest, with the collateral being other players looking to maximize their career earnings.
*Correction: a previous edition listed Mookie Betts as an international signee, he was drafted by the Red Sox in the Rule 4 draft.