Exploring how much it would cost the Boston Red Sox to lock up outfielder Mookie Betts to a long term deal.
Ortiz recently discussed his talented young teammate with ESPN’s Buster Olney, where he revealed his belief that Betts is going to become one of the best players in the American League, putting himself in a position to become a $250 million player someday.
Betts isn’t earning anywhere near that kind of money now, because that’s not how baseball works. Players that have not yet achieved enough major league service time to be arbitration eligible are assigned any salary of their team’s choosing above the league minimum of $507,500. The players have very little leverage in these situations and are often vastly underpaid for their performances early in their career, only for the tables to turn when they eventually hit the open market in free agency.
In his second full season in the big leagues Betts is scheduled to earn $566,000. His value is significantly higher to the Red Sox, who will happily employ him at this bargain rate while they can. It does make you wonder though how much Betts would be worth if he were to sign a long-term deal with the Red Sox.
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Let’s say that the Red Sox decided to offer Betts an 8-year deal that would lock him up through his age 30 season and buy out three years of free agency. Essentially the player accepts the trade off of earning significantly more in the short term in exchange for delaying his entry into the free agent market. This creates cost certainty for the team and gives them a potential bargain if the player blossoms into a star, while giving the player the security of a long-term deal with more money up front.
How much could Betts earn in such a deal?
FanGraphs estimates that the cost of each Win Above Replacement is somewhere between $6-7 million on the open market. Betts was worth 4.8 WAR last season according to FanGraphs, while the ZiPS projection model expects him to be worth 5.4 WAR in 2016. His production should continue to rise as he matures over the next few seasons before inevitably beginning the down slope of his career as he approaches age 30. For argument’s sake, let’s say that he averages in the neighborhood of 5.0 WAR over the next 8 seasons, which would make him an All-Star caliber player.
If we take the middle ground of FanGraphs’ estimate of the value of WAR we get $6.5 million. Multiply that by an expected average of 5.0 WAR over eight seasons and we come to a figure of $260 million.
It looks like Big Papi’s estimate wasn’t far off after all. If anything Ortiz may have slightly undervalued what Betts is worth, especially if he manages to put together a couple of MVP-caliber seasons in his prime that could push our conservative estimate closer to 6.0 WAR per season.
The Red Sox recently announced 2016 salaries for their pre-arbitration eligible players, but have yet to enter negotiations with any of them on a long-term deal. With a payroll north of $190 million this season you can understand why the Red Sox aren’t anxious to add to it right now, but those views could change in a year once the club sheds several large contracts, including that of the retiring Ortiz.
As staggering as the idea of handing $250 million to a 23-year old kid may seem, Ortiz’s prediction actually sounds pretty reasonable. If Betts manages to exceed the projection models to make the leap to super-stardom this season then any negotiations that attempt to lock him up long-term could blow those figures out of the water.