Braves Lock Up Andrelton Simmons, Keep Inflating Extensions

At this rate, every person in the metro Atlanta area will receive a long term deal from the Braves before the end of spring training. Their extension spree continued today with a seven year, $58 million deal for shortstop Andrelton Simmons that will keep him locked up through his age-30 season while also providing some new benchmarks for both inexperienced players and defensive specialists.

For the Braves, this deal is very similar to the contracts they’ve already agreed to with Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, and Craig Kimbrel. In each case, they prioritized locking up the player’s prime years for the right to not be on the hook for the age at which we expect their skills to begin to deteriorate. For reference:

Freeman: Eight years, through age 31
Teheran: Six years, through age 28, option for age 29
Kimbrel: Four years, through age 29, option for age 30
Simmons: Seven years, through age 30

While the Braves have guaranteed $267 million in future salaries to these four players, 84% of that total will be paid out while the players are still in their twenties. The Braves have almost exclusively bought the period of time in which players are most productive, and they’ve paid a higher price than prior extensions for the right to do just that. And this Simmons deal just continues that trend.

Prior to this contract, the largest guarantee for any player with just one year of service time was $45 million to Ryan Braun. Last year, with the same level of service time and proximity to free agency, Paul Goldschmidt was guaranteed $32 million for his arbitration years and first year of free agency, with the D’Backs holding an option for a second free agent year that could push the total to $46 million if it is exercised. Even if we accept that it’s a virtual lock the option will be picked up, Simmons will still get 26% more than Goldschmidt for the same period of his career, even though Goldschmidt’s dingers-and-ribbies skillset has traditionally paid a lot more than Simmons’ catch-everything-hit-on-the-ground abilities.

Now, it’s not hard to make a case that Simmons, right now, is more valuable than Goldschmidt was a year ago. At the point of the extension, Arizona’s first baseman had racked up +3.4 WAR in 764 plate appearances; Simmons is currently at +6.9 WAR in 840 PA. No matter how skeptical you are of defensive metrics and their ability to properly value guys like Simmons, that’s a huge gap, and Simmons would come out ahead no matter what kind of defensive rating you wanted to assign him.

Even regressing his defensive value for their forecasts, both ZIPS and Steamer see Simmons as a +4 WAR player for 2014, and neither Goldschmidt nor Braun were as good at the point of extension as Simmons is now. But, of course, extensions aren’t just about how good a player is, but also about the kind of leverage the team had to hold down the player’s salary and for how long; that’s why Homer Bailey gets $105 million and Madison Bumgarner gets $35 million, even though Bumgarner is pretty clearly better. And while Simmons has a strong case for his actual value matching or exceeding that of guys like Braun and Goldschmidt, it’s unlikely that his value would have been recognized to the same degree if the Braves had forced him into arbitration.

For instance, Michael Bourn is not a terribly different player from Simmons. In his final pre-arb season of 2009, he posted a 100 wRC+ (plus another win of baserunning value) and a +10 UZR as a center fielder, good for +4.6 WAR in total; he got $2.4 million to avoid arbitration for 2010. He followed it up with a +4.3 WAR season again based mostly on defensive value, and got $4.4 million. His final trip through arbitration, coming off a +3.7 WAR season, earned him $6.8 million. Over a three year period in which Bourn accumulated +12.7 WAR, he was paid a grand total of $13.6 million in salary, or basically $1 million per win.

It’s not just Bourn, either. In 2010/2011, Brett Gardner put up +10.9 WAR in his final two pre-arb seasons, and then was paid $2.8 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Because he missed almost the entire 2012 season, we can’t compare his full arbitration payouts, but he re-established himself as a quality player last year, and in his final arbitration eligible season, the Yankees are going to have to pay him $5.6 million this year.

But perhaps the best comparison is a former Braves shortstop, Elvis Andrus, who put up a +4 WAR season — driven heavily by defensive value — at age-22, and then signed away his three arbitration years for a total of $14.4 million. These are three of the best defensive players in the game today, and they basically set the arbitration market price for this kind of player at around $2.5M/$4.5M/$6.5M in their arbitration years. By comparison, Simmons is going to go $6M/$8M/$11M, and that doesn’t even account for the $5 million that he’s going to get in his final two pre-arbitration years under this new deal. Basically, Simmons is getting double what those players got by going to arbitration, and he’s getting it up front, without having to go year to year.

Now, there is a chance that Simmons will qualify as a Super Two player after this season, and would have gotten four bites at the arbitration apple, which escalates a player’s salary pretty quickly. The Braves are certainly paying a bit of a premium here because of the chance that Simmons will be a Super Two, and so buying out that possibility is a pretty valid reason for why Simmons is getting more than other defensive specialists have when going to arbitration as non-Super Two players. If Simmons qualified as a Super Two, you could make a case that he would have been in line for something like $4M/$7M/$10M/$13M, which would have set him up to make roughly $34 million before hitting free agency. Under the extension, he’ll make $30 million in what would have been his pre-arb/arb seasons, and then the Braves bought out two free agent years for $13M/$15M, which would almost certainly qualify as a bargain as long as he stays healthy.

Of course, Simmons might not be a Super Two, and if he missed the cut-off, he probably gets closer to $20 million than $30 million in his arbitration years, making the free agent years cost nearly $20 million apiece, which isn’t so much of a bargain anymore. This extension clearly prices in the fact that Simmons had a real shot at Super-Two status, and pays him as if it is more likely than not that he would have gotten four shots at arbitration. The Braves probably have a better understanding of that possibility than we do, so I’m okay deferring to them on that expectation. But it’s not a guarantee that he would have been a Super-Two player, and if he would have missed the cut, this looks really pricey relative to other extensions signed by similar players in the recent past.

But there’s also an upside play here. Going year to year to try and save $5 or $10 million comes with the risk that Simmons has a monster offensive season at some point in the next few years, turning himself from a +4 WAR player into a +5 or +6 WAR player and resetting his list of comparisons. This is the Andrew McCutchen example, essentially. If Simmons takes a massive leap forward — not completely out of the realm of possibility, given his second half power surge — then the Bourn/Gardner/Andrus comps go away, and all of the sudden he’s positioning himself against the likes of Posey and Tulowitzki, who each landed deals for over $150 million as guys who both hit well and played a premium position.

This deal pays Simmons a bit more than what we’ve seen for prior average bat/premium defense players, but it pays far, far less than what good bat/premium defense players have gotten. If the Braves had decided to let Simmons Super-Two status play out and he carried over his second half 118 wRC+ for a full year, he’d have been looking for a monstrous payday next winter, probably more than double what he just got.

You don’t want to price extensions based on the chance that a player could turn into something he’s not currently, but at the same time, Simmons has a career 94 wRC+ with a .261 BABIP. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see him posting better numbers, and any kind of significant offensive improvement would have put him in another level when it came to negotiating a long term deal next winter. This extension looks a bit expensive now, but it’s one solid offensive year away from being a huge steal.

And that’s why prices on these deals are going up. Goldschmidt is the prime example of the value of buying before the breakout. Had Arizona simply waited one more year, his price would have skyrocketed, and the entire range of comparisons would have changed. Players have been selling their breakout potential on the cheap, and teams have been coming out way ahead when guys like McCutchen and Goldschmidt turn into superstars after signing away their most productive years. Simmons didn’t sell that potential cheap. The Braves didn’t get a steal the way that the D’Backs or Pirates did. By giving a glove first player nearly a $60 million guarantee, they’re taking on some real risk in case he doesn’t develop.

But that’s how long term deals should work. Both sides should be taking risks. This is the kind of deal that good young players should be aiming for; if you’re going to sell your potential stardom, get some real guaranteed money in exchange.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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