Buster Posey will be a San Francisco Giant at least through the end of the 2016 season. The upcoming season will be his first as an arbitration-eligible player. He’ll have three more of those before he becomes a free agent. That is, unless Posey and the Giants agree to a long-term contract that buys out one or more of his free-agent years. Should Posey commit to the Giants long-term? Should the Giants commit to Posey? What kind of deal makes sense?
Hard to believe, sometimes, but the reigning National League most valuable player has played in only 305 major-league games and amassed only 1,255 plate appearances. His first major-league at bat came on Sept. 11, 2009, during a brief September call-up. (He struck out). In 2010, the Giants didn’t call Posey up from the minors until late May, as Bengie Molina continued to handle the everyday catching duties. Even then, Posey played first base for a month before the Giants traded Molina to the Rangers and installed Posey behind the dish.
In 443 plate appearances in 108 games, Posey hit .305/.357/.505 with 18 home runs. His 134 wRC+ tied him with Ryan Braun for 15th-best in the National League. Posey was named National League Rookie of the Year and guided the Giants’ vaunted pitching staff during the team’s World Series run. He earned $400,000 but delivered $16.7 million in value with a 4.2 WAR.
Posey’s 2011 campaign was cut short by the devastating ankle and leg injury he suffered in a home plate collision with Scott Cousins on May 25. In his 45 games that season, Posey dropped off from his sensational rookie numbers and hit only .284/.368/.389 in 185 plate appearances. The power numbers, in particular, looked concerning but may very well have stabilized during a full season. Posey earned $575,000 but delivered $8 million worth of value in just two months of playing time.
And then there’s 2012. National League Batting Champion*. National League MVP. National League Comeback Player of the Year. World Series champion. Posey played 148 games and had 610 plate appearances and he did the most with them. He hit .336/.408/.509 with 24 home runs. He led the National League with 8 WAR, and if his base running wasn’t so poorly rated, his WAR could have reached 10. The Giants paid him $615,000 and he gave his team $36 million in value.
What does all of this mean for a possible long-term deal between Posey and the Giants?
Let’s start first with what Posey’s salary is likely to be over the next four seasons if determined by the arbitration process. My colleague Matt Swartz developed an arbitration projection model for MLB Trade Rumors. You can (and should) read the details of Matt’s model in the series of posts here. In short, Matt explains that arbitration panels continue to focus on “old-school” statistics when looking for “comparable players” and place an emphasis on playing time. Swartz projected Posey to earn $5.9 million in arbitration for the 2013 season. I wonder if that’s a bit low considering Ryan Howard‘s $10 million arbitration award for the 2008 season.
Like Posey, Howard was the NL Rookie of the Year (in 2005) and the NL MVP (in 2006) before his first year of arbitration eligibility. But in his first three full seasons (plus 19 games in 2004), Howard had 1,742 plate appearances in 411 games — 100-plus more games and 500-plus more plate appearances than Posey. Howard hit .280/.377/.593 with 119 home runs and 353 RBI. In his first three seasons, Posey hit .308/.377/.484 with 46 home runs and 119 RBI. Posey doesn’t compare when it comes to home runs and RBI, but he plays a much more demanding position.
Even if we accept Swartz’s $5.9 million for 2013, things get even trickier going forward. If Posey continues to produce at 2012 levels, there won’t be many “comparable players” with similar service time whose salaries were determined by arbitration. Click here for a list of the top hitters under 30 years old, ranked by WAR, for the combined 2010-2012 seasons. Posey is 12th, and that’s with 400+ fewer plate appearances than every other player on the list: Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Michael Bourn, Chase Headley, Ryan Zimmerman and Yadier Molina.
Of all of those players, only Cabrera went to arbitration and only for one year. In 2007, his first year of arbitration eligibility, Cabrera was awarded $7.4 million against the Marlins. Every player on that list — save for Headley and Bourn — signed multi-year deals with their teams covering at least their arbitration-eligible seasons; in some cases, the deals bought out several free-agent years. Headley and Bourn have gone year-to-year and Bourn is now a free agent.
Swartz’s highest position-player arbitration projections for 2013 are Hunter Pence, at $13.8 million in his last year of eligibility; Jacoby Ellsbury, at $8.1 million in his last year of eligibility; and Headley, at $8.3 million, in his third year of eligibility. These numbers will rise for comparable players in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
If Posey continues to produce in his next 2,500 plate appearances as he has in his first 1,255, and he stays healthy, it’s not hard to imagine arbitration figures for him in 2014-2016 going from $10 million to $15 million to $20 million. If so, that would be $51 million for his four years of arbitration eligibility. Could be more, could be less. But that’s a reasonable figure to work with.
With those numbers in mind, does it make sense for the Giants to buy out Posey’s arbitration-eligible years for somewhere in the range of $45 million? A bit below my very rough arbitration projections, but an $11.25 million AAV would be higher than the AAV for Cano, Longoria, Braun, McCutchen, Pedroia, Zimmerman and Molina in their arbitration-year contracts. Only Cabrera’s and Votto’s deals — which covered some arbitration years and some free-agent years — had higher AAVs. This kind of deal gives the Giants cost certainty and protects Posey financially against the risk of injury or a drop-off in production.
And what about a deal covering one or more of Posey’s free-agent years? This is where things get interesting. Much of Posey’s value derives from his work behind the plate. After his 2011 injury, there was some talk (inside and outside the organization) of moving Posey to a less-demanding position. He was the regular catcher in 2012, but only for 114 games. He played 29 games at first base, games manager Bruce Bochy often referred to as Posey’s “days off.” Rumors continue to swirl that eventually the Giants would like to move Posey to another position to keep his bat in the lineup everyday. Posey continues to say he loves catching and he wants to remain in that position. We can only speculate what’s really going on, but if the two sides have a differing views of Posey’s future position, that may be the biggest impediment to a long-term deal. If the Giants won’t commit to Posey as catcher — and he wants to stay behind the dish — money may not be enough to keep Posey in San Francisco after 2016.
Perhaps a sensible approach is a contract extending into Posey’s first year of free agency. Take the four-year/$45 million option and add another year at $22 million. Or $25 million. Or structure the deal with a total value of $70 million for five years, with $5 million of total paid up front as a signing bonus. Posey locks in one year of free-agent-type money but retains flexibility should he and the team part ways over a future position. The Giants retain their franchise player — and marketing magnet — at least one additional year at an escalating but not unexpected salary.
Currently, the Giants are committed to only two players for 2017: Matt Cain, at $20.8 million and Madison Bumgarner, at $11.7 million. Adding Posey to that list, even at $25 million, makes sense for the franchise’s foundation.
It also makes sense for the Giants to wait at least one more year before committing big dollars and many years to Posey. His value is off the charts right now, but his 1,255 plate appearances are still a relatively small sample on which to craft $70 million deal. Even at $6 million-plus, Posey’s 2013 salary won’t break the bank. And an extra year of playing time will give the team more information on which to assess the merits and value of a long-term contract.