Lock up your young players. That has been the theme of the past two winters. Last off-season we saw a number of prominent players, including Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, sign extensions that will keep them in their respective towns. This year we’re seeing more of the same. The Rockies doled out perhaps the most prolific extension, signing Troy Tulowitzki through 2020. They were at it again this week, signing Carlos Gonzalez to a seven-year deal for around $80 million. That’s a pretty massive contract for a player who has played one full season and parts of two others. It also seems massive when compared to one of his peers.
Last month the Reds signed their young outfielder, Jay Bruce, to a six-year, $51 million extension. Matt Klaassen wrote that one up at the time and liked the deal for the Reds. It buys out two years of free agency at $24.5 million, and then has a $13 million option for the third year of free agency. That will help keep him in Cincinnati through at least his age-29 season, and likely his age-30 season, whereas if they failed to sign him he would be eligible for free agency entering his age-28 season, which would probably price him well out of the Reds’ range. All told the contract will likely become seven years at $62 million.
Is Gonzalez really worth $18 million more than Bruce over seven years? That’s tough to tell now, considering that both have played one full season and parts of two others. It leaves us with little track record and lots of projection. In terms of current production, Gonzalez has been slightly better.
On offense Gonzalez has been quite a bit better, a .372 career wOBA in 1,269 PA to Bruce’s .342 wOBA in 1,412 PA. But, again, we’re looking at young players with limited data right now. Gonzalez had a spectacular 2010, but no player with 1,000 or more PA over the last three seasons has sustained anything close to a .380 BABIP. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Bruce will certainly be the better offensive player, but I think it’s a bit closer than their 2010 seasons will have us believe. Bruce improved substantially in 2010, including his performance against lefties, and figures for a monster 2011 season.
On defense, the comparison doesn’t appear close. Bruce started off his career with a -5 UZR in right field (-10.4 per 150), but since then he has been nothing but phenomenal. Of right fielders with at least 2,500 innings in the last three seasons, Bruce ranks second in UZR, and first in UZR/150. If we expand those parameters to include all outfielders, Bruce ranks eighth overall. If the Reds needed him to play center field and make room for another big corner outfield bat, they could probably move Bruce to center field for a couple of years at least and not lose too much defensively.
Gonzalez hasn’t been bad in the outfield, posting a 10.3 UZR since his debut, but he appears to be on the downswing, going from 11 UZR in 2008 to 2 in 2009, to -2.7 this year. Bruce, on the other hand, has improved every year. This isn’t to say that Gonzalez is a poor defender. He can certainly play left field well enough. But if the Rockies had to move him into center field they’d lose some value there.
Again, for the third time, we’re not dealing with much data with these two players. A lot of projection goes into these contracts. How exactly do they project? Let’s turn to their 2008 Baseball America scouting reports, where they both ranked No. 1 for their respective teams. Here’s what the BA staff had to say about Gonzalez:
Gonzalez lacks nothing in the way of physical tools. He has tremendous bat speed, with a pure easiness to his swing that generates plus raw power to all fields. The strength and leverage in his natural inside-out stroke make the ball jump off his bat.
He gets himself in trouble when he tries to pull the ball too much. He’s still an erratic defender, leading the high Class A California and Double-A Southern league in outfield miscues the last two years with 12 each time.
Bruce combines tremendous bat speed with an excellent swing plane. He has a knack for deciphering and correcting flaws in his swing between at-bats and sometimes even between pitches. He has the natural ability to hit for average and power even if he didn’t work hard, but he does have the drive of a baseball rat, which explains why he’s the first person to the ballpark and the last to leave. Every one of Bruce’s tools is better than average.
Bruce has few faults. He strikes out a lot, but the whiffs are an acceptable tradeoff for his production. Some Triple-A teams found him vulnerable to being busted inside, but that doesn’t appear to be a long-term problem. While he’s capable of playing center field relatively well, he still projects to end up in right as he grows older and fills out.
Those sound very similar, though the BA crew sounded a bit higher on Bruce than on Gonzalez — hence ranking Bruce No. 1 overall and Gonzalez No. 22. We know that plenty changes from year to year in these scouting reports, so we shouldn’t take them as gospel. But they’re something to consider as we search for any kind of data to help better project these players.
What we’re left with is something of a toss-up. There’s a good chance that Gonzalez continues to be the better offensive weapon — Bill James projects him to be a bit better. But there’s also a good chance that Bruce far outshines him on defense. I’d say that they’re pretty similar players in terms of overall value going forward, which makes Gonzalez’s extension a bit harder to understand. I don’t think he’ll be worth $12 million more than Bruce in the next seven years. But that’s sometimes the premium a team has to pay to keep a young star in town.
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