Starling Marte Gives the Pirates a Long Term Gift

For the last few weeks, word has been circulating that the Pirates wanted to sign Starling Marte to a long term contract, but that he had rebuffed their first few offers over the off-season. Yesterday, however, the Pirates finally changed his mind, agreeing to a six year contract that raises the question: if this is all that it took to get him signed, were their initial offers that he would pay them for the right to wear the uniform?

Yes, that comment is said in jest, and yes, the $31 million guaranteed money that Marte received in this deal is hardly chump change. But let’s call a spade a spade here: Marte left a ton of money on the table, and this contract is remarkably favorable to the Pirates.

Marte’s deal has been widely reported as a six year, $31 million deal, because that’s the portion that the Pirates have guaranteed to pay going forward no matter what happens. But in reality, this is really an eight year, $55 million contract, because that’s how many years of team control that Marte gave to the Pirates and what he will receive if both of the team options are picked up. Given the low prices that are attached to those options — 2/$26M in 2020/2021 will probably buy a platoon outfielder or a mediocre fifth starter — they are very likely to be picked up, barring some kind of debilitating injury that robs him of his physical skills.

Marte sold two pre-arb years, three arbitration years, and three free agent years for a grand total payout — if everything goes well — of $55 million. Now, let’s compare Marte’s deal with one signed by a player at the same age and with the same service time last year.

Player Signing Bonus 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 Total
Starling Marte $2.0 M $.5 M $1.0 M $3.0 M $5.0 M $7.5 M $10.0 M $12.5 M $13.5 M $55.0 M
Paul Goldschmidt $.5 M $.5 M $1.0 M $3.0 M $5.8 M $8.8 M $11.0 M $14.5 M   $45.0 M

The structures of the deal are so similar that it’s very clear that this deal weighed heavily in designing the format of Marte’s contract. They will make the exact same salaries at the same age for the first three years, and then Goldschmidt makes about $1 million more in each of the subsequent guaranteed years, with his option year being worth $2 million more than Marte’s, and of course, the one fewer free agent year that he gave the D’Backs an option for. Even though Marte’s deal has a higher potential total value if both options are picked up, there’s no real way to prefer his deal as a player, because he makes less in salary through the guaranteed years and is selling that extra year of free agency at a bargain rate.

In other words, Marte took a deal in 2014 that is more team friendly than the deal signed by Goldschmidt in 2013, and the Goldschmidt deal already looks like one of the four or five most team friendly contracts on the planet. And here’s the kicker: through the point at which they signed the contract, Marte has been the better player.

Starling Marte 748 0.275 0.332 0.440 0.337 116 7.4 20.7 9.4 5.7
Paul Goldschmidt 764 0.278 0.353 0.487 0.361 123 3.2 23.6 -15.4 3.4

It’s easy to look at Goldschmidt now and see him as a monster offensive first baseman, but he hadn’t really shown himself to be that when he signed his extension last March. His 2011/2012 offensive lines aren’t really that much better than Marte’s 2012/2013 performance at the plate, overall, especially once you factor in Marte’s baserunning advantage. In terms of offensive runs added per plate appearance, they were nearly equals, and then Marte clearly blows Goldschmidt out of the water in terms of defensive value.

Now, certainly Goldschmidt’s skillset pays better in arbitration than Marte’s does, and racking up a bunch of home runs and RBIs was going to help Goldschmidt command larger raises than Marte’s agent trying to get the arbiters to buy into the value of speed and defense. So, even though Marte had been more valuable at the point of signing the contract, his expected arbitration payouts were likely a little bit less than Goldschmidt’s, which is reflected in the structure of the deal.

But even adjusting for the potential arbitration preferences towards sluggers over speedsters, Marte’s contract is still pretty fantastic for the Pirates, because defensive value is still rewarded to an extent. Darwin Barney — an offensive nothing whose career WAR is basically a match for Marte’s 2013 WAR — settled for $2.3 million in his first trip through arbitration this winter. Marte could break both of his legs and still outhit Barney for the next two years, and yet he sold his first arbitration year for $3 million. That’s even less than Josh Reddick got in his first trip through arbitration, coming off a season where Reddick hit .226/.307/.379.

Essentially, Marte took the bare minimum that he could have possibly expected to get in arbitration, and then took $2 to $2.5 million raises for each subsequent year. You know what kind of players go from $3 million in arbitration year one to $5 million in arbitration year two? Guys like David Freese ($3.15M to $5.05M) who lose all their power, play terrible defense, and put up a 0.2 WAR in less playing time than they had the year before. That is the kind of performance that Marte would have needed to earn the type of raise that he just guaranteed himself.

Realistically, a reasonable forecast for Marte in arbitration probably would have been something like $4 million/$7 million/$10 million, or about $21 million in money that wasn’t quite guaranteed but also was fairly easily achieved based on what he’s already done. Instead, Marte will make $15.5 million for those three years. But, you say, he’s getting the money guaranteed, and selling all the risk that comes with going year to year.

Yes, that’s true, but as an offset for selling that risk, he’s also giving the Pirates the rights to his first three free agent years for a grand total of $36 million. In other words, Marte’s deal tells the Pirates that he’ll sell the risk of injury or performance decline in exchange for taking a 25% discount in his expected arbitration payouts and probably something closer to a 40% discount on three free agent seasons.

Not only do the Pirates save money in the short term, they also pushed back Marte’s free agent window until after his age-32 season. The trend in these long-term, early career contracts has been to get the player back on the market around age-30 so that he can attempt to land a second major deal if he stays healthy and plays well. Marte’s deal doesn’t even do that, as he’ll be a free agent at about the point at which teams start to get skittish over giving long term deals to a player due to his age.

Forget the Andrelton Simmons deal, the most recent comparison for a defense-first player with 1+ year of service time, because this deal doesn’t even stack up to the most team friendly contract signed by a 1+ year player from last year. This deal doesn’t account for any of the inflation we’ve seen in contract signings over the last 12 months. It doesn’t give Marte a chance to get back to the free agent market to land a second long term deal. He didn’t get any kind of opt-out, and he sold more years of free agency that almost all of the other contracts signed by similar players.

$31 million is a lot of money. Starling Marte signed for $85,000, and this is his first big paycheck. I understand the allure of this kind of deal to a guy who isn’t yet a millionaire, and the marginal value of getting another $10 or $15 million might not have been worth it, especially if he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh and they weren’t willing to go any higher. When it comes to deciding how many millions is enough millions, there’s certainly room for personal preference to come into play, and maybe Marte just really wanted to stick around and play with Andrew McCutchen.

But for the right to do so, he gave the Pirates a huge bargain. Even with Marte expected to regress back to something closer to a +3 WAR player going forward, this deal is going to be one of the most team friendly contracts on the books for quite some time.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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