Precedent is integral to the human psyche. We form cultural mores around them. We base judicial systems on them. Even interpersonally, we demand decisions great and small abide by them. Being different, much less measurably unique, is incredibly difficult. While the plot of nearly every made-for-TV Disney movie insists straying outside the norms leads to a happy ending, there is immense risk and stress in being incomparable. Evan White is not the most inconceivable baseball player, nor is an an extension buying out years of free agency a revolutionary conceit, but a contract extension with little precedent is only fitting for a player whose profile defies simple comparison.
When White was drafted, there were mild groans from LL HQ. The write-ups on the Kentucky 1B were glowing enough: superlative makeup, good bat-to-ball skills, extraordinary athleticism, and the type of defense you simply don’t see from the cold corner. Baseball America wrote up the report that made him simultaneously underwhelming and weird:
White is not your typical college first baseman. Usually college first baseman are players who can’t handle another position. White, who wears number 19 because it’s Joey Votto’s number, is athletic enough and fast enough (he’s an above-average runner) to play in the outfield and his plus arm would fit in right field. But White is such a gifted defender at first base that Kentucky has kept him in the dirt.
Still, the panache was lacking. It’s gotta be a hard knock life to make it as a first round first baseman. While we got scuttlebutt on White’s exit velocities drawing oohs and ahhh, Jerry Dipoto’s airtight front office has rarely leaked any information it wasn’t happy to see disseminated. As White’s career progressed, the write-ups remained perplexed:
Defensively he is the rare example of a first baseman who is a plus runner with a plus arm. While he can handle either corner outfield spot, he’s such an elite defender at first base, earning future 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale, that he’ll likely stay in the dirt. His defensive ability has drawn comparisons to Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger, a similarly skilled athlete who is capable of playing in the outfield but is so good at first base that it seems foolish to take him out of the dirt.
A first baseman who might fit better in center field comes along only once in a Dodger Blue moon, and unless White aped the progression of a LHH who went from minor league monster to NL MVP, scouts were left grasping at straws for comparisons. White didn’t make things easier. Despite tearing the cover off the ball early on, he made improvements at an incremental pace over a meteoric one. His bat path became better-suited to his bat speed and power, but not without initial fumbles. He struggled with consistency, compiling a game log inset with emptiness as minor injuries hampered him. All the while, he drew closer to the majors.
He will likely have seasons where he hits .300, and it’s an easy plus projection otherwise. His defense at first is gold glove ... It’s an unusual first base profile—the bats-right-throws-left thing is still truly bizarre—but the bat is good enough now that it’s a fairly safe one. ~ Baseball Prospectus
The Mariners need a star out of their step-back. In truth, they need a few, and the question marks in White’s profile keep it less likely he’ll be it. While 90s kids were swaddled in an epoch of Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, John Olerud, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, and more, the 1B position has been the source of far fewer stars in the past decade and a half. Last year’s greatest cold cornermen were a rookie Polar Bear and a 29 year old reformed journeyman. Neither were top-20 position players by fWAR. For White to break through into stardom he needs health, continued hitting improvement, and the chance to showcase his defense extensively.
The six-year/$24 million deal reportedly agreed upon should make White Seattle’s Opening Day first baseman, and could keep him in that spot through the 2029(!) season. It’s a deal worthy of controversy, as there’s not quite been anything of its level. Again, the closest comparisons don’t quite fit.
Earliest extensions, by days of service time:— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) November 22, 2019
0: #Mariners, Evan White, 6/$24m, '19
0: #WhiteSox, Eloy Jimenez, 6/$43m, '19
0: #Phillies, Scott Kingery, 6/$24m, '18
0: #Astros, Jon Singleton, 5/$10m, '14
17: #Rays, Matt Moore, 5/$14m, '11
24: #Rays, Evan Longoria, 6/$17.5m, '08
Eloy Jiménez was not only a more hyped prospect and guaranteed a greater sum, he’d displayed clear dominance at the highest levels of the minors, and had no justifiable players in his caliber blocking him in the big leagues. Scott Kingery spent half a season handling AAA as a shortstop before receiving his similarly priced deal. Jon Singleton got far less guaranteed, and like Kingery and Jiménez, had extended experience in Triple-A. White clearly sees this as a chance to lock up his financial future and set his big league career in motion. Unlike his contemporaries, while he was more equipped for big league reps than some of his Arkansas Travelers teammates who made the leap this September, he was by no means being stonewalled from a clearly deserved big league spot. With a move nobody anticipated, White instead will be the frontrunner for Opening Day 1B. The path is no less strange than the player, nor his pay structure. The Unicorn is here to stay.