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A Review of Evan White’s Contract

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Breaking down the first MLB contract ever handed out to a minor leaguer who had yet to play more than 4 games in AAA

Arizona Fall League All Star Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Up until Friday, Evan White was known as a top-100 prospect with a unique skillset and profile — I don’t think lefty-throwing, righty-hitting first basemen with Gold Glove-caliber defense grow on trees. But after reports surfaced that White has agreed to terms with the Mariners on a six year deal with $24m guaranteed, White will be known by his play as well as for his contract.

Per our own Joe Doyle, the contract includes $22m guaranteed over the first six years, with a $2m buyout after year six.

It also includes three separate club options for years 7, 8, and 9 (White’s age-30, age-31, and age-32 seasons) at $10m, $11m, and $12.5m. So although White is giving up potentially three years of free agency, he’s also giving himself the potential to make up to $55.5m over those nine seasons.

Why White agreed to this deal

Evan White is 23 years old. Most 23-year-olds (maybe all 23-year-olds!) would think of $24 million as a lot of money! And for all of White’s prospect pedigree as a former first-round pick, that status hardly a guarantee of big-league stardom. Seventy-three percent of first-rounders make MLB, and fewer than half of first-rounders from 1996 to 2011 played 3+ years in MLB. No matter how good White ends up being, he now has a serious safety net to fall back on: For comparison’s sake, Mitch Haniger is currently projected to make $3m next season, his first year of arbitration, which is how much White has guaranteed himself in that season.

This contract also removes any incentive for the Mariners to play “service time games” with White. The most famous example of this is the Kris Bryant saga of 2015, when the Cubs decided Bryant needed more minor league seasoning and elected to keep him down in AAA to start the season. It wasn’t until April 16 that the Cubs decided Bryant was MLB-ready — not-so-coincidentally, that meant Bryant would accumulate 171 days of service time instead of one full year. As a result, by keeping Bryant down for those two weeks, the Cubs gained an extra year of club control over Bryant at a much lower cost than free agency would result in. So while, at first blush, White gave up three free agent years, one could make the case that the M’s would make sure to control him for that extra year.

And none of this touches on the other risks White is minimizing: he could always get hurt (in his words, White has had “a lot of lower leg extremity issues”), MLB could change its revenue model, etc. Point is: Evan White is now guaranteed $24 million dollars despite never having played in a major league game.

Why the Mariners agreed to this deal

What are the two words every MLB team loves more than “The Astros are embroiled in a major scandal and now everybody hates them?” Cost certainty. The Mariners now know exactly how much White will make for each of the next six years, and they have the flexibility to pay him at very reasonable prices for his first three FA seasons.

Only three other players have ever signed a deal like this before playing a single game in the big leagues:

  • Eloy Jiménez (March 2019) signed a six-year, $43m deal with two club options, and the 22-year-old was well above league average at the plate in 2019, with a .267/.315/.513 slash line. He finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting and seems set to live up to his #2 prospect in baseball status.
  • Scott Kingery (March 2018) was remarkably bad in his rookie campaign, putting up an OPS+ of 61 and -1.3 bWAR. But after his sophomore season, where Kingery was worth 3.0 bWAR and found enough power to become a league average hitter, his six-year, $24m deal with three club options looks very reasonable.
  • Jon Singleton (June 2014) has struggled immensely since signing a five-year, $10m deal with the ‘Stros. With a career .171 average and no MLB games since 2015, Singleton is a flat-out bust; that said, off-field issues certainly contributed to Singleton’s fall from grace, with a 50-game suspension in 2013 and a 100-game suspension in 2018.

Both the Jiménez and Kingery deals are too early to use as shining examples of early-career extensions. But other contracts have proved to be a boon for the teams: Matt Moore, Evan Longoria, Salvador Perez, Tim Anderson, and Chris Archer are all players who signed these types of contracts and went on to become good players — as well as great trade assets.

It’s interesting to note, however, that the M’s elected to sign White to this deal in November, given that all the precedents from above were signed just before or during the season. One reason many players want to sign this before the season starts is to prevent a Kris Bryant situation and incentivize their teams to play them as much as possible; I’d go so far as to suggest that had the Mariners decided to demote White and call him up later in the season, he wouldn’t have been amenable to signing this deal. I would also guess that by signing him now, the Mariners think they can use this contract as a motivating tool for their players and a vote of confidence in their player development system.

Had White elected not to sign this contract and played up to his potential, the Mariners could easily have been on the hook for big money. One comp often tossed around with Evan White is Eric Hosmer (although scouts say that White has a better glove than Hosmer does); in his first three years of arb, Hosmer earned $3.6m, $5.6m, and $8.3m. Hosmer also earned $21m in each of his first three years of free agency, and if we use those same amounts as a comparison for White, then the M’s will have saved $25m, with late-deal year-to-year flexibility that teams crave. If White isn’t actually very good, the M’s will have wasted enough money to buy...one kinda-good middle reliever in free agency? Seriously, this is a pretty low-risk deal.

Who wins?

Well, it’s hard to look at these deals without noting the larger labor implications. Reports surfaced that some players were very unhappy with the deal:

One agent summarized the thoughts from the labor side: “Been dealing with about five big leaguer clients talking my ear off about this awful deal and how someone needs to talk to these young kids.”

White definitely is lowering his ceiling on this contract. But maybe, just maybe, that’s because the MLBPA has negotiated a system where it would likely take him seven years of playing in the bigs to finally become a free agent — just as he ages out of his baseball-playing prime. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, big leaguers. If you don’t want young guys to sign away their maximum earning potentials, then you should work on redistributing some of that sweet, sweet MLB revenue to younger players earlier in their careers, or find ways to make their immediate financial needs less pressing.

Regardless, when it comes to contract negotiations, neither side should win. The goal of a negotiation is for both parties to be satisfied; not ecstatic, not dejected, but satisfied. Evan White is hopefully satisfied because the Mariners have every reason to put him on the Opening Day roster, and because he’s guaranteed his family generational wealth. The M’s are hopefully satisfied because a core member of their future is both locked down contractually and bought in emotionally, portending good things down the road.