The early extension is becoming more and more popular by the year in Major League Baseball. Hell, even the Mariners have whet their whistle, signing first base prospect Evan White to a 6-year, $24 million deal before he had any meaningful time above Double-A. It’s on rare occasion where you come across a player who checks so many boxes that the potential payout outweighs the risk. Jarred Kelenic is likely that type of player.
By now you’ve heard the story. Acquired from the New York Mets as part of the Robinson Cano-Edwin Diaz deal, all Kelenic has done since arriving to Seattle is mash. The Waukesha, Wisconsin product slashed .291/.364/.540 across three levels in 2019, most of which took place at the age of 19.
Kelenic is a special breed. He’s the rare combination of power, speed and patience that teams covet. He was one of just four players in all of full season minor league ball to provide a slugging percentage north of .500, a strikeout percentage south of 23 percent, a walk percentage north of 9.5 percent, all the while stealing 15 bases. The others, as you might imagine, are/were Top 100 prospects as well in Dylan Carlson, Kyle Tucker and Jeter Downs.
Kelenic’s best attribute may be his ability to adjust. A career OPS north of .880 doesn’t happen by accident. Adaptability and pitch recognition must be present for a teenager to avoid prolonged slumps. At every stage, after a week or two of learning and getting comfortable, Kelenic gets loud.
When discussing baseball contracts, the best deals are those that reward both the team and player. In the case of White, he got safety and security in an early payday. He’s dealt with some soft-tissue injuries during his minor league career, so money up-front represented peace of mind. It also provided the foundation for him to be the Mariners’ Opening Day starter. For the Mariners, if White turns into the 2-3 win player they hope he can be, he’ll provide excess value. That being said, Kelenic’s case, and ceiling for that matter, is far more complex.
Presuming Kelenic doesn’t debut until 2021, he won’t hit free agency until 2027 at which stage he’d still be just 27 years old on Opening day. If Kelenic turns into the player most expect him to be, that could be a mammoth trip to the bank.
For this exercise, let’s assume Seattle elects to keep him out of all action in 2020. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to sign your bluechip prospect to a long-term extension only to burn a year of controllability on a 60-game season
he might not be prepared for.
From all indications, Jerry Dipoto & Co.™ are pretty staunch in their belief that it would behoove Kelenic and the rebuild for him to spend the truncated season playing intra-squad exhibitions against some premier arms like Logan Gilbert, Brandon Williamson and George Kirby — all of whom feature good breaking balls, a focal point in Kelenic’s development. Regardless, most successful prospects get at least 1,200 plate appearances in minor league ball before debuting. Kelenic sits at just 751. Young, prodigious talents like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. both tallied ~1,200 minor league plate appearances before debuting at 20 years old.
Fast-forward eight months though... If the Mariners were to offer Kelenic a massive extension to be their opening day centerfielder for 2021, would it make sense?
Nobody believes in their own ability more than Kelenic. It should be presumed he won’t take a dollar less than what he believes he’s worth. There’s precedence here. Acuña’s 8-year deal worth $100 million from 2019 is the framework, but even that may be selling a potential deal short. For reference, Acuña’s deal could reach $124 million over 10 years.
Acuña’s contract calls for $1 million each in 2019 and 2020, $5 million in 2021, $15 million in 2022 and $17 million in each of 2023-2026. There’s a team option of $17 million for 2027 with a $10 million buyout. The Braves also have a $17 million option for 2028 — the year Acuña turns 31.
Those numbers, especially the free agent buyout years, are a bargain for the Braves.
Let’s examine what Kelenic’s earnings could be should he just play things out.
2021-2023: Pre-Arbitration — $1,690,500 total.
2024: Arbitration Year 1 — $10 million ($1.5 million less than Bellinger’s Arb 1)
2025: Arbitration Year 2 — $12 million (20% increase is common)
2026: Arbitration Year 3 — $19 million (50-60% increase is common)
2027-2028: Free Agent Years — $56 million total (accounts for inflation)
Now, the elephant in the room here is the assumption that finances and payrolls recover in Major League Baseball between now and 2027. Teams will likely cut payroll for the next few years to help recover some of the losses incurred from this pandemic.
In any case, the figures above amount to almost $100 million on the dot. As you can see from Acuña’s construct, he’s making more in years 3, 4, and 5 than he ordinarily would had he just played things out. The Braves pay more early to save money annually on the backend.
There’s inherit risk in these deals. If Kelenic were to get hurt or underperform, the team will have locked up $100 million over several years. That being said, if this front office has made one thing clear, it’s their confidence in the young slugger.
The Mariners are working to build a core for their next competitive window and Kelenic looks to be an anchor for the movement. It’s impossible to know whether ownership would even be willing to commit this kind of money to a player in the current economic crisis. Secondly, it’s hard to know whether their bluechip centerfielder would even consider the such a deal.
In any case, Jarred Kelenic will likely represent the Mariners’ most talented centerfield option come April 1, 2021. Jerry Dipoto and Co.™ may want to allow him the minor league at-bats “necessary” to help ensure success. Kelenic doesn’t seem interested in preconceptions.