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What Does a Jarred Kelenic Extension Look Like?

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Can the Mariners lock up the future face of their franchise? And should they?

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Workouts
Would you give this man $90m guaranteed?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since he arrived on the scene in fall 2018, Jarred Kelenic has been the face of the Mariners’ rebuild. It’s to be expected, of course — when you’re traded for a $240 million-dollar man and a 57-save wunderkind, you’re going to have quite a spotlight on you. And the Waukesha Wonder has delivered at every level: He shredded A-ball and A+ ball, and even held his own at AA ball, at age 19, and he’s accordingly rocketed up prospect lists.

Heading into 2021, Kelenic is just about ready for the big-time. The 21-year-old is likely better than the options the Mariners are slated to roll out in left field, and though there was no MiLB season last year for Kelenic to prove himself in AAA, there’s little doubt that he’ll grace T-Mobile Park with his presence at some point this season. Kelenic (and his representation) is reportedly frustrated with how the Mariners have manipulated his service time thus far by not calling him up in 2020. Those frustrations could impact his willingness to re-sign with the Mariners when he hits free agency.

So what is Jerry Dipoto to do? From a baseball perspective, given the M’s aren’t expected to contend in 2021, it makes little sense to put Kelenic on the Opening Day roster. Instead, by keeping him down for about three weeks (technically 16+ days due to MLB service time rules), Dipoto would push back Kelenic’s free agency by one year. Or he could make a splash and offer Kelenic a long-term extension that would guarantee Kelenic generational wealth while also keeping him in teal & blue for most of the 2020s. What might that deal look like?

Comparable Deals

First, let’s check out all long-term extensions in the last 5 years given to players with no more than 1 year of service time:

Extensions Since 2015, <1 yr MLB Service Time

Player Signed Before Age MLB Service Time FanGraphs FV MLB/FG Rk Years Team Options Guaranteed $ Max $ FA Years Controlled
Player Signed Before Age MLB Service Time FanGraphs FV MLB/FG Rk Years Team Options Guaranteed $ Max $ FA Years Controlled
Jarred Kelenic 21 0.0 60 4
Luis Robert 2020 22 0.0 60 3 6 2 $50,000,000 $88,000,000 2
Evan White 2020 24 0.0 50 56 6 3 $24,000,000 $55,500,000 3
Eloy Jiménez 2019 22 0.0 60 3 6 2 $43,000,000 $75,000,000 2
Scott Kingery 2018 24 0.0 55 35 6 3 $24,000,000 $65,000,000 3
Brandon Lowe 2019 24 0.058 50 46 6 2 $24,000,000 $49,000,000 2
Tim Anderson 2017 24 0.115 55 47 6 2 $25,000,000 $50,500,000 2
Paul DeJong 2018 24 0.124 45 n/a 6 2 $26,000,000 $51,500,000 2
Ronald Acuña Jr. 2019 21 0.165 65 2 8 2 $100,000,000 $124,000,000 4

I’ve got a few takeaways after looking at these players & their deals:

  • With just one exception (and we’ll get to that in a minute), every one of these deals includes six guaranteed years and either two or three team options.
  • These players are all position players — teams remain gunshy from committing tens of millions of dollars to pitchers with no big league mileage on their arms.
  • The only comparable players to Kelenic, by both FanGraphs Future Value and prospect rankings, are Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, and Ronald Acuña Jr.

These three players all come from very different backgrounds: Robert defected from Cuba in 2016 and received a $26m signing bonus from the White Sox, while Jiménez signed for a $2.8m signing bonus out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. Acuña, meanwhile, cashed in for only $100k when he signed as a Venezuelan teenager in 2014. But all three within a year of Kelenic’s age entering 2021 when they signed their deals, and all three were much-ballyhooed prospects before their debuts.

Jiménez’s deal came first, guaranteeing him $43m over six years (1/1.5/3.5/6.5/9.5/13). Years Seven & Eight are team options worth $16.5m and $18.5m, and each contains a $3m club buyout. (The last $5m guaranteed came via signing bonus.) Robert, who signed a year later, opted for a more traditional structure, forgoing a signing bonus to instead collect $48m over six years (1.5/3.5/6/9.5/12.5/15) and two club options at $20m apiece, with the $2m buyout raising his guarantee to $50m.

Acuña is a different story. He had already excelled in the bigs, posting 3.7 fWAR with a .293/.366/.552 slash line at age 20. He was two years away from his first big payday, and six years from hitting free agency in his age-27 season. But he opted for financial security, signing away as many as four FA years in order to guarantee himself (and his family) $100 million. I don’t want to criticize a player for “playing it safe” rather than betting on himself, but like most in the baseball world, I felt like he took a well-below-market contract.

Where does this leave us with Kelenic? For starters, given Kelenic’s ample confidence, I doubt he’d sign away as many FA years as Acuña, instead choosing to bet on himself. The Mets gave him a $4.5m signing bonus when they drafted him, so he’s got enough of a nest egg to buy himself some patience here.

Arbitration Expectations

It’s also important to benchmark against what Kelenic would make sans extension. In this scenario, we’ll assume Dipoto keeps Kelenic down for at least 16 days in 2021, so he’d be under team control for a total of seven seasons. (We’re also going to assume that any CBA changes don’t materially affect how all this works, since, well, that’s hard to predict and I’m not a labor attorney.)

For those first three years, he’d make the MLB minimum at $570,500. From there, as a “Super Two” player (the top 22 percent, in terms of service time, of players who have amassed between two and three years in MLB are eligible for arbitration), he would hit arbitration in 2024, 2025, 2026, and 2027 before finally hitting the open market.

Here’s a look at a random selection of Super Two players who all excelled before & during their arbitration years:

Super Two Extension Data

Player fWAR before Y1 Arb OPS+ before Y1 Arb fWAR during Arb1-3 Y1 Arb Y2 Arb Y3 Arb Y4 Arb Total
Player fWAR before Y1 Arb OPS+ before Y1 Arb fWAR during Arb1-3 Y1 Arb Y2 Arb Y3 Arb Y4 Arb Total
Kris Bryant 20.7 141 7.7 $10,850,000 $12,900,000 $18,600,000 $19,500,000 $61,850,000
Nolan Arenado 8.9 108 16.5 $5,000,000 $11,750,000 $17,750,000 $26,000,000 $60,500,000
Josh Donaldson 13.9 125 21.4 $4,300,000 $11,650,000 $17,000,000 $23,000,000 $55,950,000
George Springer 10.8 126 13.9 $3,900,000 $12,000,000 $12,000,000 $21,000,000 $48,900,000
Anthony Rendon 8.5 110 17.2 $2,800,000 $5,800,000 $12,300,000 $18,800,000 $39,700,000

If Kelenic turns out like any of these players, the Mariners would be thrilled. Four of these players have already hit free agency, with three of them (Rendon, Arenado, and Springer) getting at least $150m each, and the fourth (Donaldson) “settling” for $115m guaranteed since FA. Meanwhile, the fifth player (Bryant) won a Rookie of the Year and an MVP.

Now, arbitration isn’t solely determined on fWAR. In fact, it’s more of an old-school system, with arbiters often putting more emphasis on classic statistics like saves, RBI, and batting average. But let’s say that Kelenic has similar performance to the above group (which, to be clear, would be a huge success!). The average arb guarantee for these players is about $54m. When combined with those MLB minimums, he’d make $55.5m over seven years.

Proposal

There are a couple different deal models the M’s and Kelenic could aim for in an extension.

Jiménez/Robert Model

6 years, $54m guaranteed, with two team options. Max value: $90m.

2021: $1m base salary + $8m signing bonus
2022: $2m
2023: $4m
2024: $8m
2025: $12m
2026: $15m
2027: $20m team option ($4m buyout)
2028: $20m team option ($4m buyout)

This deal would be similar to the structure of almost every single contract listed above. If the Mariners are going to take on additional risk by guaranteeing those arbitration years, then they need to get low-risk options for at least two of Kelenic’s free agency years; given Kelenic’s potential, and the precedent set by both Jiménez and Robert, I can’t imagine his agent giving up three years of FA for non-guaranteed team options.

I also structured this contract to take advantage of the Mariners’ remarkably low current payroll. In order to clear payroll in years where the Mariners might actually contend (read: 2022 and beyond), I added a signing bonus in year one. Jiménez’s contract had a $5m signing bonus (which makes sense, given that Robert already cashed in with a $26m signing bonus when he first signed with the White Sox), and the additional NPV by getting this money upfront will likely appeal to Kelenic as well.

The contract proposal also aligns well with what Kelenic might be expected to make in arbitration, as shown above. For a player with as much confidence as Kelenic has, he might not “settle” for a deal that guarantees him what he’d be likely to learn anyway, but he also might like the sound of “fifty-four million dollars guaranteed.” I know I do.

This deal would both reset the market for pre-MLB extensions ($4m more guaranteed than any other player, with more of that money coming in year 1) and would be the more “typical” of these deals. Want to get a little crazy, though? Read on...

Acuña Model

8 years, $90m guaranteed, with two team options. Max value: $135m.

2021: $1m base salary + $3m signing bonus
2022: $2m
2023: $4m
2024: $8m
2025: $12m
2026: $15m
2027: $20m
2028: $20m
2029: $25m team option ($5m buyout)
2030: $25m team option ($5m buyout)

Hoo boy, now we’re talking! This deal would make Evan White’s deal look like spare change found in the backseat. When Acuña signed his contract, given his smash success in his rookie campaign, he had more leverage and a better track record. That’s why he hit that magic $100m mark, while Jarred is left at $90m.

To get to that amount, Kelenic is giving up a whopping four years of free agency. Unlike Acuña, whose later years topped out at $17m with $10m buyouts, this contract has a more typical structure that makes the 2029/2030 option decisions much harder.

Still, though. Only three Mariners in team history have topped that $90m guaranteed: Robinson Canó, Félix Hernández, and Kyle Seager. Under this structure, Jarred Kelenic would be joining that club before a single MLB plate appearance. That’s a lot of risk for a franchise to take, even for somebody as touted as Kelenic. (I don’t need to remind anybody reading this about prospect volatility, right?)

Reaction

When I quick-polled the LL staff about that first contract, everybody was pretty quick to say they’d offer Kelenic that deal. Combined with Ryan Divish’s tweet below on what a contract would need to look like, I think it’s safe to say that you’d need to up the guarantee to make something happen.

But is that second proposed deal actually feasible? Kelenic would be sacrificing four years of free agency, and the Mariners would be on the hook for guaranteed money throughout the 2020s. If the CBA negotiations take a wild turn, or if media rights fall off a cliff in the years to come, this deal could get ugly even if Kelenic performs at an All-Star level. Assuming things stay the same, however, and assuming Kelenic is what he’s cracked up to be, the M’s would likely save something like $20-30m on the backend of the contract without ever having to enter into contentious negotiations against the Yankees or Dodgers.

I’m still very much on the fence about the bigger contract outlined here. I think I’d say yes, but that’s also because it’s not my money if he falls flat on his face. His floor is high enough that he’ll likely be a productive big leaguer throughout his 20s — which makes this extension much more appealing than an extension for, say, Julio Rodríguez might be — but two guaranteed years of $20m isn’t that different from what you’d pay him in free agency even if he’s awesome.

There are perfectly rational reasons for Kelenic to eschew signing such a deal. There are perfectly rational reasons for the Mariners to choose not to offer him something palatable (although I think these reasons are significantly more dubious). In this case, the absence of evidence (AKA a deal) is not evidence of absence (of trying to make a deal happen). That said, even outside the high-eight-figure guarantee, it would be mutually beneficial for Kelenic to become The Face of the Franchise™. Think of the endorsements! Everybody with an at-home gym in Seattle would soon own Kelenic-branded weights. Jarred’s Wisconsin Cheese would start popping up in every QFC in the region. This isn’t a huge plus — by playing well, Jarred would likely see endorsement value regardless — but it’s a nice-to-have.

All this is to say: I have no earthly idea what will happen. A deal could be a financial windfall for our favorite 21-year-old, while also delivering the best prospect of them all to Jerry Dipoto (Cost Certainty). It could also mark the start of an unhappy marriage for nearly a decade to come.

If you’re Jerry Dipoto, however, you’ve already staked the rebuild on Kelenic’s success. Whether he’s a 7-2 offsuit or a pocket pair of aces, he’s the hand you’ve been dealt. So why not go all in?

Poll

Would you offer Jarred Kelenic the "Jiménez/Robert Model" extension ($54m guaranteed over 6 years, with two team options at $20m apiece, total potential value $90m)?

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    In a heartbeat
    (664 votes)
  • 23%
    Probably
    (229 votes)
  • 4%
    Probably not
    (44 votes)
  • 2%
    No way
    (23 votes)
960 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Would you offer Kelenic the "Acuña Model" extension? ($90m guaranteed over 8 years, with two team options at $25m apiece, total potential value $135m)

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    In a heartbeat
    (303 votes)
  • 42%
    Probably
    (373 votes)
  • 18%
    Probably not
    (162 votes)
  • 4%
    No way
    (37 votes)
875 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Would Kelenic take the "Jiménez/Robert Model" extension?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    In a heartbeat
    (64 votes)
  • 20%
    Probably
    (168 votes)
  • 53%
    Probably not
    (426 votes)
  • 17%
    No way
    (143 votes)
801 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Would Kelenic take the "Acuña Model" extension?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    In a heartbeat
    (158 votes)
  • 51%
    Probably
    (413 votes)
  • 23%
    Probably not
    (185 votes)
  • 5%
    No way
    (46 votes)
802 votes total Vote Now