Contract extensions are coming thick and fast this spring, with teams both competitive and not locking in valued players long term. From 14-year veteran Justin Verlander to rookie Eloy Jiménez, from Mike Trout to David Bote, everyone’s signing extensions. Wednesday it was Matt Carpenter, Thursday it’s Ozzie Albies—blink and you’ll miss the next deal.
Albies is a 22-year-old power hitter at an up-the-middle position who was worth 3.8 bWAR in his first full big league season last year. According to Baseball-Reference, the most similar players to Albies through age 21 are Rougned Odor, Cal Ripken Jr., Gregg Jefferies, Joe Morgan, Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Correa, Roberto Alomar, and Rafael Devers. Similarity score isn’t gospel, but you get the point. Albies is a special talent, and if the Braves hadn’t thrown him some money up front, he’d have become very expensive soon, starting after the 2020 season when he hits arbitration.
Albies, for his part, is a key part of a winning team, playing alongside his friend, Ronald Acuña Jr., who just inked a contract extension of his own. If Albies likes the Braves, and the Braves like Albies, then clearly both sides would want to hammer out an extension. But while the idea of an extension is so obvious it’s boring, the terms are nothing short of shocking.
Albies’s contract is for seven years, $35 million guaranteed, with two team options for $7 million each and a $4 million buyout, taking the contract’s maximum length and value to nine years, $45 million. (Part of the $35 million guarantee is the $4 million buyout on the first option year.) It’s a bracingly low sum. Even within the confines of the game’s current economic structure, Albies got taken to the cleaners. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, it might be the worst contract a player has ever signed.
It's typical that agents criticize competitors' deals. But I've now heard from executives, players, analytics people, development side and scouts who are saying the same thing: The Ozzie Albies extension might be the worst contract ever for a player. And this is not hyperbole.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) April 11, 2019
Let’s try to put this deal in context. Last spring, the Phillies signed another second baseman, Scott Kingery, to a six-year, $24 million contract with team options that could go to nine years and $66 million. Kingery was almost two years older then than Albies is now, and while Albies is an All-Star, Kingery had yet to play a game in the major leagues.
Indians infielder José Ramírez is on one of the most player-unfriendly contracts in baseball—five years, $26 million, with two team options that could take it to seven years, $50 million. Ramírez signed his deal in March 2017, coming off a year similar to the one Albies had last year, with similar service time, but he was two and a half years older then than Albies is now and dealing with a club that’s so cheap it tried to trade Corey Kluber this offseason because he was due to make $17 million. And even Ramírez got similar overall value for two years’ less commitment.
Ramírez and Acuña are both among dozens of young big leaguers who signed from overseas as 16-year-olds for minuscule bonuses, then took similarly puny amounts of guaranteed money upon reaching the majors, rather than risk decline or injury before they reached free agency. So did Luis Severino, José Altuve, Salvador Pérez, Odúbel Herrera, and numerous others. Albies signed out of Curacao at 16 for $350,000, made essentially nothing over four seasons in the minors, and had his salary pegged to about the league minimum, which would have been the case until he hit arbitration before the 2021 season.
Albies, in an absolute worst-case scenario, could have walked away with nothing, and part of the calculus of contract negotiations in baseball is that the team, which has billions of dollars and hundreds of players in the organization, has less to lose than the player. That clubs—and businesses in general—are willing to use that as leverage is as detestable as it is inextricably woven into the normative fabric of capitalism, which is itself inextricable from American identity.
Albies: "I don't look at it just from money because I'm not playing for money. I'm playing for my career. I took it because I want my family to be safe."— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) April 11, 2019
But at least Acuña, negotiating under the same societal disadvantages, got himself a $100 million contract. Albies will now, in all likelihood, not reach free agency until he’s almost 31, which makes him part of an undesirable caste. In the past three offseasons, only two position players, J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Céspedes, have tested the free agent market after turning 30 and come back with a nine-figure contract. The largest contract any over-30 position player got this past offseason was A.J. Pollock’s five-year, $60 million deal.
Usually, when a player delays his free agency as much as Albies will, he gets more money up front. But that probably won’t be the case for Albies. Even rolling his guaranteed buyout money into the seven-year base contract, Albies is due an average of $5 million a year over the next seven seasons. If Albies had played through arbitration, he would have played for $575,000 this season and probably a modest raise in 2020. Let’s call it $1.1 million for the next two years combined. From there, he would have received performance-based raises each of the next three seasons—either negotiated with the team or assigned by an arbitrator—before reaching free agency after the 2023 season.
Phillies second baseman César Hernández has played four full big league seasons, none of which were as productive as Albies was in 2018. Hernández is a solid starting second baseman (which is the realistic long-term worst-case scenario for Albies) and he’s made $15.4 million from 2017 to 2019. If Albies continues to perform at an All-Star level, well, Carlos Correa won his first arbitration case with the Astros this past year for $5 million. Javy Báez settled for $5.2 million, Francisco Lindor for $10.55 million. And all three will get raises each of the next two seasons before hitting free agency.
Of course, Albies is hedging against an unrealistic worst-case scenario: What if he gets hurt? Well, Jurickson Profar, who was never as good of a big league player as Albies was in 2018, played a total of 112 MLB games from 2014 to 2017, in which he hit just .227/.316/.315. But because he was on the big league DL, he continued to accrue service time and made more than $2.6 million over those four years before arbitration took him up to a salary of $3.6 million in 2019. Short of Albies being abducted by aliens, he isn’t getting much of a salary advance or mitigating that much risk by extending his contract.
It is, in short, an inexplicable contract. It’s the product of leaguewide efforts—coordinated or not—to depress player salaries and the Braves’ willingness to leverage Albies’s structural negotiating advantages against him. And even factoring in how infuriatingly the odds were stacked against Albies, it’s astonishing that his agent, SportsMeter, not only failed to work out a better deal, but allowed him to sign this one.