Ronald Acuña Jr. was the overwhelming choice for NL Rookie of the Year in 2018, winning 27 of 30 first-place votes by hitting .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers and 16 stolen bases in just 111 games last year. Before that, he was one of baseball’s top prospects, and he projects forward as the Atlanta Braves’ best homegrown position player since either Andruw or Chipper Jones.
Now he’ll be a Brave … well, not for life, but close. The 21-year-old from Venezuela is finalizing a contract extension that will keep him under team control through 2028. The deal, which supersedes Acuña’s $560,000 salary for 2019, is worth $100 million over the next eight seasons, with two team-option years beyond that for $17 million each. It’s life-changing money for Acuña, who signed as a 16-year-old amateur for just $100,000, and it’s a coup for Liberty Media, the multibillion-dollar company that owns the Braves and now gets to keep its most marketable star under control for a decade if it so chooses, for a tiny fraction of what he’d make on the open market.
The “open market,” if you can call it that with its phalanx of wage-suppressing measures, from draft-pick compensation to the competitive-balance tax, netted Bryce Harper $330 million over 13 years in February, but Acuña would not have been able to avail himself of even that limited form of economic autonomy for another six years. (It would have been five, but the Braves brazenly held him down last spring to delay his free agency.) Based on his proximity to arbitration and free agency, Acuña’s contract should fall somewhere between the deal Eloy Jiménez signed with the White Sox (six years, $43 million, with a pair of team options that could bring it to eight years, $78 million) and the one Alex Bregman signed with the Astros (five years, $100 million starting in 2020, with no team options).
And it does, but it’s way closer to Jiménez’s contract than it should be. For starters, Jiménez had not made his big league debut when he signed, while Acuña was an All-Star-caliber player in 2018, in addition to being a better athlete than Jiménez and more than a year younger. Yet Acuña gave away two extra years of team control for a contract that maxes out at just $124 million, or just $46 million more than Jiménez’s max. That’s less than a pittance for a team to pay for two extra years of a player who not only has higher upside than Jiménez but also has a longer (read: any) track record of big league success.
Bregman, who’s older than Acuña and might not have his upside but is two years closer to free agency, got the same guaranteed money for half the commitment. It’s hard to conceive of signing a $100 million contract as a loss, but even for a player of Acuña’s stature, that’s what this contract represents.
Acuña’s deal is now the norm for talented young players, who in the past might have signed away a year or two of free agency to lock in a deal sometime during the arbitration process. No longer. From rookies like Jiménez to stars like Chris Sale and Mike Trout, the game’s best players have given the waning free-agent market a long look and then passed; Trout said as much when discussing his reasons for re-upping with the Angels. Each new deal is twisted through some set of filters that makes it set a record; Blake Snell’s $50 million extension is a fraction of what a pitcher of his quality ought to be making, but it’s a record for a pre-arbitration pitcher. Justin Verlander’s two-year, $66 million extension won’t outlast a box of mac and cheese, but it’s a record for average annual value for a pitcher.
Acuña too—even as Liberty Media locked its best player in for peanuts, it could tout that Acuña is the youngest ballplayer to sign a $100 million contract and that his deal is a record for someone with such little service time. But the company knows full well that this deal won’t seem like a record haul when Acuña is being paid $17 million for $50 million’s worth of production in 2028, and that when he hits free agency as a 31-year-old, there will be few takers for a player of his age.
Taken optimistically, baseball’s free agency is starting to resemble soccer’s, in which players re-sign with their clubs indefinitely, and when the relationship goes sour or the needs of player and team diverge, the player moves only through a trade. A more clear-eyed interpretation is that MLB has essentially killed free agency. That payday was the carrot at the end of years of starvation wages in the minors, followed by suppressed salaries and no freedom through a player’s first six big league seasons: At the end of all that, at least a player knew he could finally get paid what he’s worth.
MLB’s 30 clubs have collectively come to the realization that they can just choose not to allow entry to the Promised Land for all but a select few, and even those few—Harper and Manny Machado, some of the best and most marketable players of their generation—are going to have to sit through a long, cold winter before finally cashing in.
They do this knowing that it’s more cost-effective to win 90 games on a $130 million payroll and lose in the first round, like the Braves did last year, than to win 92 games on a $200 million payroll and lose in the World Series, as the Dodgers did. Particularly when fans will fixate on Acuña as a 21-year-old on a nine-figure deal and relish the possibility that Liberty Media will reinvest what it saved on Acuña rather than pocketing it, despite years of evidence to the contrary.
It’s hard to blame Acuña for taking what is by any standard life-changing money, given all the structural factors laid out against him: He’s working in a foreign country with not even a high school education, knowing that if he suffers a career-ending injury tomorrow, he’ll go home with little more than $1 million in total career earnings and no backup plan. A guaranteed $100 million now is worth passing up a shot at $400 million in six years, because Acuña just has the one body and the one career with which to make his fortune.
Liberty Media, a company with more than $40 billion in assets and more than $7 billion in annual revenue, will enjoy the salary Acuña’s leaving on the table even less than Acuña himself will miss it. You can make hundreds of millions of dollars by being good at baseball, but if you want to make billions, or tens of billions, you have to be willing to exploit every point of leverage society hands you, no matter the moral cost.