Super-talented, MLB-ready 22-year-olds don’t grow on trees. If you do happen upon one, what are the odds they perfectly fit your roster need and contention window? Viewed from that perspective, and accounting for the context of MLB player valuation, the $50MM risk the White Sox took on Luis Robert is a slam dunk.
Of course, all of that guaranteed cash is payable over a six-year term — the precise amount of time the club could’ve enjoyed him in the majors even without promising another dime. And it could’ve been nearly seven full seasons with a bit of service-time trickery. So, the South Siders are only gaining control over one or two seasons of would-be free agency. (Which is it? Depends upon one’s cynicism levels. And the as-yet-unknown question whether Robert will need to spend further time in the minors once he reaches the big leagues.)
Presuming the options are exercised, the deal maxes out at $88MM over eight campaigns. And that’s on top of the $26MM that the team spent just to lure Robert into the organization in the first place! Compare that to Mookie Betts, one of the game’s most productive younger players, who just secured a record-setting $27MM salary for his final trip through arbitration. The Red Sox and Dodgers got 6+ seasons of Betts for a total cost of about $60MM in salary.
Now, there’s inflation to consider. Betts’s earnings wouldn’t have been nearly that robust had he debuted six seasons earlier. If Robert can produce something like Betts, he’ll surely out-earn Mookie. And the White Sox are picking up one or two added seasons of control, which could be quite valuable. We know how much the Dodgers valued the chance to control Betts for just one season, even while paying him a big salary. Again: if Robert has a career path of that kind, then those option years will be an enormous boon to the White Sox.
The thing is, it’s not really reasonable to compare Robert to a guy like Betts. Can he perform to that level? Sure, he’s considered one of the very best prospects in all of baseball for a reason. But that’s hardly the likeliest outcome. Even putting aside the question of talent and production, there are numerous hiccups that can stall a player’s arbitration earning power. Carlos Correa is only earning $7.4MM in his second-to-last arb-eligible campaign — less than half of what contemporary Francisco Lindor will earn ($16.7MM). Rewind two years and these guys looked like a coin flip on value. As it turns out, Correa dealt with ill-timed injuries that significantly dented his ability to earn via arbitration.
Running the numbers, it’s hard to imagine you could really go much higher with an up-front guarantee for a pre-MLB player — at least, perhaps, unless the team was able to pick up yet more future control. The Robert contract, which tops the White Sox’ deal last year with Eloy Jimenez, included a pretty hefty premium to achieve cost certainty and some added control (along with, perhaps, the ability to promote him on Opening Day 2020 without concern for service time). That said, the White Sox have an excellent track record with extensions, having achieved big value in the past with players such as Chris Sale and Adam Eaton.
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