Ethier contract: An overpay that's worth it?

The news came late Monday that Andre Ethier and the Los Angeles Dodgers have agreed to terms on a contract extension that would keep him in Dodgers white and blue through at least 2017, at the cost of $85 million over five years -- an average of $17 million per year -- with a $17.5 million option (against a $2.5 million buyout) for 2018.

Does it seem like a lot of money to you for Ethier, a 30-year-old who ranks 24th in the majors in park-adjusted OPS since 2006, but who has some lingering concerns about his health and ability to hit lefties?

Well, it is, and it isn't.

  • At some point, people are sure to feel that Ethier is being overpaid. Understand that with deals of this nature, players continue to see their salaries rise as they get older, even though everyone in baseball inherently knows that performance tends to decline with age. It's an anomaly the system seems powerless to correct. So while, for example, Ethier will be paid $13.5 million in 2013 and $17.5 million in 2017, it's best to compare his performance to his salary in the opposite direction. But few will. (Now, if we feel he's overpaid next season, that's a problem.)

  • Despite that fear, Ethier very likely would command a contract like this on the open market if he became a free agent in November -- that is, if his current June slump didn't become an ongoing problem. Player salaries are rising in general thanks to the boost of TV money coming into the game, increasing the ability of teams to bid more. Combine that with the relative dearth of free-agent outfielders, and Ethier, who remains on track to finish with an OPS better than .850 for the fourth year out of the past five, was sitting pretty.

  • With that in mind, there's almost no way to evaluate the deal without knowing what percentage of the Dodgers' overall budget (under new ownership) it will take. If it's just a drop in the bucket, it doesn't matter how big a drop.

There's every chance the Dodgers might regret this move down the road, but the question is what they would do as an alternative. I honestly don't know the answer. The organization is starved offensively on both the major league and minor league level. Free agents and trades are always possibilities, but there's no guarantee of how they will fruitionize.

Dodger bloggers Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness and Chad Moriyama each offer their own share of guarded skepticism in their reaction pieces to Ethier's extension.

Petriello's summary:

So the end result, in my view, is that the Dodgers paid a fair price to lock up one of the two best and most popular hitters on their team, a player with his share of flaws, but one who provides a service which couldn’t easily be replaced on the open market or via trade. I’m slightly apprehensive about the idea of Ethier being a $100m type player, yet I suppose I can’t really argue with the logic behind the move.

Moriyama's summary:

I don’t feel the need to take a strong stance either way on this extension, because there are solid arguments for both sides, but I think the overwhelming optimism among fans right now might need a bit of blunting. There’s definitely considerable risk that comes along with this contract, and if there’s one thing we all learned from the Frank McCourt era, it’s that sacrificing future returns for immediate needs rarely ever works out like you want.

It's hard to get a true bargain with established stars -- which is why it was so wonderful for the Dodgers that Ethier (acquired as a minor leaguer from Oakland in 2005) and Matt Kemp emerged from their farm system in the first place. On some level, if the Dodgers can avoid with Ethier what happened with the Toronto Blue Jays and Vernon Wells, they should be happy. A major hope of the new ownership is that it won't have to penny-pinch. As long as Ethier remains a reasonably productive player and not an albatross, the Dodgers and their fans should be happy to have him, even if he ends up pocketing something more than he's worth.

To be honest, the biggest impression this Ethier deal makes on me has little to do with predicting his value. With the contract extensions in the past several months of Ethier and Kemp, the Dodgers have created the possibility of a pair of teammates playing side by side for 10 years. Kemp and Ethier took their current positions in 2008, and are now poised to hold them, barring any trades, through at least 2017. That would make them the first teammates to hold their starting spots with the Dodgers for a decade since Ron Cey and Bill Russell from 1973 to '82. (Before you ask: Steve Garvey didn't become a full-time starter until 1974, and Davey Lopes left as a free agent after 1981.)

Add a contract extension for Clayton Kershaw to that mix, and the Dodgers have the potential to cement a foundation their fans might revel in for decades to come. That is, of course, if they can get a World Series out of it.

Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts.