Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins is one of the best players in the game right now. He turned 23 years old this week, he's an excellent defender in right field, and he's coming off a .290/.361/.608 season that included 37 bombs. At this point, he and Jose Reyes are probably the only household names in Miami.
That's going to translate into some big paydays. Stanton missed the service-time mark for becoming a Super-two this offseason, but he isn't far from arbitration eligibility and he could be in for a big-time raise come 2014. The Fish could get away with paying Stanton a couple bucks more than league minimum next season, but the club might be best served to work out an extension with Stanton now to save some money down the line.
Most of this decision is going to be on Stanton's side. He's a rising star, but he's also taking on a lot of risk by not committing himself to a long-term contract. In 2012 he missed significant time with a knee injury. That type of leg injury could cost a big-bodied player like Stanton to lose foot speed and could impact his defensive value. There's also a chance that Stanton never cuts down his high strikeout rate and sees some serious regression in his high BABIP from the past several years. He's a great player, but there's a non-zero chance that he'll be an average player in just a few years. Stanton's camp could decide to take that risk, but he might decide to hedge his bet and sign a team-friendly extension instead.
The Marlins are also in a difficult position. They're coming off a season in which they were supposed to be a much improved, on-the-rise team. Instead, they ended up limping to a 69-93 finish. Rumor has it that ownership is looking to cut payroll. Even so, there's some room for optimism in South Beach, with a decent crop of young talent on the farm and a group of players who could bounce back from down years in 2012. Before Stanton's arbitration years are a thing of the past, this team could be in a position to compete. He's also the best player on the team right now, and the club has an opportunity to market itself around him for the next several years. The same injury and strikeout concerns are still in play, but so is the (likely) possibility that we haven't seen half of what Stanton has in him. If Stanton crushes 50 home runs next season and hits .300, the Marlins will have a tough time signing him to a team-friendly extension.
Let's build the cases for each side's hypothetical negotiations, starting with Stanton's side. Ben Baumer, a professor at Smith College and former Statistical Analyst with the New York Mets, weighed in on the subject. "Since power is Stanton's most outstanding asset, his representatives will try and make arguments along the lines of ‘Stanton has more home runs at a younger age than anyone since Babe Ruth.'" For the purpose of this exercise, let's look at all the right fielders who have hit 30-plus home runs and batted .260 or higher in their age-25 (or younger) seasons. In the past 15 seasons, this has only happened 10 times (see the first table).
The list of hitters with power similar to Giancarlo Stanton at his age is fairly short.
If I'm Stanton's agency (Wasserman Media Group), I'm going to compare him to Miguel Cabrera and Vladimir Guerrero. (You can make a great case with either of the players on this list, but these two provide more recent and relevant examples.) Like Stanton, Miguel Cabrera struggled with strikeouts early in his career, but as Cabrera racked up at-bats, he managed to cut down his strikeout rate. Putting more balls in play allowed Cabrera to develop into an offensive monster. Vlad was also a free swinger, but he was able to make contact at tremendous rates, which negated his lack of walks. Guerrero was also a strong-armed right fielder whose arm impacted opponents' baserunning decisions. He was also a plus runner.
For the sake of argument, Stanton is a mixture of these two players. He has the physical gifts to do it all, and he's doing it at a younger age with more power than Cabrera or Guerrero did.
Guerrero's arbitration years came before Alex Rodriguez and the Rangers changed the economics of baseball, so let's focus on Cabrera's figures. After three-plus seasons of dominating at the dish and struggling in the field, Cabrera won his first arbitration case, receiving a $7.4 million deal. The following season, he avoided arbitration -- agreeing to an $11.3 million salary. The Tigers and Cabrera then came to an agreement on an extension of eight years and $152.3 million, which was really an extension of seven years and $141 million, since the deal replaced what would have been his second arbitration year.
But Stanton's agents would argue that he's better than Cabrera because he has the Guerrero-like defensive value. When we add everything together, Cabrera made $33.7 million in his arbitration years. Wasserman Media Group should argue that Stanton's defense adds at least an extra win per season. Depending on the circumstances of a team (market size, competition, etc.), a win might be valued at $4 million per season. Which puts Stanton's price tag at $45 million before he hits free agency. If we add in the fact that Stanton could hit free agency entering his age-27 season, the year that most players hit their peaks, we can easily craft an argument that he could be in line for an historic (Mark Teixeira-like) contract on the open market. We haven't even mentioned Miami's perception of Stanton as the face of the franchise, the supposed superstar effect that he could be expected to have on ticket and merchandise sales.
The Marlins will want to build a case against Stanton by focusing on his injury history and high strikeout rate. The club could refute the comparisons to Cabrera and Guerrero by noting that neither had such a high strikeout rate and that each had a much better hit tool. Here's a list of players who got on base at a sub-.370 clip, belted between 30 and 40 bombs, and struck out over 100 times in a season (from 1998 on, see the 'Hard Sale' table).
THE HARD SALE
Comparisons that might help keep a Stanton multi-year offer in check.
The Marlins are in luck; there are pair of strong comparisons here who have signed extensions with their clubs in Jay Bruce and Justin Upton. Both players strike out a ton, made their big league debuts at incredibly young ages (Bruce at 21, Upton at 19). Like Stanton, both players have above average, but not elite, on-base skills. Each player's high strikeout rate has kept him from taking the step from All-Star to superstar. Both players still have monster potential that they could foreseeably tap into as they enter the peaks in the next few years.
Upton's deal bought out one of his pre-arbitration years, all of his arbitration years, and his first two years of free agency. Upton had played in only 289 big league games, but he was coming off an impressive age-21 season and had the tools to suggest a decade of dominance. Arizona paid just under $21 million for his arbitration years and a nick under $30 million for his two free agent years. Given what could happen with Upton, the deal makes perfect sense; he cashes in and retains the chance to collect in free agency as a 28-year-old.
Bruce's deal was clearly structured around Upton's. After the 2010 season he agreed to a six-year, $51 million deal. He was a Super-two player (meaning he'd have gone to arbitration four times instead of three), and he ended up being paid just north $25 million for his arbitration years. The free agent years came relatively cheap for Cincinnati, and the club will have the option to hang onto Bruce for a third free agent year if they decide that he's worth it.
Neither Bruce nor Upton has suffered a significant leg injury, so the Marlins might be able to argue that Stanton carries a bit more risk. Stanton's power exceeds both players though, and with many teams locking up young players to long-term, team-friendly deals, a player like Stanton becomes much more rare in the free-agent market.
Stanton needs to take all of this into consideration before signing an extension with the Fish. He's also got to consider things like state income tax, which doesn't apply to individuals in the state of Florida, and whether or not he wants to spend his life in Miami. And who knows what kind of money will be available after the 2016 season; Magic Johnson or the Steinbrenners may be looking to burn some cash. The 23-year-old can't make a bad decision here, but I'd guess that most people would take some sort of guaranteed security if put in his position.
It wouldn't make a ton of sense for the Marlins to buy out only his arbitration years unless they got them for a heavy discount. The team could gain cost certainty, but that isn't as valuable as the several millions that they could spend to fix leaky faucets here and there.
Here's a proposal: five years and $50 million with a club option for a sixth year at $15 million. Stanton's camp comes down from the $45 million value of the arb years, but is guaranteed that money. If he maximizes his potential he'll still be able to hit the free agent market at 29 and receive a nice chunk of change. He pays no state income tax and gets to watch the Big Three battle for NBA championships. The Marlins get to keep their best player without taking on a tremendous amount of risk and, should the team fail to compete in a few years, there will be a ton of trade interest. The Fish take on the risk that Stanton becomes an injury-prone player, but the juice is worth the squeeze.
To this writer's knowledge, there aren't active discussions between the two sides going on right now. Both Marlins officials and Stanton representatives declined to comment on the scenario. A deal might be a few months or a couple years away, but it could be the best fit for each side.
Hudson Belinsky is a contributor to Halos Dailey, the SweetSpot network affiliate dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.