The Atlanta Braves energized their fanbase when this week it was announced they had signed young superstar and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr to a 8 year, $100M deal after just one season in the Major Leagues. The reaction was swift to the deal, with many varied reactions. Some say that Acuna left a lot of money on the table and it is bad for all young players, with others saying it is a bargain for the Braves and a young player like Acuna should just be happy to sign a $100M deal. Can we find where the reality is between these two polar opposites?
First let’s get some perspective on all of it.
Ronald Acuna Jr is really good with even more potential. The irony was lost on many Braves fans that this week is both the 30th anniversary of Ken Griffey Jr’s debut and 45 years since Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.
Yet it wasn’t that long ago that the Braves thought they had the next Hank Aaron in Jason Heyward. (I do realize how old I sound when I consider 9 years not that long ago) When Heyward homered in his first game it only ratcheted up the excitement of the Home Run King himself, as he noted, “He can certainly bring the excitement back, not only for Atlanta but also for African-American players…we do need to have many, many more Jason Heywards.”
JHey made the All Star team that first season and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Buster Posey and even 20th in the MVP balloting. Two years later he hit 27 home runs and hit around .270 but since then with the Cubs has become mostly a one dimensional though excellent fielder. Still a good Major League baseball player – but clearly not the next Hank Aaron.
So saying that Acuna definitely left many on the table seems a little soon to say – because he could as easily slow down his meteoric ascension like a previous Braves prospect did not even a decade ago.
Next comes the question if giving any young player this much money so quickly is good to keep him motivated. After all, now he isn’t even fighting for a raise in arbitration.
Many of the interviews focused on Acuna’s humble background coming from Venezuela and started playing professionally for the Braves in 2015 at age 17. I don’t like this line of thinking, because it immediately puts the value of Acuna below another say middle class white kid from New Jersey. There is an aspect to the deal for Acuna in making a commitment to the money now before anything else might happen in his career that would hamper future earnings potential.
The easy counter point though would also be to point to the massive contracts just signed this year by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout. Yes – all had several more years of performance to extrapolate with for future performance, yet even as a rough forecast Acuna got the short end of the straw.
A comparison many are making is to Eloy Jimenez’s deal, who hasn’t even appeared yet in the Majors but signed a 6 year, $43M deal recently. That is the third deal given to a player not in the Major leagues along with the Phillies Scott Kingery in 2017 and the Astros Jon Singleton. Singleton’s was a disaster and Kingery had a modest rookie season at best.
That is not the case with Acuna. Instead, Acuna electrified an Atlanta Braves team in the second half of the season, hit lead off home runs like he was taking a stroll, and delivered a grand slam in the playoffs against the Dodgers. He hit 26 home runs in just 112 games after hitting only 30 in four minor league seasons, had an OPS of .917 (compared to Freddie Freemans at .892) and this year already appears to have a better eye at the plate.
So you can’t quite peg his price already like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but you also can’t put his value at Eloy Jimenez or Scott Kingery. How do you value a player like this?
Apparently at $100M.
There is one more aspect to all of these extensions we have been seeing. As baseball’s CBA ends after 2021, the incentive for the players who already have these large extensions is dramatically less to strike or “take a stand” for other players who aren’t getting paid market value because…a labor stoppage would only hurt them. This off-season in deed Jayson Stark points out that nearly $2 Billion was spent in free agent salaries and more than $2 Billion in extensions alone.
Stark points out that if a comparison to Mike Trout is apropos, then Acuna will not be getting Mike Trout money. He will be 29 when he hits free agency, which is much different than hitting free agency at 26 for any future long term deal. He points out that “The deals also restrict those players from establishing the benchmarks in the one area in which the union continues to make steady gains, salary arbitration, limiting future growth.”. Which of course MLB teams and arbitration has been a story in of itself of late.
In conclusion, like any professional sports contract, it all comes down to performance. If Acuna turns into Mike Trout, well then he certainly left money on the table. On the flip side – the Braves could get another contract together and extend him even farther into the future if not for the perceivable rest of his career.
Likewise, Acuna could settle somewhere as the league adjusts in the Justin Upton role of really good player – but not a generational talent. Then, the contract appears just about right. Finally of course, Acuna could…you know as a Braves fan I’m not even explore any other option. The Braves wanted to lock up their young star, and they did. Ronald Acuna Jr wanted long term security and he got that too. Now we can just play ball and the Braves know they have a potential icon locked up for years to come.