Among the sea of offseason free agency speculation, one request among DBacks fans I’ve seen more than a few times has been to spend on an extension for one of our own: Gabriel Moreno. The sentiment is certainly understandable. Gabi is young, already a fan favorite, a Gold Glove winner, and he projects to have an above average bat. Oft-cited statistics among his supporters include our W-L record with him playing vs. not playing and, in a league gone silly for stolen bases, Gabi was the best in baseball at throwing runners out. He’s an exciting young player that is easy to root for. It almost sounds like a slam dunk for the team to extend. So why would I be hesitant to sign him to an extension?
When looking at any contract offer, the basic ingredients are what production you are getting and what you are paying for that production, but there is one final ingredient that I will save until the end that sways me against extending our young catcher.
Let’s look at the production first. Gabi just completed his age-23 season, his first full year in the Majors, with a triple slash of .284/.339/.408, an OPS+ of 104 and a wRC+ of 103. His stellar defense resulted in a Gold Glove, with advanced metrics putting him as the best in baseball at CS Above Average and top-5 in Blocking. There was a considerable disparity in how the two WAR metrics valued him. He was tied for the most bWAR among catchers with 4.3, but was 18th among catchers in fWAR with 1.7. In total, Gabi’s production for his age is on par with or better than several catchers who are now/were considered the best in the game like Yasmani Grandal and JT Realmuto.
Shifting to what we’ll be paying Gabi, no matter how well he plays, he is under team control for the next five years. For the next two years, his salary is locked in as a pre-arbitration earner, meaning he will be making less than $1 million per year. After that, he’ll enter three years of arbitration salaries, where he will be paid according to his value on the field, but still much less than open market value. To find out what All-Star caliber backstops make in arbitration, we don’t have to look further than our division rival in Los Angeles. Will Smith is about to enter his second Arbitration year, and he’s expected to make in the neighborhood of $10m after making about $5m in his Arb 1 season. General guesstimate would put Arb 3 value for Smith at $15m. Assuming Gabi reaches the heights he seems capable of, those numbers are probably close to what he’d be looking at making in his three arbitration seasons. All in, over the next five years, we can expect to pay at least a total of about $32m, an AAV of over $6m.
The most recent arbitration extension for a catcher is Sean Murphy’s deal with Atlanta. He was paid $4m in his Arb 1 season and then went into a six-year extension at almost $15m per year. Murphy is older than Gabi will be during his Arb years, but was more accomplished at the time he signed his extension. Still, I’d imagine Gabi has to be looking at that deal as a minimum baseline for an extension.
To gauge what catchers make on the market post-arbitration, let’s look at JT Realmuto’s deal with the Phillies. He went from making $12m in his Arb 3 season to a five year deal at about $24m/year. In five years, the market rate for a top shelf catcher will probably be closer to $28m-30m/year.
While expecting Gabi to become an All-Star may be reasonable, him realizing that potential is far from given. If he were to become one of the best catchers in the game, Gabi could expect to make up to $180m in the next 10 years. He could also not quite grow to the heights of a Realmuto or Smith or Murphy and his earnings potential could be somewhat below that mark.
Given all of the comps and range of outcomes, I think a fair extension would look somewhere around a 7 year/$105m deal, $15m AAV. From Gabi’s perspective, that would be in the neighborhood of Murphy’s extension while also paying him well above arbitration value and giving him a real shot at another decent deal as a 31 year old. From the team’s perspective, they get two extra prime seasons at below market AAV and bankroll some goodwill from the fans by keeping around one of their favorites.
Having said all that, we now come to the final ingredient in contract negotiations that I alluded to in the opening: team context, or more specifically, payroll context. As a mid-market team, we need to be able to squeeze as much juice from every dollar as possible. How much salary can we afford to put into 2 position players? In the first year of Gabi’s post-arb earnings, Corbin Carroll is scheduled to be paid $28m. With Gabi’s proposed extension probably clocking in around $20m that year, is it smart to allocate $45m+ to 2 position players in the DBacks tax bracket?
With a team payroll of about $120m this season, the Diamondbacks paid about $80m on a total of 13 non-arbitration contracts. I certainly expect $120m to be the baseline for spending, with payrolls in the coming years to be in the $130m-150m range. If we spend about $100m-110m in non-arbitration contracts, paying a combined $45m for Corbin and Gabi leaves about $60m-$70m in spending for 10-11 veteran contracts. If we extend Gallen or pay market value for another ace by that time, that’s at least another $25m-30m on the books, leaving us with $30-40m to spread among 9-10 contracts. With those three salaries on the books, we HAVE to be confident that we are getting solid contributions from Pre-Arb and Arb level salaries. Our margins become razor thin when allocating half the team’s payroll to 3 players, no matter how good those players are.
I love Gabriel Moreno. I hope he stays in the Valley his whole career and ends up Yadier Molina 2.0. But even if he and Corbin do become Hall of Famers, it will still be difficult to fill out a team around two highly paid position players with our payroll restrictions. I think the prudent move for Hazen to make would be to let Gabi play out his arb years and keep his powder dry for an ace starting pitcher (whether it’s Zac Gallen or someone else). Maybe Gabi never reaches All-Star heights and is merely a Gold Glover with a league average bat; still valuable, but not top of the market valuable, and we can keep him around for less than his extension would currently cost. Maybe he becomes a valuable trade chip and we can use him to plus-up the farm as we stare down the last couple years before Corbin departs for greener pa$ture$. Either way, let’s sit back and wait.