If Corbin Carroll plays out his entire contract here, he’s going to be close to the longest-serving Diamondback of all time. It’ll give him at least nine seasons with the team, even if the team doesn’t exercise the $28 million option for 2031. At time of writing, nobody has had more than that, though Nick Ahmed should enter his tenth as a Diamondbacks later this month. Nor has any Arizona player ever been signed to a contract covering an eight-year period. The previous record mark here was six years, by both Zack Greinke and Yasmany Tomas. But this the way baseball is clearly going: teams are looking to lock up their young talent up front, believing the potential risk is exceeded by the cost-certainty rewards.
We likely won’t know into which category this falls for half a decade or more. But there are some recent comparisons for this deal that are perhaps worth taking a look at.
- November 2021. Wander Franco, Rays: 11 years, $182 million, 103 days service, age 20
- August 2022. Michael Harris II, Braves: 8 years, $72 million, 81 days service, age 21
- August 2022. Julio Rodriguez, Mariners: 13 years, $210 million, 141 days service, age 21
- March 2023: Corbin Carroll, D-backs: 8 years, $111 million, 38 days service, age 22
The first is the only one which has seen any significant playing time for the man involved since he signed the deal, and the results were... a little underwhelming, to be honest. In the year before the contract, Franco was worth 3.5 bWAR in only 70 games. In 2023, he missed two months because of a broken bone in his hand, but over the 83 games he played, was worth 2.6 bWAR. That’s still five-plus wins over a full season, but is definitely a downturn from the previous season. It’s hard to be sure how much the hand injury, as well as niggling hamstring and quad problems, played into that. But we got the “best shape of his life” story this spring. Though since he only turned 22 this month, that’s a small sample!
Harris and Rodriguez signed their deals less than two weeks apart, both on their way to winning Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues. Their performances were similar - per 162 games, their bWAR were almost identical (7.6 for Rodriguez, 7.5 for Harris). But there was a striking difference in their contracts. Much of that is on the back end, with Rodriguez having a complicated set of options and escalators which could end up being for anything up to 17 years and $470 million. A better comparison would be the seven year base deal, covering 2023-29 and worth $105 million. That’s still considerably more than Harris will be receiving, even though it’s for a season less.
Going back in time a bit further, we find Ronald Acuna Jr. Although he was already the reigning Rookie of the Year when he signed his contract with Atlanta. That was an eight-year deal guaranteeing him $100 million, with two club options beyond that. But after a solid first season, where Acuna was fifth in the MVP voting, the results have been less than whelming. He tore his ACL in July 2021, and didn’t return to the majors until the following April. His OPS+ in 2022 was a career-low 114, and he was worth 2.7 bWAR. Decent enough, but between him and Fernando Tatis Jr, it’s a salutary lesson that all the talent in the world won’t protect young ball players from bad luck and/or poor choices.
Breaking down the deal
Here’s what Carroll will get, along with what would likely have been his path through the years in question (save the unlikely event of him being sent back to the minors).
- 2023: $5 million signing bonus, $1 million salary - pre-arbitration
- 2024: $3 million salary - pre-arbitration
- 2025: $5 million salary - pre-arbitration
- 2026: $10 million salary - arbitration year #1
- 2027: $12 million salary - arbitration year #2
- 2028: $14 million salary - arbitration year #3
- 2029: $28 million salary - free-agency
- 2030: $28 million salary - free-agency
- 2031: $28 million team option, $5 million buyout
All told, but excluding the signing bonus, that’s $45 million in salary for Carroll through his pre-arbitration and arbitration years. As an indicator of how much a star player can potentially get in their arbitration years. Vladimir Guerrero Jr earned $7.9 million as a “super two” in 2022, then upped that to $14.5 million this winter. He’ll likely increase that further in 2024 and 2025 before eventually reaching free agency. Shohei Ohtani will make $30 million is his final year of arbitration eligibility, though he is kinda unique. On a smaller scale, Corey Seager won NL Rookie of the Year in 2016: over his six seasons pre-free agency, he earned about $27 million, though never repeated the third-place MVP finish of his rookie campaign.
If we assume a cost of $8m per win, then Carroll needs to be worth 14 WAR over the course of the contract for it to be in the black for Arizona. That seems easily achievable. Almost a hundred players have managed it over the last eight years, and that included the severely truncated 2020 season. Basically, Carroll just needs to be like fellow AZ left-fielder David Peralta (13.9 bWAR from 2015-2022) to hit that break-even point. I think it’s safe to say that expectations for Corbin are considerably higher than that. How much higher? Well, here’s the all-time list for output by position players for ages 22-29. The front page lists 200 names - coincidentally, ending with Matt Williams at 31.2 bWAR. Anywhere there would be fine.
If you want an actual projection for Carroll, we turn to Dan Szymborski over at Fangraphs, whose ZIPS system has bravely stuck its neck out on the topic, over the guaranteed portion of the contract. Below are its predictions.
Now, that’s fWAR rather than bWAR, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to call them the same, and hope nobody notices. :) That adds up to 35.2 WAR, which in terms of the rankings linked above, puts Carroll between Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente. I think we’d all settle for that from him. However, the above seems to assume a pristine health record, with eight consecutive seasons of over 500 PA. That might be the biggest thing potentially preventing Corbin from reaching the expected production. The past eight full seasons i.e. excluding 2020, each had between 132-149 players get 500+ PA. But only eight players have been there every year. So while it’s possible, the odds are against Carroll.
I think there’s almost no doubt 2023-28 will see Carroll represent excellent value for the Diamondbacks. The last two years, where his salary doubles to $28 million per season, are where the upside, obviously, becomes less. You may say, “Well, that’ll seem a lot less by the time 2029 rolls around.” But the reality is that the average MLB salary has remained almost static since 2016. [mostly due to the death of baseball’s middle-class: we tend to see highly-paid superstars and more league minimum players] With the current broadcast money carnage, I’m not certain that will change going forward. But if Carroll lives up to expectations, it’ll be as good a way to spend the money as any.
Even after the signing, the team still has a lot of financial flexibility after this year. Nick Ahmed and Mark Melancon come off the books, Madison Bumgarner drops in cost for his final year, and Ketel Marte is the only other D-back sure to be earning eight figures (Zac Gallen may join him in arbitration). With a lot of people who are either going to be earning league minimum or should be good value in arbitration, plus further young prospects on their way up the pipeline, the team should have payroll room to add any necessary players for a playoff push in 2024 and beyond. This should not be considered the last piece of the puzzle - closer to locking in a big part for the longer term.