Rosenthal: Julio Rodríguez’s complex contract with the Mariners offers different paths for young stars

Less than five months into his major-league career, Rodríguez, 21, is already assured of enough money to make his family comfortable for generations. He likely will spend his entire career in Seattle, an outcome that most fans will see as good for baseball. Yet some player representatives believe that, like so many other youngsters who signed pre-arbitration extensions, Rodríguez sold himself short.

The average fan will find such talk ridiculous, and for good reason. The $209.3 million is Rodríguez’s worst-case scenario, what he will end up with only if his career goes decidedly off track. More likely, the Mariners will exercise a club option of at least eight years after 2028, guaranteeing him at least $320 million over 16 years and probably more because of escalators in his contract based on MVP finishes.

No fan should want to see a player short-changed, not when the owners are far wealthier and stay in the game much longer. But the Rodríguez contract, like Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million deal with the Padres, is a departure from the typical club-friendly, pre-arbitration deals the players’ side finds so loathsome. In fact, the contract structure, as negotiated by Rodríguez’s agent, Ulises Cabrera of Octagon, represents a new paradigm for young players, one that might help them land more attractive deals in the future.

How, then, could any player representative possibly object, especially when almost every 21-year-old would consider the Rodríguez deal irresistible? The answer lies with a different player who is 23, considerably more accomplished than Rodríguez and strong-willed enough to say no to a 15-year, $440 million offer without his agent even countering.

That player, of course, is Juan Soto.

Soto’s rejection of $440 million prompted his trade from the Nationals to the Padres. He and his agent, Scott Boras, seem almost certain to seek at least $500 million, and over a shorter term that would increase the average annual value to a record level.

Maybe Soto gets such a deal from the free-spending Padres as soon as this offseason. Maybe he waits until after 2024, when he will reach free agency entering his age 26 campaign. Only one thing seems certain: Soto plans to set a new standard for the sport.

The highest average salary for a position player currently is Mike Trout at $35.5 million. The higher luxury-tax thresholds in the collective-bargaining agreement should ensure an increase in that number, perhaps even up to $50 million. Rodríguez, if he had gone year to year, could have followed Soto’s lead, striking it rich on the open market after 2027, prior to his age 27 season.

If Soto gets $500 million, perhaps Rodríguez might have secured $450 million, on top of the tens of millions he would have already earned from the higher minimum salaries in the new CBA, pre-arbitration bonus pool awards and three years of arbitration. He did not need to jump right away. His long-term value may only have risen.

The union needs players like Soto and Rodríguez to push boundaries in arbitration and free agency, under the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats. The emphasis clubs place on aging curves makes that theory somewhat outdated. But Rodríguez, because he is so young, was a perfect candidate to elevate the market. A top five prospect who developed into a Rookie of the Year front-runner. A player confident enough to tie his financial upside to MVP votes. A potential unicorn.

Or at least, so he appears.

In baseball, as in life, no one can predict the future. Christian Yelich looked like a bargain when he signed his nine-year, $215 million contract with the Brewers after back-to-back top two MVP finishes; his impact now is not nearly at the same level. Cody Bellinger looked like a future $300 million man when he won Rookie of the Year, NLCS MVP and NL MVP in his first three seasons; now there is some question whether the Dodgers will want to give him a raise from $17 million in his final year of arbitration, much less sign him long-term.

Remember the Padres’ giddiness when Tatis accepted their “statue” contract in Feb. 2021? They did not anticipate his repeated injuries or questionable off-field choices, one of which led to an 80-game suspension for violating baseball’s joint drug policy. Even the White Sox’s locking up of Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez for a combined $163 million no longer appears as shrewd as it once did, considering the number of games each missed with injuries and the team’s disappointing performance this season.

So here was Rodríguez, facing the choice of a likely $319 million-plus or potential $450 million-plus. Was the chance of attaining the higher number worth the uncertainty he would face over the next five seasons, when the lower number currently would be one of the top 10 contracts in baseball history, and is likely to end up higher?

Position players often place too much weight on the fear of injury; Acuña is still feeling the effects of the torn ACL he suffered in his right knee shortly before the 2021 All-Star break, but should ultimately be fine. Players also miscalculate when they think the choice in a pre-arb deal is the club’s offer or nothing. Harris, going year to year, could easily have earned a significant chunk of the $72 million the Braves guaranteed him, then more in free agency. Yes, Harris wanted to stay home in Atlanta, but the Braves do not issue no-trade clauses and his contract will make him quite attractive to clubs that want to acquire him.

The new CBA was supposed to make such deals less enticing, but the pre-arbitration bonus pool of $50 million will be divided among 100 players, spreading the wealth instead of creating bigger rewards for the very best. Would Harris or even Rodríguez have said no to their extensions if they were confident of earning, say, $5 million to $7 million this season rather than an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million? Maybe not. But at least their choices might have been more difficult.

One of baseball’s dirty little secrets — agents poaching clients from each other — also drives some of the pre-arbitration deals. The fear of losing players compels some agents to lock in a commission, even on a lesser contract than the player warrants, rather than end up with nothing if the player bolts for a different representative before signing his first big deal.

Albies, Acuña and Harris, at least, are eligible to become free agents in their early 30s, even if all of their club options are exercised. Rodríguez, on the other hand, essentially forfeited his right to a legitimate turn on the open market. After earning $119.3 million over his first eight years, he would reach free agency only if the Mariners decline their option and he declines his player option. Neither is likely unless he is injured or failing. And if he is injured or failing, he will not be an appealing free agent.

On the other hand, if Rodríguez becomes the player both he and the Mariners envision, he will almost certainly become one of the game’s highest-paid players, in total dollars if not average annual value.

Rodríguez’s club option is valued at $200 million over eight years, but that’s only if he does not receive an MVP vote from 2022 to 2028. Two top 10 MVP finishes would increase the value to $240 million over eight years. Four top 10s would make it $260 million. One MVP award and another top five or three top fives would make it $280 million. Two MVP awards or four top fives would make it $350 million over 10, pushing the total value to $469.3 million over 17 years and making it the longest and most lucrative contract in major-league history.

The last escalator probably is unattainable. Trout and Albert Pujols are the only two current players to win two MVPs in their first seven years. Andrew McCutchen is the only other player with four top five finishes in that time frame, according to STATS Perform. Two top 10 MVP finishes, however, should be within Rodríguez’s reach. He might earn his first this season.

Four top 10 finishes might be pushing it — Trout, Pujols, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, McCutchen and Josh Donaldson are the only current players to achieve that many in their first seven full seasons. But two top 10s alone would increase the total value of Rodríguez’s deal to $359.3 million. That’s more than all but three current players (Trout, Betts and Francisco Lindor) are projected to earn in their careers. And if Rodríguez wins an MVP and finishes top five another year — a difficult task, no doubt — he gets to almost $400 million.

By way of contrast, Carlos Correa has career earnings of $61.85 million. He can opt out of his deal with the Twins and re-enter the market entering his age 28 season, but his performance this season and overall track record may not justify his desired $300 million-plus contract. Again, not every player hits the jackpot in free agency.

Rodríguez’s deal includes a record floor and ceiling for a player with less than one year of service. The payment structure is front-loaded; he will receive a $15 million signing bonus, and earn $54 million in what would have been his three arbitration years, more than Trout and Bryce Harper did in the process. No longer must he worry about injuries. About new ways clubs might find to suppress salaries. About the financial ramifications if the Mariners eventually want to move him out of center field.

He’s starting at $209.3 million. Seems like he did OK.

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

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