Every offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays have made it a priority to ink their core players to long-term deals. In the past, they locked up such players as Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, James Shields, and Evan Longoria; in recent seasons, they signed Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis to deals that could last all the way through 2014-2015. This strategy is important for the Rays, since it allows them to save money -- certain players will trade certainty for dollars -- and better plan for the future.
Who are the possible extension candidates this offseason? It's tempting to hope that the Rays will sign David Price or B.J. Upton to long-term deals, but both of them have little incentive to give the Rays a discount right now. Upton is close to free agency, and Price is fast becoming an ace and will command top dollar in arbitration over the next four years. The Rays would likely be better off focusing on players that are younger, farther away from free agency, and less likely to expect to command large money in arbitration.
Enter Matt Joyce. At 27-years-old, Joyce will not have many chances to make a fortune playing baseball. At this rate, he'll hit free agency after his age 30 season, and although he's been successful with the Rays -- 30% above average offensively -- he was not a top ranked prospect and his numbers will likely not translate to huge money in arbitration. By signing an extension, he could guarantee that he makes millions off baseball instead of taking the riskier year-to-year route.
So what would an extension for Joyce look like? Tommy Rancel speculated a few weeks ago that his deal might mirror Ben Zobrist's current deal, so let's take a more detailed look at player comparisons.
Ben Zobrist signed his four year, $18 million contract after his breakout 2009 season where he hit 27 home runs and drove in 91 runs. He was going into his age 29 season, and he had four more seasons of team control left (one cost-controlled, three arbitration). The total contract breaks down like so:
2010: $0.44 million
2011: $4.5 million
2012: $4.5 million
2013: $5.5 million
2014: $7.0 million (club option)
2015: $7.5 million (club option)
Considering that Joyce is in a similar situation -- late 20s, one more season of cost-control before arbitration -- the framework for his deal would likely be similar. But at the same time, Zobrist and Joyce aren't exactly similar players. Zobrist is a powerful hitter that also is a superb defender, and Joyce projects as having a powerful bat, but he's not nearly as good or versatile on defense (and his struggles against lefties have been well documented). So before claiming if this framework is too high or low, I'd also like to look at comps for Joyce.
If Joyce was to go year-to-year for arbitration, what would he likely receive? Matt Swartz's new model for predicting arbitration rates for players suggests that home runs and RBIs are by far the most important inputs in predicting a player's payout. So if we want to estimate how Joyce would get paid, we should look at players that have put up similar HR/RBI numbers as him before hitting arbitration.
I found a couple players that were close: Adam Jones, Andre Ethier, Nelson Cruz, and Brad Wilkerson. In terms of on-field production, Cruz and Ethier are high-end comparisons, Wilkerson is a low-end one, and Adam Jones looks rather close so far. Here are their salaries through their arbitration years (in millions):
Wilkerson backtracked in his Arb1 season and never reached the peak most had predicted for him, and Cruz, Jones, and Ethier both had breakouts after posting very similar numbers to Joyce early in their careers. If we were to assume Joyce breaks out and hits around 25-30 homers, his arbitration numbers will likely mirror those three players.
With a deal like Zobrist's, the Rays would be paying Joyce more in his first arbitration year than he'd get otherwise, but they'd save on each year down the road -- assuming that Joyce continues to bloom. If Joyce didn't reach his potential and went the Wilkerson route, the Rays would be overpaying him based on what he'd get in arbitration, but only slightly. He'd still be a good value for his production, but the Rays wouldn't likely pick up any of his team options.
Still, at the time that Zobrist signed his extension, he had already hit more than 25 homers in a season and driven in more than 90 runs; Joyce has yet to hit either milestone. The Rays can point to that and attempt to negotiate a deal for Joyce with slightly less guaranteed money than Zobrist, while Joyce's camp can point to comparisons with Ethier, Jones, and Cruz as reasons why he deserves a similar salary as Zo. It's worth remembering that Zobrist had question marks around him too when he signed his extension -- One Hit Wonder? -- although I think his defense and versatility made him a safer investment than Joyce is right now.
Who knows where the two camps will finally meet, but in the end, I agree with Tommy; Joyce will receive a similar amount as Zobrist. Maybe he'll get a little more, maybe a little less, but I wouldn't expect anything too wildly different.