How Betts, LA both win with huge extension

Star outfielder signs deal to stay in LA through 2032

July 23rd, 2020

A mere few weeks ago, with the entire season uncertain, we weren't sure if Mookie Betts would ever actually suit up for a regular-season game with the Dodgers before he reached free agency. Now, just hours before he officially begins his first season with Los Angeles, we have our answer. He'll play in so, so many Dodger games. Thousands of them, perhaps.

That's because he's agreed to a 12-year extension with the Dodgers that sources told MLB Network Insider Ken Rosenthal is worth $365 million, on top of the one year and $27 million (prorated to $10 million by the shortened season) he was already going to earn in 2020. All told, it's 13 years. It's $392 million. It's the second-largest deal by total value in Major League history. It's through 2032, which definitely sounds like "the distant future, when we all live on Mars." It's so, so much.

(For the Dodgers, it's more than that, really. It's $392 million, but it's also $48 million, Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong -- the price paid to import Betts and David Price (and half of Price's remaining contract) from Boston back in February. They paid that for the right to give Betts nearly $400 million before anyone else could, in case you wonder how highly they value him.)

There's so much to contemplate, to take in. Let's try to dig through this.

For the Dodgers...

... there's the fact that they just won 106 games and the last seven straight division titles without Betts, and now they know they have one of baseball's truly elite players under contract into the 2030s. (There are reportedly no opt-outs in the deal.) As if they didn't already have enough talent -- note that Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Walker Buehler, Corey Seager, Gavin Lux, Will Smith, Dustin May, and Julio Urías are all in their 20s -- now they'll have Betts, a player who almost literally cannot be found elsewhere. (The best free-agent bat next winter is George Springer, a fine player who is not Betts.)

Not only can they afford this kind of deal, they were perfectly set up for it, given that they had literally no guaranteed contracts on the books past the 2022 season. This has been the deal that Andrew Friedman has been trying unsuccessfully to make for a few years now, whether Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon, who all went elsewhere. Not only that, there's the secondary benefit of keeping him away from the Giants, who were expected to be a serious contender for Betts in free agency this winter. That's a win.

For Betts ...

... well, he did just make nearly $400 million guaranteed dollars, right? And of course, he said all the right things on Wednesday: "I love being here, everything about being here. The people here made me feel so comfortable. Everybody’s amazing. This organization is a well-oiled machine. I love it.”

But aside from the raw dollars and apparent comfort with the team and city, signing now -- which was initially somewhat surprising given that he'd previously indicated he intended to get to free agency no matter what -- helps him avoid the uncertainty of a free agency class sure to be affected by the pandemic, and especially with so many big-ticket teams already having huge contracts allotted to outfielders (Yankees, Phillies, Angels, Cubs, and with a return to Boston unlikely). That's a win.

So it's a win/win. Betts gets an appropriately large contract. (FanGraphs' Dan Szymborski estimated that over 13 years, $367 million would have been the midpoint number, so this is close. There are deferrals, though we don't know how much.) The Dodgers can count on an elite talent as part of what was already an unthinkably deep team, for so many years to come.

But mostly, there's this: Thirteen years? What does that even look like? Is Betts worth that? Does anyone need a contract that long? And why is it that long?

1) The years don't really matter.

They don't! Nihilist as it may sound. Eat Arby's, right? But they don't, not really.

Think about it this way: Imagine it was five new years for $365 million. Or eight years for $365 million, or 10, or ... just stick with the $365 million, the number that's now coming after 2020. Would that change your perception of this deal? "Ten years for $365 million, or an average of $36.5 million per year," is obviously quite a lot, but it's not out of line with what top-level stars make.

What the extra years do is to lower the average annual value of the contract, and that's what's important when it comes to tracking luxury tax spending. (For now, anyway. We don't really know what things will look like when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is discussed following the 2021 season). Spreading $365 million over 12 years drops that AAV to $30.4 million -- even if that's not exactly how he receives the money -- and that's not an unreasonably high number for a player of his caliber. It'd rank just 11th in the Majors and third on his own team.

And since it seems the number of years of the extension (12) is more shocking to people than the number of new dollars included ($365 million), that's important. The fact that they'll owe him $365 million starting in 2021 is set in stone (pending the time value of the deferrals, anyway), but the number of years they have him in the lineup, well, that's really up to the team. If you're more comfortable with the idea of an eight-year deal for $365 million, then just assume they'll cut him after 2028 -- or that he'll play four more years for free. However it goes down more easily, really. The years aren't that important.

But there's also this, if you prefer to view it this way: Will Betts be overpaid when he's 37, 38, 39 years old? Sure, probably. But he's likely to be underpaid to start. It'll even out, even if you don't really want him manning right field in 2032. That is, if you assume 1 WAR is about $8 million on the open market, as FanGraphs does, well, then Betts was worth $53 million in 2019. Obviously, he's not making that. He'll get less than he's worth upfront, and more than he's worth on the back end. As Szymborski's estimate showed, it's about right, and hard to argue with when Trout, the only player in baseball clearly superior to Betts, signed last year for $426.5 million ... over 12 years starting at age 27.

2) If anyone's worth it, Betts is.

We don't really need to tell you how great Betts is, right? At least we hope we don't? But just in case, in the five seasons since his first full season in 2015, he ranks ...

Second in WAR (35.4)
Third in Defensive Runs Saved (94)
Eighth in steals (119)
16th in OPS+ (134)

His 2018 season, when he hit 32 homers, slugged .640, stole 30 bases and played elite-level defense, was legitimately one of the 40 or so greatest seasons in Major League history. His "worst" season was probably 2017, when he "only" had a 24/26 HR/SB pairing, struck out exactly two more times than he walked and won another Gold Glove. He's never had an injury more serious than a 2018 abdominal strain; he's younger than Aaron Judge, Christian Yelich and Kris Bryant.

3) What have previous Betts types done?

And yet: Twelve new years! A contract of double-digit years hasn't looked so good for the Angels (Albert Pujols), but that was a very different situation. Pujols was headed into his age-32 season when he signed with the Angels, and he was a first baseman. Betts doesn't turn 28 until October, and he's an elite runner and fielder. How does that type of player age?

So in order to look forward, let's look back. Let's try to find players similar to Betts throughout history -- no easy task, given his high level of play -- and see how they turned out. We'll take his last three seasons (age 24-26), which give us a stat line of .299/.389/.535 (or 41% above league average) with excellent defensive value (+64 fielding runs, per Baseball-Reference) and excellent baserunning value (+21 baserunning runs). That package together: 23.9 WAR.

Let's go back to the end of World War II. Let's look only at three-year periods from outfielders aged 24-26, as Betts just completed, with these parameters:

• At least 1,000 plate appearances
• WAR between 17 and 25
• Offense between 30% and 50% above average
• Positive defensive value
• Positive baserunning value

That knocks out players who were better pure hitters, like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. It knocks out poor defenders, like Jim Rice, and players with little baserunning value, like Ralph Kiner. It leaves us with these nine names:

• Betts
• Bobby Abreu
• Jesse Barfield
• Bobby Bonds
• Johnny Callison
• Andre Dawson
• Rickey Henderson
• Reggie Smith
• Duke Snider

This isn't a perfect comparison, in part because it's so hard to be as good as Betts has been -- he's been the most valuable player on this list, and eight names isn't exactly a large sample size. But of the other eight, three (Dawson, Henderson, Snider) are in the Hall of Fame. And if we look at each of the eight individually ...

• Abreu -- productive through 37
• Barfield -- productive through 30
• Bonds -- productive through 33
• Callison -- productive through 33
• Dawson -- productive through 37
• Henderson -- productive through 42
• Smith -- productive through 37
• Snider -- productive through 36

... we can see that all but one, Barfield, was productive into at least the first few years of their thirties. Several continued to contribute value into their late 30s, or about the length of Betts' new contract. (Barfield was plagued by injuries, including hurting his wrist and elbow in a fall in a sauna in 1992.)

Just over 20 years ago, the Dodgers made a huge mistake, trading a young superstar in his 20s rather than sign him to a long-term deal, and now Mike Piazza is enshrined in Cooperstown as a Met. This time around, they're the ones getting the superstar, and paying to keep him. When Betts enters the Hall of Fame someday -- and no, it's not too soon to think about him in those terms -- it now seems incredibly likely he'll be wearing a Dodgers cap on his plaque, no matter what he did in Boston. It's a lot to think about. It's a lot of contract. It's worth it. He's worth it.