Why the Phillies made a $30.5 million wager on Odubel Herrera
The five-year, $30.5 million extension for Odubel Herrera establishes a bit of Phillies precedence. In the last 20 years, the team has twice reached contract deals with players who have less than three years of major-league service time: Pat Burrell, in 2003, for $50 million; and Cole Hamels, after the 2008 World Series, for $20.5 million.
Both Burrell and Hamels had more than two years of service time when they re-signed; Hamels was headed for his first year of salary arbitration and Burrell had reached the end of an $8 million entry-level contract he signed upon being drafted.
Herrera is a bit different. He has accrued two years of service time and was still a year away from arbitration. The Phillies could have waited to make such a deal, but they followed the rising industry trend of pre-arb extensions.
It's an interesting deal for a few reasons.
1. Make no mistake, this is a club-friendly contract: Almost all pre-arb deals are. Such is the nature of Major League Baseball's salary structure, where a team has six years of control on a player before said player can reach free agency. The first three years are at or near the big-league minimum salary and the next three are decided through an archaic arbitration process. The club has all of the leverage, and can use that leverage in the form of a long-term extension offer like this.
Herrera traded as many as three free-agent years to attain immediate financial security. Players do this. Think about it: Herrera, two Decembers ago, was not added to Texas' 40-man roster and thus unprotected by his previous employer. Now he is a multi-millionaire. That is hard to rebuff.
The Phillies, rather than going year-to-year with Herrera, achieved some so-called "cost certainty." It is difficult to know how much Herrera would have earned from 2018-20 through arbitration had he continued on his current career arc. But if the Phillies exercise both options for 2022 and 2023, they will have purchased Herrera's first three years of free agency (2021-23) for roughly $33 million. That could represent a massive discount for the team. They have Herrera under control now through his age 29 season, at the very least. In the post-steroid game, production has skewed toward players under 30.
2. The Phillies believe in Herrera as a centerfielder: They paid him like a centerfielder and they plan to keep him in center for the foreseeable future. They do not do this deal unless they think he's a centerfielder. It is a premium position that requires premium money.
The reports on Herrera's defense have always conflicted. Most scouts are not overly impressed, but can see an average defender. The advanced metrics, however, are far more favorable. The analytics component to the Gold Glove voting is why Herrera was a finalist in 2016. The Phillies' internal metrics concur with the publicly available ones.
Part of betting on Herrera is that he is so new to the position and could stand to learn more with experience. Remember, Herrera was an infielder until Venezuelan winter ball in 2014. Credit Juan Samuel, the Phillies' third-base coach, with his guidance. Samuel, of course, made the same transition in the late '80s.
3. The contract does not guarantee Herrera is around for, say, 2019: The Phillies are obviously high on Herrera. They have every reason to share that sentiment. But a contract extension like this only makes him more tradeable — if the Phillies ever do decide to explore such an option. It is true that the Phillies floated him on the trade market last summer and even earlier this offseason, but it was more of a challenge trade according to sources from two teams who spoke to the Phillies. They were not motivated to trade Herrera, unless another team made an overwhelming offer. (Think Ken Giles and Houston.)
So now Herrera is locked up into free agency, and that affords him some financial security but not necessarily team security. The White Sox signed Adam Eaton to a five-year deal with two club options following his second full season in the majors. The structure and timing of the contract is almost identical to Herrera's. Two years after signing him, Chicago adopted a rebuilding process and dealt Eaton to Washington for three pitching prospects.
4. If anything, the contract increases Herrera's value outside the organization: One major reason why Washington flipped its three best pitching prospects for Eaton was his team-friendly contract. The Nationals were not simply acquiring a steady, young centerfielder; they were acquiring one on a five-year, $38.4 million deal. That is how much Eaton has left on his contract, if both of the club options are exercised. Those are favorable terms for Washington. It drove up the price on Eaton.
Herrera is one year younger than Eaton was when he signed his deal. But Eaton and Herrera are similar players (save a few differences, like strikeouts and home runs) through their first two full seasons. Traditional counting statistics are tougher to judge because Herrera accumulated 275 more plate appearances:
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
5. Will this deal spark a rush of Phillies pre-arb contract extensions? Probably not. The Phillies could want to do a similar deal with Maikel Franco, but Franco said last summer that no long-term contract talks had taken place. He may not be willing to agree to an extension before free agency; Franco signed away 10 percent of his future earnings for $4.35 million up front as part of a branding deal with a company called Fantex. Plus, Franco may want to wait to talk contract until his value rises.