Friday, March 16, 2018

Astros extend Altuve with largest contract in franchise history

Yay!!  Carlos Lee is no longer the answer to the Astros' most embarrassing trivia question!!!

In news that is likely to spark World Series-type celebrations in Houston, the Astros have apparently extended José Altuve until the conclusion of the 2024 season with a massive $151MM contract extension.  This extension covers the seasons between 2020 and 2024, and will finish when Altuve has reached the ripe old age of 34.  I am assuming that the Astros will pick up (or already have picked up) Altuve's $6MM and $6.5MM salaries for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Altuve gets to enter the halls of the absolute elite - the $30MM per annum players.  This is a pretty short list, as the list of baseballers who have performed at an elite level over an extended period of time is not long.  Only starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke and David Price made more than $30MM per year in 2017.  In 2018, Mike Trout will make more than $30MM.  Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer are also in the middle of contracts that average more than $30MM per year, so if they aren't earning that now, they soon will.

Altuve also becomes the highest paid second baseman of all time on a per annum basis.  Currently, that record is held by Robinson Canó, who will play 2018 in year five of a 10-year, $240MM contract.  While Altuve's contract is not larger in terms of the overall amount paid, it is considerably larger in terms of annual value, and only pays him to the age Canó was when he played the 2017 season.  This is also the largest extension ever for a second baseman, beating Rougned Odor's 6-year $49MM extension by just over $100MM.*

* Sorry, I got this stat from MLBTR's transaction tracker.  Then MLBTR wrote today that Dustin Pedroia signed a $110MM extension a few years ago.  Apologies...

What is also notable here is that José Altuve has only recently switched agencies, and only recently hired Scott Boras as his representative.  Boras is known for his... uh... 'tenacious' advocacy on behalf of his clients, and normally likes to steer them away from extensions.  Boras has a reputation of effectively playing teams off against one another in order to secure the greatest possible payday for his athletes.  He tends to do well in the open market... until the 2017-18 offseason, that is.

So Astros fans are likely to be celebrating because we will see the loveable José Altuve in blue and orange for at least the next seven years.  But there is also a pretty decent argument that this extension is also a very sensible one from a baseball perspective.  Firstly, the Astros have considerable strength up the middle, and this keeps one of the middle infield duo in town for an extended period.  Secondly, the Astros won't have to bid against other teams after grossly underpaying Altuve over the last six or so seasons in the 2019-20 offseason.  Scott Boras may have been spooked by the slow offseason this year, where it seems clear that the middle tier of free agents are struggling to gain lucrative employment.  Fourthly, Altuve plays an up-the-middle position, and does everything well, so he does not rely on one skill to provide value to his team.  He has an incredible ability to hit for contact, he now hits for power as well, and will take a walk.  He runs the bases well (which includes stealing bases), and defends reasonably well.*  He has avoided major injury, and the Astros would have a good feel for how he projects from a health perspective.

* DRS and UZR don't like Altuve that much, but they struggle to manage measurements in shifted players.  That said, I also don't think that a realistic argument can be put forward that Altuve is the best defensive second baseman in the league, or in the game.  He is a solid but unspectacular defensive player.

I imagine FanGraphs or BPro or someone will have a pretty complete article up shortly, looking at how this contract will be valued as Altuve ages and inevitably declines.  There is, of course, considerable risk in signing a single player to such a large amount per year.  But what the Astros have avoided is a long contract, such as Canó's, Albert Pujols' and Miguel Cabrera's contracts, all of which will pay those gentlemen considerable amounts of money to play into their fifth decade, to the likely end of their careers.  Altuve is arguably a more complete baseballer than Canó, and certainly is a more complete player than Cabrera.  This makes he think that he is a better bet to provide value as he ages.  His complete, all-round game puts him alongside Mike Trout in terms of elite players across a wide skillset in the AL.

So congratulations, Mr Altuve.  This is the culmination of years of hard work, and is well deserved.  This is acknowledgement that you do everything on the baseball diamond well.  From a fan's perspective, it will be a delight watching you in Houston for at least another seven seasons.

Now stay healthy, and don't do anything dumb.