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Wei-Yin Chen signing: Miami Marlins sign Chen to long, but reasonable, contract

The Marlins shelled out a deal paying out $16 million a season, but the length could end up being a concern for the Fish.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins needed a starting pitcher, and they finally got a reasonable one today. The Fish signed Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million contract today, securing themselves a safe investment guaranteed for decent production over the next few seasons. Chen had been rumored to be on the Marlins' radar, and the team finally pulled the trigger on its first major move of the offseason.

The Deal

The Marlins agreed to pay $80 million in total, which is the highest amount that any Marlins contract has paid out to a pitcher. However, there are quite a few additional caveats to the deal. The first is a vesting sixth-year option worth another $16 million that could push this deal to a guarantee of $96 million over the next six years. This is a vesting player option, meaning it does not trigger a guarantee for Chen and only provides him a choice to stick around for another season at $16 million if he hits the milestones. Chen's option triggers if he throws 180 innings in the fifth year or 360 innings in the last two years of the deal.

The contract also contains the vaunted player opt-out after two years, which allows Chen to leave the contract and re-enter free agency heading into his age-32 season. This is not the first time the Marlins have handed out a player opt-out, as the team gave Giancarlo Stanton an option to leave after six seasons in his mammoth 13-year deal. Chen will get to chance to forgo the remainder of the contract if he feels he will do better in the open market.

However, for Miami, this opt-out is a unique situation. That is because, as they have with several other deals, Miami backloaded the contract, and the salaries are escalating just as the opt-out triggers. The Marlins are only paying $28 million to Chen for the first two years of the deal. This essentially leaves Chen the option of entering free agency or moving on with a three-year, $52 million contract, depending on his performance. The backloading makes it more likely that Miami will keep Chen, making the opt-out a tad less valuable to the player (the options are more limited).

The Player

As we mentioned yesterday, Chen is a good fit with the Marlins and their stadium. The Fish like pitchers who can hit the strike zone, and Chen is among the most strike zone-hitting pitchers in baseball. Since 2013, only eight other starters have worked in the zone more than Chen at 53 percent. And unlike guys like Henderson Alvarez or even Nathan Eovaldi, Chen actually gets reasonable strikeout rates for a guy throwing average stuff in the zone a lot. From 2013 on, Chen's 18.4 percent strikeout rate is ranked 78th out of 122 qualified starters. When compared to the league average starter strikeout rate of 19.2 percent, it is not terribly far off. With Chen working in the zone so often, he avoids walks at a strong rate, with his 5.4 percent rate only 75 percent that of the league average 7.2 percent mark.

Chen's arsenal is not necessarily pretty, but it is effective. He has a four-pitch arsenal consistent of a fastball, primarily a four-seam pitch, along with a slider, curveball, and changeup. The fastball sits in the low 90s, primarily 91-92 mph, with a slider and curve that both get decent, if unspectacular whiff rates in the 25-28 percent range. Overall, Chen's contact rate of 83 percent overall puts him in similar company as free agents Yovani Gallardo, J.A. Happ, and Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler. The strikeout advantage for Chen is that he works so much in the zone that he works ahead of hitters; when the first pitch was taken against Chen, he got to an 0-1 count on hitters 57.8 percent of the time. Compared to other Marlins like Henderson Alvarez (55 percent) and Tom Koehler (53 percent), it puts Chen ahead a lot more often.

The biggest concern for Chen is home runs, and that just happens to be what Marlins Park does best at preventing. He allowed 42 homers in 334 road innings (1.13 per nine innings) over his career versus 55 homers in 372 2/3 innings (1.33 per nine) at Camden Yards, and you can bet that Marlins Park will eat into those homer totals. Chen will still allow an above average home run rate, and park factors will account for some of the expected drop in his ERA, but with the drastic change, you should expect a better-appearing Chen in Miami than the one we saw playing in Baltimore.

The Comps

Before free agency started, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs said Chen may turn out to be a free agent bargain thanks to his middling-appearing stuff. This is especially true when you compare him to a similar player who earned more money this offseason.

For any team interested in signing Jordan Zimmermann, consider Chen instead. While the stuff isn’t as visually impressive, Chen and Zimmermann had very similar walk years, and their overall profile — strike-thrower with average strikeout rate and a brief history of outperforming their peripherals — is quite similar.

Let's look at the numbers and add an additional comparison who is older and making $16 million a season as wel.

Player, 2013-2015 IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
Jordan Zimmermann 614 2/3 20.3 4.3 3.19 3.27 10.8
John Lackey 605 1/3 19.4 5.6 3.35 3.73 7.1
Wei-Yin Chen 514 184 5.4 3.61 4.03 6.5

Chen is clearly the worst of the three, but each fit the same archetype. None of them have impressive, hard throwing stuff, each has around average strikeout rates, and each displays strong, pinpoint control. Zimmermann was the best of the archetype, and he may be worth about 2.5 wins more than Chen over the life of their five-year deals, but he earned $20 million more than Chen guaranteed. Lackey got a three-year deal, but it was also worth $16 million a year, and he is a lot older at age 36 than Chen, who will enter his age-30 season next year. Essentially, Chen got a fair contract.

The Projection

Chen should be a reasonable addition to the Marlins' staff next season. Based on projections from Steamer and FanGraphs' depth charts, he would be worth 2.6 wins in 195 innings in 2016. No Marlins starter or combination of starters behind Jose Fernandez could put up more than 1.5 wins in that kind of timing, so you would expect the Marlins to have added at least one win to their 2016 total by adding the solid lefty hand of Chen. In addition, it adds a much-desired left-handed component to what has traditionally been a righty-leaning rotation.

The question is whether Miami gave up too many years to make this happen. The first seasons are inevitably going to be valuable. Chen is going to be paid an average of $16 million a year, and the first season alone is likely to be worth $19 million to $22 million in free agency, depending on how you value free agent wins at this point. The question is the future.

Wei-Yin Chen’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $80 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2016 30 2.8 $8.0 M $22.4 M
2017 31 2.3 $8.4 M $19.3 M
2018 32 1.8 $8.8 M $15.8 M
2019 33 1.3 $9.3 M $12.1 M
2020 34 0.8 $9.7 M $7.8 M
Totals 17.1 $77.4 M
Assumptions
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Under FanGraphs' valuation of the current free agent market and using their aging curve, this deal comes out to just about even value, with the Marlins overpaying by a slim amount. Of course, there is added value in the opt-out and the vesting option, so Miami probably overpaid on this deal. Excluding the fifth year would have been a slight boost in surplus value, but the overall valuation appears to be fair.

Miami got their rotation upgrade and for about the market price, and they ended up saving some early money and giving themselves the off chance of getting out of an expensive part of this contract if Chen plays above his head. This signing is about as fair as you can get.