The Miami Marlins have been trying to find members of their core group of talent who will lead them to the next playoff stint for the Fish. They rightfully identified Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich and took care of them with contract extensions. The team paid the appropriate costs to sign Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year deal. And now the Fish have locked up the player they feel is the next big part of the future contending Marlins, second baseman Dee Gordon. Gordon signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension with a vesting sixth-year option worth $14 million.
Unlike in the situation with Chen, in which Miami had to hand out extra years due to free agency, or even in the situation with Stanton, where free agency was more imminent, Gordon's contract situation was secure. He was likely pretty set in terms of his arbitration salary scaling, and given the type of player he is, it seemed very unlikely he would break out even further and cost the team more money in arbitration. The Marlins were three seasons away from losing Gordon's team control, so it was not as though the team was at risk of impending free agency and potentially having to pay exorbitant free agent costs to retain him any time soon. While the effort for the Marlins is appreciated and the contract is unlikely to be an out-and-out bad deal, it seems like a relatively unnecessary move for the Fish as well.
The Marlins are paying about $10 million annually for the five years of the contract, but it is much more likely that it is structured to fit arbitration scaling. MLB Trade Rumors projected that Gordon would make $5.9 million this season in his second of four seasons in arbitration, so that price may be close to what he eventually got for this deal. If we start at $6 million for the 2016 season, here is a sample of what the deal's breakdown could look like.
This is a reasonable slow increase in salary over the course of several years, and this is the primary advantage of signing this type of contract. MLBTR estimated that Gordon's arbitration would cost $25-27 million, but I had the number closer to $28-31 million. In addition, the scale going up slowly in the first few seasons makes the three free agent years the Marlins may be getting even cheaper; instead of paying $34 million on those two free agent years in the projection I made yesterday, the Marlins will save $8 million on those two free agent years at $13 million a season.
Those little savings add up. Let's take a look at the salary projections for the next few years with this new deal (2016 excluded).
* Stanton has a player opt-out beyond the 2020 season
**Denotes vesting options for Chen and Gordon
***Denotes team option
If both Chen and Gordon vest their player options and Stanton accepts the bid to stay in Miami, the Marlins will be on the hook for $73 million guaranteed, which is in line with the previous few seasons of salary for those four players.
Dee Gordon is a decent player already, and the salaries that are being doled out come nowhere near an overpay for what is expected of him. Even the free agent seasons are mild costs; by that point, FanGraphs suspects a free agent with will be worth $9.3 million a season, so Miami will be paying for a below average player with those prices.
Gordon has displayed his ability to steal bases and obtain a decent batting average over the last two years, and he upped his game this past season by playing Gold Glove-caliber defense as well. Working with infield coach Perry Hill has paid off in a nice way for Gordon. Maintaining that defensive improvement will keep him well above average, and players who are solidly above average have great value. The Marlins felt like they were getting one of those players to stick around for the long haul, with the nice off chance that he can retain All-Star level play once in a while. There are a lot worse things than committing money to an above average player.
The Marlins simply did not need to make this move. They bought out two free agent years on what is likely going to be on the cheap, but Gordon is still the type of player with too variant a floor to commit to years down the line. Miami essentially saw 1.5 good seasons of Gordon and signed up for two more than they needed to. Imagine if they had done that with Dan Uggla, whose career cratered at age 31. What about for Juan Pierre, a player who is Gordon's ideal but only mustered about seven Wins Above Replacement over the five-year span corresponding to Gordon's next five years?
None of those situations would theoretically make for a crippling contract, but they certainly could make for an unnecessary one. The Marlins could have kept Gordon at reasonable prices over the next three seasons and continue to monitor his progress, especially given the likely fact that his following seasons can only be worse than his high point in 2015. Essentially, the Marlins are once again buying high on Gordon's best campaign.
Dee Gordon is projected to produce a .284/.325/.368 (.303 wOBA) worth just two wins next season. Even with a reasonable increase in his defensive play, you might expect Gordon to put up 2.5 wins in the 2016 season. If he retains that production, he will remain a valuable player for the Marlins over the life of his deal, but with Gordon's variable floor due to his skill set, there is more risk that the floor will bottom out than that Gordon retains the 2015 extremely valuable version of him.
The team may have gotten a reasonably better deal had they tried to sign Gordon before the 2017 season or learned more information about him over the next year before committing free agent years. Still, the overall deal is not exorbitant and was cheaper than expected, and the Marlins are still likely to get good value out of the life of the deal, so while it may not have been an optimal move, it was not a large error.