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What would it cost Marlins to lock up their best player long term?

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Another rebuilding MLB team just set a clear precedent for the negotiations.

Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Before it was overshadowed by a much richer transaction later in the afternoon, the Cincinnati Reds and Eugenio Suarez agreed on Friday to a seven-year, $66 million contract extension.

You may not be familiar with Suarez, who’s been stuck on terrible teams that past several seasons. He just emerged as a high-quality third baseman in 2017, batting .260./367/.461 with 26 home runs in 156 games.

This deal is a big development for the Marlins, believe it or not. Consider the following table:

MLB Player Comparison

Player A B
Player A B
Age 26 26
MLB Debut 2014 2014
Service Time 3.061 3.038
Career Games 497 415
Career wRC+ 103 101
2017 fWAR 4.1 3.6
Source: FanGraphs

You read the introduction to this article, so you know one of these players in Suarez. And you (hopefully) have enough common sense to deduce that the subject of an article on Fish Stripes would be a Miami Marlins player. I’ll even give away his identity—it’s J.T. Realmuto.

But can you tell who is who?

It becomes a bit easier to distinguish the pair on Sunday, when Realmuto turns 27 years old. As of this publication, though, he is Player B. Suarez is Player A. It doesn’t really matter because their resumes are so comparable.

Suarez has a .836 OPS in 20 career games against the Marlins.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Realmuto and Suarez were born four months apart. They’ve spent parts of four seasons in the major leagues. Before news of this extension broke, both were going to be eligible for free agency after 2020. These slightly-above-average hitters performed better than ever last summer, providing All-Star-caliber production (despite being snubbed from the actual game). The players’ teams won their arbitration cases against them to suppress their 2018 salaries.

We can quibble about their subtle differences, most of which seem to favor Realmuto.

For example, there are far fewer quality players at catcher than third base right now. Realmuto is a top-five MLB backstop, according to both MLB Network’s objective and subjective rankings. Suarez, on the other hand, barely contends for recognition at the fringe of the hot corner’s top-10 list. So the Reds would have more alternatives for replacing their young cornerstone than the Marlins would. That factors into the price of buying out free-agent years.

With both of them coming off strong campaigns, can we be certain of their sustainability? Realmuto’s track record is more encouraging. His 2016 numbers (.303/.343/.428, 109 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR) and 2017 numbers (.278/.332/.451, 105 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR) were extremely similar. It took years of gradual improvement for Suarez to develop into his current form, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs explains.

However, the arbitration process is another major component of this calculation. Traditional counting stats—games played, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, etc.—influence a player’s worth, and that archaic criteria disadvantages certain positions and skill sets. Whereas Suarez would’ve earned $3.75 million this season if not for the new contract, Realmuto will take home only $2.9 million. The panel’s ruling established a team-friendly baseline for when he seeks arbitration raises the next two years.

The specific breakdown of Suarez’s extension is as follows: $2.25 million in 2018 plus a $2 million signing bonus; $9.25 million in 2019 and $10.5 million in 2020 (remaining arbitration-eligible years); $11 million annually from 2021-2024 (first four free-agent years); and a $15 million club option—or $2 million buyout—for the 2025 season. If the option is exercised, he will finally reach the open market at age 34.

The contract length and total expenditure would suit Realmuto, although his would need to be restructured differently to reflect his lack of leverage in 2018-2020 and added leverage beyond that. In other words, a more back-loaded deal.

Cincinnati’s motivation for committing to Suarez is simple: the franchise expects to be competitive a few seasons from now and envisions him as part of a successful foundation. Waiting longer would’ve made a deal more expensive, or even tempted him to test free agency.

Realmuto and the Marlins don’t have any momentum toward negotiating their own extension as far as we know, which is why he has been so widely discussed as a trade candidate. It’s always advisable to build around a rising star at a premium position, but there needs to be mutual interest—interest from the team in making a long-term guarantee, and from the player to settle for it rather than entertain other offers. If that proves to be unrealistic, flip the impact player for the best available prospect package.

The Marlins must determine whether or not Realmuto fits with their future, and preferably soon to diffuse what’s been an awkward situation. The Suarez contract adds another variable to that calculus.