Apr 22, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo hits a three-run home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at Great American Ball Park.  David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

One of the savviest things any Major League Baseball general manager can do is get a player on a cheap, long-term contract that covers the athlete’s prime years. It’s often done before a player truly establishes themselves as an elite force, though not always. Regardless, such deals can harness incredible talent while freeing up payroll space to add other pieces — or, for those on a non-contending franchise, add even more trade value to a player on the block.

Here is a list of 10 big league players who are currently playing at prices well below market value.

10) Christian Yelich, Miami (seven years, $49.57 million)

The 25-year-old Yelich has quietly developed into one of the National League’s better players.

Yelich has taken over as the Marlins’ full-time center fielder in 2017 for the first time, all while continuing to grow as a hitter. His offense is down a bit off a breakout 2016, where he hit .298 with 21 home runs and 38 doubles, but the sample size on his 2017 is small.

The Marlins are getting this for a bargain price.

Yelich is in the third season of a seven-year, $49.57 million pact with the Marlins. The deal could add an eighth year for another $15 million if Miami opts to exercise that team option for 2022. All this means is that Yelich, a five-win player by Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, is signed through his physical prime for well below market value.

9) Chris Archer, Tampa Bay (six years, $25.5 million)

Archer would have placed higher on this list had it been made after 2015, when the Rays ace finished in the top five of American League Cy Young voting. Ultimately, this is still a guy who has consistently been striking out ten batters per nine since the start of 2015, and he has begun to look a bit more like his old self this season, with a 3.70 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. Even in 2016, when he lost 19 games, he struck out 233 batters, threw over 200 innings, and had an ERA of 4.02.

The Rays are run on a tight budget, so they need bargains, and Archer is a great one.

He’s almost staggeringly cheap in this environment, making just under $5 million in 2017, a figure that will only rise to about $7.6 million come 2019. With $9 million and $11 million team options in 2020 and 2021, the Rays have him under cheap team control through his age-32 season.

Even if Archer doesn’t put up another 2015, that’s an exceptional price for a pitcher who can put up ERAs in the high 3s, strike out 200 batters, and pitch 200 innings.

8) Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox (five years, $26.5 million)

Why, despite a massive sell-off this offseason, did the Chicago White Sox hang on to left-handed pitcher Jose Quintana despite a near-daily trickle of trade rumors? Because they valued him so highly, both due to his performance and because of his contract.

Though he’s gotten off to a slow start in 2017, his numbers before the season had been fantastic: a 3.41 ERA over the course of his first five MLB seasons.

The White Sox took full advantage of Quintana’s willingness to sign a long-term deal in 2014, inking him to a 5-year, $26.5 million deal, plus two team options. The result is one of baseball’s steadiest, most reliable left-handed pitchers earning just $7 million in 2017. It’s a figure that will rise, but only to $10.5 million and $11.5 million for his pair of options in 2019 and 2020.

By the end of his deal, options included, Quintana will have given Chicago — or whatever team ends up employing him at that point — his prime years at a very cheap price.

7) Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland (four years, $22 million)

Carrasco quickly blossomed into one of baseball’s best young arms over recent seasons, bursting onto the scene with a 216-strikeout season in 2015 before doubling down and establishing himself as a quality arm for good in 2016. The Indians saw in 2015 that Carrasco was no fluke, quickly signing him to a four-year, $22 million deal with two team options.

Over the last three seasons, including the start of 2017, Carrasco has thrown 382 innings, striking out 418 and putting up a 3.37 ERA. Those are elite numbers, and in doing so, Carrasco has made a little over $13 million. He’ll get $8 million, $9 million, and $9.5 million over the next three years if both of his options are exercised, keeping him cheap and under team control through his age 33 season. The Indians got a steal.

6) Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (six years, $144.5 million)

Trout is making $20 million in 2017 and still manages to be underpaid. His numbers will rise to $34 million for each of the next three years, making him, for the moment, the highest-paid player in baseball, but he’s not there yet.

Trout is the best player in baseball, a near-guarantee to hit .300, add 30 homers, and play quality defense in center field. He’s doing it for well below market value, at least in 2017.

Consider, for instance, the contract Bryce Harper will allegedly seek when he becomes a free agent after 2018. He could make a case for $40 million a year the way the game’s finances are going. Trout is locked in at $34 million through 2020, after which he can become a free agent in his prime.

Is it possible to be underpaid while making $34 million? If it is, Trout will be.

5) Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco (six years, $35.56 million)

Bumgarner is a huge bargain, even if you don’t consider his iconic postseason exploits.

Signed in 2012 before his reputation of playoff dominance had ever really cemented itself, it turned out to be a stroke of genius for the Giants. In 2014, the year Bumgarner nearly single-handedly led the Giants through October to a third World Series title, the ace lefty made just $3.75 million. He’s seen his earnings go up to $11.5 million in 2017, and he’ll make $12 million each of the next two years, but that’s still a steal.

Bumgarner is a fixture in the top ten of NL Cy Young voting, has four straight seasons with an ERA under 3, and is a Giants legend already. The fact that he’s doing it on the cheap is just icing on the cake.

The bad news for MadBum is that he may have hurt himself in future negotiations, too.

4) Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs (seven years, $42 million)

Rizzo is one of the faces of the first Cubs title in over a century, and he’s doing it all for a discount price.

Two straight top-five showings in the MVP vote and a Gold Glove demonstrate how respected Rizzo is, and the numbers don’t lie: he was one of the sport’s best hitters in 2016, with a .292 average, 32 home runs, and a .385 ERA, the second year in a row of gaudy offensive numbers for the first baseman.

The Cubs knew they had a great talent in Rizzo, and they moved to lock him up early. They won’t be regretting it.

Rizzo led the Cubs to a World Series while making just $5 million. His salary jumped to $7 million this season and next, and will peak with a pair of $16.5 million team options for 2020 and 2021. By the end of those seasons, the Cubs will have profited from Rizzo’s prime. He is a steal for them.

3) Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona (five years, $32.05 million)

One of baseball’s most consistently underappreciated players is also one of its most underpaid. The two-time Gold Glover has a .300 career average and hits 30 homers a season, quietly putting up numbers out in Arizona while doing pretty much everything well. The guy even managed to steal 32 bases in 2016 despite lacking the profile of your average base-stealer.

Goldschmidt does it all and comes cheap, too. He’s making just under $9 million in 2017, rising to $11.1 million in 2018 and concluding with a $14.5 million team option in 2019, his age 31 season. Even that will be a bargain if he puts up his current numbers.

Goldschmidt is unquestionably one of the sport’s best first basemen, and the Diamondbacks have him playing his prime seasons for them at a discount when he could probably make $25-$30 million on the open market.

2) Chris Sale, Boston (five years, $32.5 million)

If you exclude Clayton Kershaw, Sale may well be the sport’s premier left-handed pitcher. He has posted a lifetime 2.99 ERA as a starter, even while pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Chicago. Boston has fallen in love with him, and it’s no surprise when you see that he’s posted a 2.15 ERA while striking out 85 in 58.2 innings since joining the Red Sox in an offseason trade.

Sale got the White Sox a huge haul in the deal for reasons other than his dominant pitching. He’s making $12 million in 2017 and has two team options for 2018 and 2019, which will earn him $12.5 million and $13.5 million. Chicago took a chance on Sale despite there being questions about his durability, and it paid off — he could easily command twice that on the open market.

It’s not hard to understand why Boston had to part with two top prospects to bring him in — not only is he elite, but he’s doing it on the cheap.

1) Jose Altuve, Houston (four years, $12.5 million)

Altuve’s contract is so ridiculously affordable that one has to do a double-take when seeing it.

Is one of baseball’s most exciting, talented, and dynamic players playing out the 2017 season while making $4.5 million? Yes, as a matter of fact, he is. Sure, he’s due for a raise next season once his team option is inevitably exercised, but that will only take him to $6 million, with another $6.5 million to follow in 2019.

Altuve will get his eventually — he’s set to hit the open market in two and a half years, and he’ll get a truckload of money when he does. For now, though, this is a guy who has two batting titles to his name, offers 20-homer power, steals upwards of 30 bags a year, and is regarded as a top-notch defender. He is doing it all as the 11th-highest paid player on his team, making less money than such stalwarts as Nori Aoki, Tony Sipp, and Charlie Morton. No disrespect to any of them, but Altuve should probably be earning more than all of them combined.

This is a guy who could reasonably command eight times what he’s currently making if he were to become a free agent tomorrow, and nobody would bat an eye if he did.

This article first appeared on Larry Brown Sports and was syndicated with permission.


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