Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/18/12

Forgoing free agency is the new hotness. After already locking up his double play partner Howie Kendrick back in January, the Angels gave Erick Aybar a reported four year, $35 million contract extension today. Aybar is under contract for 2012 at just over $5 million, so this represents a pretty nice raise in annual average value, and assuming that the contract covers 2013-2016, it will keep Aybar in Anaheim through his age 32 season.

This also represents a pretty significant commitment from the Angels towards a player whose skills aren’t generally valued all that highly on the open market. While Aybar has averaged +3.2 WAR per season over the last three years, most of that value has come from his defense and baserunning abilities, as he’s hit just .280/.327/.391. Those aren’t terrible offensive numbers from a shortstop, but they came during his expected peak years and put him in the same category as guys like Jimmy Rollins, Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta, J.J. Hardy, and Cliff Pennington. There’s nothing wrong with any of these guys, but this class of ballplayer has traditionally not struck it rich in free agency.

For instance, Rollins just hit the free agent market this past winter with the same basic set of skills that Aybar brings to the table. He was coming off a +3.8 WAR season with a 106 wRC+, but had to settle for 3 year, $33 million contract from the Phillies after few teams expressed interest in his services. Rollins did turn 33 over the winter, so his advancing age was certainly a factor, but he still didn’t do that much better in AAV than Aybar got in this extension, and Rollins has a better overall track record.

In terms of age, Peralta and Hardy are better fits, as they both hit free agency after the 2010 season headed into their late-20s. Peralta was a comparable hitter to Aybar but with a significantly worse defensive reputation, and he ended up settling for a 2 year, $12 million contract with the Tigers that has turned out to be an excellent investment by Detroit. Hardy was coming off a stronger season than anything Aybar has had in his career, posting a 113 wRC+ and his usual quality defense, but settled for just $21 million over three years from the Orioles. Injury problems were a factor, and again, Hardy isn’t a perfect comp for Aybar’s skillset, but he does show that the market for quality-shortstops-with-some-question-marks wasn’t exactly blowing up.

What about similar-ish guys who didn’t make it to free agency? In January of 2011, Jason Bartlett signed a two year, $11 million deal with San Diego that bought out his final year of arbitration eligibility and his first year of free agency. Like Aybar, Bartlett is a good glove guy with an okay bat, and he got far less than what Aybar just signed for. He was also a couple of years older, but 31 versus 29 doesn’t explain 4/35 versus 2/11.

Dropping down one service time year, a few guys who were two years from free agency have also signed extensions recently – Stephen Drew (2/14), Asdrubal Cabrera (2/16), and Yunel Escobar (2/10). In each case, the teams decided that they’d rather go shorter term, and I’d guess that it’s likely that they were aware that these players weren’t likely to get huge raises in free agency, so they had less to gain by locking up multiple free agent years in a long term deal.

Really, the only contract that looks even remotely similar to Aybar’s new deal is the four year, $32 million extension that Alexei Ramirez got from the White Sox. Like Aybar, Ramirez is a good-but-not-great hitter who accumulates a lot of value with the glove, and the White Sox bought out Ramirez’s final two years of arbitration and first two years of free agency by giving him an AAV extremely similar to what Aybar just got from the Angels. Ramirez was actually three years from free agency when he signed the deal, so it’s quite likely that Aybar’s representatives used this as a negotiating point, noting that he had less leverage at the time the White Sox extended him, so Aybar should get a premium on top of this type of contract.

If the Ramirez extension was the reference point, than the Aybar extension looks completely normal, or maybe even a touch light, but in reality, it stands out as a bit of an outlier given other contracts signed by similar shortstops over the last few years. For the most part, the standard deal for this type of player has been 2-3 years for something a bit shy of the AAV that Aybar got from the Angels. That he was able to get four years while still under contract for one more season is a bit of a surprise.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad signing, of course. You could easily argue that most of these other deals were too team friendly, and that the market has been undervaluing this type of player based on a lack of appreciation for position scarcity and defensive value. If Aybar’s deal signifies a market adjustment, it may very well be one that was needed to bring prices more in line with actual value provided. $9 million per year is essentially what you’d expect a league average player to get as a free agent, and Aybar’s established himself as a better-than-average player. So, this isn’t a deal that I expect the Angels are going to regret. It’s just a little more than we might have expected him to get based on recent history.

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