This all tracks on paper. The White Sox have long been one of the game’s most aggressive teams when it comes to early career extensions. Long before recently inked deals with Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Aaron Bummer, Chicago reached agreements with Chris Sale and Adam Eaton that paid huge dividends.
And Moncada? He’s still just 24 years old and is one season shy of arbitration. The switch-hitting infielder just turned in a monster 2019 campaign, launching 25 long balls and slashing .315/.367/.548 over 559 plate appearances. He relied upon a .406 BABIP to get there, but that reflected Moncada’s tantalizing combination of pop (97th percentile exit velocity) and wheels (72nd percentile sprint speed).
It would probably be wise to anticipate some regression, but there’s little denying the validity of the breakout. Moncada just plain stings the baseball and has now proven he can deliver that consistently against big-league pitching. He will probably always swing and miss more than you’d prefer, but he drove down his strikeout rate from about one-third to a much-more-palatable 27.5%. Moncada doesn’t attempt a ton of steals but still clearly grades as a positive on the bases. Metrics have not been consistent with his glovework as he has moved between second and third base, but it seems clear that the tools are there for an average or above-average fielder.
Moncada has always had a thrilling skill set. Now he has shown he knows how to use it against the best pitchers in the game. He’s not yet a top-shelf superstar, but he’s a bona fide franchise building block who could easily become one of the faces of the game.
So … what’s his future worth?
This is a question often faced by teams contemplating how best to capitalize on the presence of high-grade young talent. Worst case, the White Sox will enjoy the rights to control Moncada for four more seasons — beginning with a league-minimum+ 2020 salary with his salary increasing thereafter through the arbitration process. If he sinks, the obligations will go down or even go away if Chicago decides to cut ties. If Moncada rises, the Sox will pay more but will still enjoy a discount. Should Moncada continue to star but end up missing time due to injury, the Pale Hose will have to weather his absence but could still recoup some value through reduced future costs.
That’s just how the (collectively bargained) arbitration system works. Players bear quite a lot of risk, and their earning upside is tempered, which in many cases gives teams leverage. Want to capitalize on your talent and early career production to ensure you’ll earn tens of millions of dollars? Better sign an extension.
This is where things get interesting in the case of Moncada. Only a few players near arbitration eligibility while already sitting on a huge pile of cash. Even the very top draft picks don’t earn eight-figure bonuses. And with international spending caps now in place, young players from abroad no longer command the kinds of huge bonuses that … well, the kind that Moncada himself received back in 2015 when he inked a $31 million deal with the Red Sox (and that actually cost Boston twice that amount due to penalties).
Aha. Moncada has already earned quite a lot of money. And he’s now only a season from turning that spigot back on through arbitration. There’s still risk for him. Arbitration places a heavy reliance upon a player’s platform season, so it’s still possible Moncada won’t earn all that much in 2021. And who knows just how things could play out from there. But unlike virtually all of the other players who find themselves in his position at this stage of their careers — even the few who have something like his resume — Moncada already has made one great haul of cash. That removes a major bit of leverage for the White Sox.
This matters more than you might think at first glance. How else do you explain the fact that (as I explained in writing about it at the time) Aaron Nola gave up so much in career earnings upside to lock in a $45 million guarantee? (He even had leverage as a former seventh overall pick who had already reached arbitration.) Those who lack substantial bargaining power can go for shockingly cheap prices, as the Braves proved last year when they squeezed excellent young infielder Ozzie Albies. (Yep, I’m kicking a hornet’s nest, but we don’t need to re-litigate this one here.)
Odds are, Moncada won’t be taken to the cleaners. But where might his price tag land?
The White Sox have already charted somewhat new ground with their exceedingly early, reasonably robust promises to Jimenez ($43 million guarantee) and Robert ($50 million). So, they aren’t afraid of being somewhat bold. Moncada obviously has much better bargaining power than his teammates did, making those payouts an easy floor. As for a ceiling … well, it’d be tough to argue that Moncada ought to top Mike Trout’s $144 million deal. That original Trout extension still stands as the highest contract for a non-Super Two player with two or more years of MLB service.
In between those marks, you have nearly $100 million of conceivable negotiating space. Clearly, they’re of limited value as comps, although it’s still useful to start with those kinds of limits. Finding a place in between can be challenging. Other 2+ service-class players have approached that nine-figure mark. Carlos Gonzalez was promised $80 million by the Rockies; Hanley Ramirez took a $70 million guarantee from the Marlins. Those are stale comparables. In this case, however, there is at least one clear recent market marker that would surely loom large.
This time last year, the Astros locked in Alex Bregman with a $100 million guarantee. The deal paid him for all of his arbitration eligibility and added two seasons of control over would-be free agent campaigns. The Houston organization wasn’t able to add any additional control via options, which is reflective of Bregman’s excellence.
Moncada’s track record falls shy of Bregman’s at the time of the latter’s signing, so you might think the former would be valued at a somewhat lower rate. But we’ve also just seen a big crop of free agent contracts revive player expectations. (Bregman’s deal came on the heels a weak open market.) And Moncada’s aforementioned bonus earnings could help him hold out for that kind of money (if not even more).
All things considered, the Bregman contract seems like a solid target for Moncada’s reps. He might not get to that point, but it seems fair to value him in that range. Should the White Sox wish to gain the rights to one or more options as well, they’ll likely have to promise more for the guaranteed seasons.
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