A few days ago, Hunter Pence was given a contract extension. Upon hearing this news, the average Met fan was likely a bit dismayed, but not too down in the dumps: Pence would have been an option for the Mets had he hit the open market, but most fans would agree that he was not a prime target. After all, he’s a former Phillie and is one of the wackiest players in the game.
And then we heard the number. $90 million. At first, one may scoff at what a ludicrous sum of money the Giants are shelling out to a non-elite outfielder on the wrong side of thirty. And suddenly, a realization: If Pence gets that much in an extension, what does it take to get Shin-Soo Choo on the open market?
It’s common knowledge at this point that both the Mets and their fans have coveted Choo since last offseason. On an annual basis, Choo makes solid contact, hits for above average power, and draws walks at a very regular clip. One could make the argument that Choo is as good as or better than Pence, which is what makes Pence’s new money so scary.
Last offseason, the largest contract signed by an outfielder was the $123 million pact between Josh Hamilton and the Angels. Hamilton was coming off a 43 home run year, had a career wOBA above .380, and could hit home runs that left stadiums. The next largest contract for an outfielder was B.J. Upton’s $75 million deal, a price that was steep but reasonable given his ability to patrol center, flash some pop and create runs on the basepaths. It would not have been unreasonable to expect Choo to sign for somewhere between Upton’s $75 million and Michael Bourn’s $48 million contract that he signed with the Indians.
Now that Pence has signed his extension, we may need to re-evaluate what Choo’s next contract will look like, but it is important to remember the context. While Pence and Choo are extremely similar players in past performance and age, they may see completely different offseason experiences, and therefore very different contracts.
First, it is important to consider the state of the San Francisco Giants. Just after winning their second World Series in three years, they finished just out of the bottom ten in the overall MLB standings, tied for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres. While they seem like an unlikely club to be signing their non-star players to long-term extensions, the team is likely desperate to retain Pence’s services for as long as they can.
The Giants have one of the game’s strongest farm systems in terms of pitching depth, largely thanks to scouting director John Barr, but their hitting depth is notoriously weak. Their strongest outfield prospects are Gary Brown, who posted a dismal .278 wOBA in Triple-A this year, and Francisco Peguero, who at the ripe age of 25 has yet to show much at the big league level. Considering the best outfield free agent for next offseason looks to be either Michael Cuddyer or Nick Markakis, the Giants needed to lock Pence up out of sheer desperation.
Another factor to consider is that Pence doesn’t cost the Giants their only first round draft pick. As a result, Pence’s camp likely negotiated a few extra million in his average annual salary. Choo’s cost of a first rounder may not deter the Mets or Cubs due to the protection of their first round picks, but teams looking to keep a strong farm system may balk at that price.
Finally, there may be very few teams willing to offer Pence-level dollars for Choo. Many teams have outfield needs, but few have the payroll flexibility that the Giants have heading into this offseason. The Giants have quietly become some of the biggest spenders in major league baseball, with a payroll reaching $136 million this year. Even with Pence’s new contract, they still have $36 million to spend this winter before they reach their 2013 payroll mark. The team has a much bigger budget allotted to player acquisitions than most teams in the league, and also has the fortune of being well below the luxury tax limit, a delicate balance that allows them to make these kinds of signings with little afterthought.
Teams reportedly interested in Choo include the Reds, Cubs, Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox. It’s too early to tell if other teams will be jumping into the mix, but this list consists of teams with legitimate payroll issues, teams with other, more pressing needs, and a team that isn't likely to contend in 2014. One thing is clear: Choo has every bit of talent that Pence has, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they sign the same deal. The market is a strange beast, and there may not be a taker for Choo at the price of Pence.