Seemingly everything that Manny Machado does is accompanied by an amazed exclamation, "And he's still not even 21 years old!" Whether it's his poise being discussed, his spraying doubles at a potential record pace, his defense, his speed on the basepaths, he draws well-deserved praise. More than merely just holding his own at the major league level, Machado has performed at a level putting him up among the best players in all of baseball.
Orioles fans know better than most that a hot start by a young player does not mean they will continually perform at that level. A very recent example is Nick Markakis. The hope is always there, and having watched a lot of Orioles teams, I am willing to say there is something different and special about Machado. The talent that drove him to be called up to MLB at age 20 and contribute in a big way in a quest for the playoffs is talent that should, barring some disaster scenario, allow him to be a star or superstar player for years to come.
With most baseball players, the intersection between the typical aging curve with the six or seven years of team control before free agency means that a player is, at best, going to reach the free agent market at the tail end of his 20s, passing out of his prime and into what is, for most players, the decline phase. He could still be productive, but he will probably not be the player he was.
The exciting young class that includes Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Machado makes up a group of players that could completely turn contracts on their head. These 20- and 21-year olds will hit free agency still in their primes, and if they continue performing at anywhere near the level they have to open their careers, they could draw eye-popping contract figures on the open market.
If Machado plays through the years of team control without an extension, he would hit the free agent market, and play half of the first season of any contract, at the age of 26. Very few players are good enough to be able to do this. Even advanced college players tend to get a couple of years of seasoning in the minor leagues. Whether a player is out of high school or college, if he debuts at age 23, he'll probably hit free agency at age 29 or 30, meaning that the team gets that player's prime years at controlled cost.
The free agent market every offseason is full of players whom their teams decided were not worth bringing back at near what they could command on the open market, probably because their best years are behind them. This is the chance the St. Louis Cardinals took in letting Albert Pujols walk, and so far they have been proven right. The New York Yankees are probably dedicating significant brainpower towards making this calculation about Robinson Cano. Guys like that will play out most, if not all, of their free agent contracts on the wrong side of 30.
The best players still have many productive years into their 30s. Recent baseball history is also littered with players whom teams talked themselves into who were not able to age so gracefully. The Angels could be facing this problem with both Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
Machado does not have to worry about all of that because he will play three full seasons in his 20s on his next contract. A ten-year contract given to a 25-year old looks a lot better than a ten-year contract given to a 32-year old. The best illustration of this is Alex Rodriguez, whose ten-year, $252 million deal signed with Texas prior to the 2001 season was almost unbelievable in its scope. And yet, Rodriguez was so good that, for what should have been the life of that deal, he earned the money.
A world where that kind of money awaits Machado when he hits free agency is not hard to imagine. The skills he already has are those of a player you want on your team for a long time, and if others develop, like home run power and an increase in walk rate, then he will have a place among the best in baseball for many, many years.
What would it take to ensure that all of what should be his best years are played for the Orioles?
Once, it seemed unlikely that Machado would ever extend with the Orioles, as he was represented by Scott Boras when he was drafted. Machado has since switched his representation to Dan Lozano, the same agent as, among others, Pujols and Joey Votto. Pujols signed a contract extension with St. Louis in 2004, his first arbitration-eligible season, that bought out five years of free agency. Votto signed a contract extension just prior to the 2012 season that went for ten years on top of his arbitration-eligible seasons.
Two active players have followed a path that could be a blueprint for what to do with Machado, if he and the team both decided to lock in his salaries this early in his career. They are Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, each of whom signed multi-year extensions with club options covering free agent years not long into their careers.
Longoria signed a six-year, $17.5 million guaranteed deal after he had played six games. This included three club options that could increase the value to nine years, $44.5 million. The contract was viewed as extremely team-friendly.
Tulowitzki played in 25 games in 2006 and signed a six-year, $31 million guaranteed deal after his first full season in 2007. This was the largest contract ever given to a pre-arbitration player at the time. This deal included one option year, making it potentially seven years, $44 million.
In each case, the initial contract was extended a second time into a contract that will keep the player with that team for years to come and set them up comfortably for life and generations. Tulowitzki's contract is the best comparison for Machado because Machado's service time after this season will be similar to Tulowitzki's when he signed his first contract.
Tulowitzki's contract had these increasing annual salaries: $750,000, $1 million, $3.5 million, $5.5 million, $8.25 million, $10 million, with a $15 million option year. He was given this contract after winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2007, when he batted .291/.359/.479 with 33 doubles and 24 home runs. He also had 99 RBI, which you and I don't care about but arbitration panels do, and therefore so do agents and general managers.
Machado, through Sunday's game, is batting .327/.358/.495. He has 32 doubles already, keeping his overall power numbers near Tulowitzki's from 2007 despite a much less frequent rate of hitting home runs. He walks less, meaning his OBP is more batting average-driven, but also strikes out less. Machado has 37 RBI. Both your eyes and defensive metrics tell you he excels in the field: he will deserve a Gold Glove, but may not win one. He would be the easy AL Rookie of the Year this year if only he hadn't used up his rookie eligibility helping to boost the Orioles into the playoffs last season.
That Machado deserves a contract similar to Tulowitzki and Longoria should not be a question. Those contracts were negotiated by the same agent, who is not Lozano. He may have a philosophy to wait for the talent to distinguish itself in pre-arbitration years, meaning more money will come in a contract locking in salary through what would have been arbitration years: Votto signed for three years, $38 million, earning more guaranteed money in those years than the other players did in six years.
Even so, the Orioles should try to make a contract extension happen soon. If Machado is worth the money Tulowitzki made after 2007, then he's worth more now. Inflation and the symbolic value of making more money than some other guy are important considerations. If Tulowitzki got $31 million guaranteed, let's say Machado should get $36 million guaranteed and fill in the rest.
A hypothetical offer to Machado might look like this:
2015: $1.25 million
2016: $4 million
2017: $6.25 million
2018: $9.25 million
2019: $11.25 million
2020: $16 million (club option with $3 million buyout)
That is six years with $35.85 million in guaranteed money, which could become seven years and $48.85 million in all. Machado has one year of free agency bought out, which will almost certainly become two years unless something terrible happens. He would still be just 28 at the end of such a contract, and if he continued to realize his star potential, he could pursue a second, much larger contract if he chose. Eight years and $200 million or more does not sound out of the question with the current salary landscape.
Machado gets security against injuries - though he seems durable so far, playing every inning since his call-up - and slumps. He will get paid whatever happens to him. The Orioles get cost certainty and are not out a large amount of money even if Machado does not continue at this star level.
They hopefully also get a reputation for doing right by Machado, so if, three or four years down the road in our hypothetical world, Machado is still performing at a high level and showing no signs of stopping, both sides might be amenable to adding more years on the back end. A contract extension at a slight discount, perhaps with a no-trade clause, could then be worth more to Machado than the uncertainty of free agency.
All of that is talk for far into the future, but if the Orioles would like to think about retaining the services of Machado beyond his years of team control, the time to start planning is now. The blueprint is there to follow and they can and should start laying the foundations to ensure that Manny Machado has the chance to be the next great Oriole for most or all of a long career.