The 2023 Baltimore Orioles are off to a great start. They have the second best record in baseball. The schedule has largely been on the easier side, but they have also held their own no matter who they’ve played.
While everything is fun on the field, there are some off field issues that Orioles fans frequently talk about, and the #1 topic is arguably when – or even if – the Orioles sign star catcher and face of the franchise Adley Rutschman to a contract extension.
This is an interesting conversation on many levels, so let’s explore all sides of this.
First of all, let’s look at it from Adley’s point of view. Because he was drafted out of college, he was already an “older” player. Combine that with COVID taking away a year of his pro career and the Orioles holding him down a little longer than they should have, and he came up an age that was at least one and probably two years older than he should have. Add into that his position and you have a player that likely only has one chance to land a big contract.
The question is, does he want to take that chance now (or sometime soon) or does he want to wait until he is a free agent?
Adley’s first year of free agency will be played at age 30. Catchers don’t usually play well deep into their 30’s (there are exceptions but they are few and far between), so it’s fair to question what type of contract he will be looking at then. The flip side to that is that Adley is more of an offensive catcher than we are used to seeing and its possible that his offense will be good enough, in his 30’s, to justify him playing DH or first base.
But how much will that be worth?
Adley’s value is that he is a catcher. His offense is great for a catcher and it may be great for a first baseman but that remains to be seen and if all he ends up being is a 33-year-old, .780 OPS first base/DH guy, well, that isn’t worth much at all.
So, from Adley’s perspective, it is a gamble to wait to sign a deal. The two richest catcher contracts in history belong to Joe Mauer (8 years/184M) and Buster Posey (9/167). Mauer signed his deal a year prior to becoming a FA, so there was no bidding on him, but the contract did start at age 28. From age 31 on, he was a good player but perhaps not worth that deal.
Posey signed his deal at age 26. It was a nine-year deal that started in what would have been his second arbitration year. In his first arbitration year, Posey received $8M, having won the MVP the year before and ROY a few years before that. So, over a ten year period, he received $175M.
Those are the two deals Adley will be looking at, but he is at a disadvantage compared to them because of age. Mauer was a FA at age 28, so he had more leverage. Posey was 26, like Adley will be next year, but he already had four years of play and more importantly, service time, under his belt.
Why does that matter? It matters because his contract covered more free agent years and not the cost controlled years. If the Orioles were to sign Rutschman to a contract today, they would have four cost-controlled years in that deal. Over those four years, Adley is looking at making $45ish million, give or take. Now, Adley has the advantage of playing at a time where salaries are higher, so his FA year salaries would likely have a higher AAV than what Posey and Mauer saw. Still, if he waits until age 30, is that salary there? If it is, how long is it there for?
Let’s put a pin in that and look at it from the Orioles’ perspective. If you are the O’s, you have Rutschman signed for four more years. Waiting until he is 30 isn’t a bad move. You can argue that they are better off just doing that and letting him walk, as he probably won’t be worth $28-35M a year in his 30s. You also have young catching prospects like Samuel Basallo and Creed Willems who maybe in 2-3 years will show themselves to be legit MLB catchers. The idea of waiting on that has some level of merit when you combine that with their ages and the deal it would take to sign Adley.
The other side to that is Adley is your face and sometimes, you scrap the historical trends, you see what he means to the franchise and you bite the bullet and sign the guy. There is also something to be said about what signing him represents from an ownership standpoint. The Orioles ownership has, rightfully so, been eviscerated by the fan base over the years. This would be the first sign of this new era that they actually care about MLB games, and will spend money in order to do so.
In other words, it’s good PR and while you don’t sign guys for PR, it would be foolish to overlook that aspect.
So, what does all of this mean? For me, I think you try to sign him, while recognizing that you know the final few years of the contract may look “bad.” The leadership makes it worth it for reasons WAR can’t measure.
The next question is, how long of a contract do you offer? I personally believe a line needs to be drawn and that line is before 10 years. I am not saying I would be upset if they announced he signed a 10-year extension, but I think that would increase the odds of several more “bad years” at the end of the contract.
This year, there are 17 players making $30 million or more (three over $40M) and another seven at $25M or more. The salaries for the elite guys are rising and they rise every year.
In my opinion, the sweet spot for a deal for Adley, in terms of length, is eight years. If you sign him for eight years and average out his FA years at something in the area of $30-35M and combine that with his expected salaries the next four years, you get a deal somewhere in the area of 8/180, give or take.
That works out as more than Posey (when Posey had more FA years) and about the same or more than Mauer (whose deal was all FA years).
Now, some of you may say, well if players’ salaries are rising, why would he sign a deal for what the elite guys are making now?
That is a valid question and that is what Adley needs to weigh. Does he take his $45ish million the next four years and then hope his play still means he can get a four-five year deal at $40-50M a year? He could and that could turn out to be the right move. To me, it’s a big gamble, and if you are the Orioles, you are taking on a lot of risk, so you are paying him right now salaries, not what you project them to be five years from now. That is how all contracts are done. You sign for the market right then, not the market five years from now.
What does Adley want? Catching takes a lot out of you. Posey seemed to have more left in the tank but he was done. Maybe Rutschman doesn’t want to play until 35 or later. Or maybe he will be Yadier Molina and catch until he is about 40, in which case there is more money there for him.
What do the Orioles want? Are they willing to overpay (and you can definitely argue that 8/180 is overpaying) to make him say “I will sign now,” or do both sides continue to wait?
We don’t know, and we like to speculate that the holdup is on the Orioles side but I think we have to acknowledge that Rutschman may not be interested in signing, at least right now.
This will be a fascinating thing to watch and with more teams, especially small market teams, signing their players early, you have to thing the pressure will continue to mount on the Orioles organization to get this done.