Matt Chapman is, without a doubt, the Oakland A’s best player. He is the best defender on the planet, an above-average hitter and a bona fide MVP candidate. Despite his slow start to the spring, he has been hot out of the gate in the young 2019 season and has cemented himself as Oakland’s number-two hitter.
Players like that are good to have around. So it should go without saying that, if the A’s and Chapman can agree on a price, the team would love to lock their star third baseman up long-term. But what might that price be?
Luckily, we have a starting point. Over the past few weeks, quite a few high-profile young players have signed extensions with their current teams, either avoiding impending free agency and/or signing off some arbitration years. Among those players is Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman who officially inked a five-year, $100 million deal in late March.
The two have a lot in common. Both are coming off MVP-caliber seasons and make a serious impact on both sides of the ball. Chapman is the superior defender, winning every defensive award that he possibly could last season. And while Bregman is the better hitter, the two are more similar than you may think. Ignoring 2019’s small sample size:
But a lot more than just performance goes into contract negotiations. Chapman turns 26 at the end of April, while Bregman turns 25 this week. However, Chapman has a year less service time than his Houston counterpart.
Bregman’s new deal will cover his three arbitration years as well as two free agent seasons, locking him up through his age-30 season. A Chapman extension would likely be similar, buying out his arbitration as well as a few extra years of his free agency in 2024 and beyond.
So what exactly would it look like? First, let’s take a look at how Bregman’s extension compares to his projected value. To do so, we will use the four-year ZiPS forecast provided in Dan Szymborski’s “Elegy for ‘18” series. Since this only covers the first three years of his five-year deal, I will estimate the final two years using a conservative 5% aging curve.
I will also use a conservative value of $8 million per WAR starting in 2019, with 3% inflation. While this is far below Matt Swartz’s 2017 forecast, which had $/WAR inflating to $11.7 million, the recent free agent freeze may suggest otherwise. The resulting value of Bregman’s ages 26-through-30 seasons:
Alex Bregman Estimated Value
Woah. At first glance, Alex Bregman is very underpaid. In reality, baseball’s financial system has limited Bregman’s salary.
Entering the 2018 season, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant set a first-year arbitration record by earning $10.5 million. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 2015, was the league MVP in 2016, and accumulated 20.6 fWAR. Bryant also posted high home run and RBI totals — both those statistics are adored in arbitration.
In order to match Bryant’s track record, Bregman would need to post an 8.5-win 2019. That’s not impossible, but it’s certainly unlikely. Barring an MVP season, Bregman probably wouldn’t have topped the arbitration record, and might have earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million.
It isn’t unfair to assume that, in his three years of arbitration, Bregman would have totaled $35-40 million. This leaves $60 million on his extension to cover his two free agent seasons. A $30 million average annual value isn’t out of the norm for a superstar free agent, making the $100 million contract extension appear reasonable.
So what does this mean for Chapman? There isn’t a solid arbitration comparison to him in recent history, as few players combine above-average (but not quite elite) offense with otherworldly defense like he does.
But arbitration tends to underpay defense — for example, outfielder Jason Heyward earned less than $16 million in his three arbitration years. While Chapman is likely a better player than Heyward was during those years and the game has come to appreciate elite defense, I would be surprised if his arbitration years paid Chapman more than $25-30 million.
I’m not sure free agency will pay Chapman what he’s worth, either. Again, we will use the Heyward example. He reached free agency after a 5.6 fWAR 2015 season that cemented him as an incredibly valuable player. His elite defense and above average bat made him an attractive target for many teams.
However, he ultimately signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. While this is still a huge commitment (and one that has yet to pay off for Chicago), at the time, it seemed like a discount. The $23 million AAV was high, but hardly anything to write home about, and Heyward had another point in his favor as the rare 26-year-old free agent.
The Heyward contract — and its eventual failure — set an uninspiring precedent for glove-first free agents. Chapman has the potential to hit better than Heyward ever did, but it is still hard to see a free agent deal guaranteeing him much more than $25 million per year.
Chapman also has a full year of service less than Bregman. He will make the league minimum once more in 2020 before finally hitting arbitration in 2021. If the A’s wanted to buy out two of Chapman’s free agent seasons as the Astros did with Bregman, the contract would be one year longer and the AAV would come way down.
So where does that put us? One year at the league minimum, an estimated $30 million over his three arbitration seasons and $25 million per year in free agency leaves us around six years, $80 million, starting in 2020 and taking Chapman through his age-32 season. This seems low, but keep in mind — this is using the high end of my arbitration estimate, and would set an AAV record for a glove-first player’s free agent years.
Which leads us to the elephant in the room, and the primary reason Chapman has not yet inked an extension to stay in Oakland — agent Scott Boras. The A’s have little to no history of negotiating with the celebrity agent, and Boras has an even shorter history of signing his players to early extensions.
When it comes to Chapman, Boras will likely point to Nolan Arenado. The Rockies superstar third baseman was set to hit free agency next offseason, but instead signed an eight-year, $260 million deal — an AAV of $32.5 million. Arenado is an elite offensive and defensive player whose traditional numbers are inflated by his hitting environment at Coors Field, helping him earn record arbitration values (totaling $34 million in the first three arbitration years). Boras will argue that Chapman should earn close to what Arenado has, and will tell his client to hold out until he is closer to free agency in an attempt to do so.
And on Monday night, Boras all but confirmed this idea. Present for the press conference for the extension of another pre-free-agency client, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, he told John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Shea also reported that Chapman’s camp has shown no interest in an extension. He also pointed out that a lot hinges on Oakland’s new stadium, which would provide the revenues required to extend some of their core. But until the shovel hits the dirt, the new Howard Terminal stadium remains just a concept.
Chapman is also likely in no need of financial stability. The former first-round pick earned a $1.75 million signing bonus back in 2014, in addition to nearly two full years at the league minimum at this point. He isn’t a late-rounder stuck in debt from low minor league wages. He has a solid financial foundation, and may be more willing to gamble on himself.
Using Bregman’s recent extension, as well as other comparable players, Chapman probably would earn about $80 million over six years on a fair extension. However, he and his agent may hold out for more than that, and with their new ballpark still years away the A’s might not budge. They will also likely prioritize upcoming free agent Khris Davis and focus on locking up their star slugger.
But if Boras is willing to negotiate, the A’s and Chapman could agree to a deal that would be very reasonable for both sides. If so, locking up the budding superstar should be near the top of Oakland’s to-do list for the coming months.