New Owners, New Contracts: Extending the Orioles Young Core
Part 1: Major League Extensions
With the announced sale of the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of last week, a trade for superstar starting pitcher Corbin Burnes quickly followed. Even Mike Elias said he had been trying to acquire Burnes all winter and was not sure if the sale had anything to do with getting the deal done. With a new ownership group that is committed to winning and even has Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. part of it, we are all hoping to see them keep their talent for a long time.
I will provide extensions for the Orioles young core (+ Corbin Burnes) broken up into two parts, major league extensions (3) today and prospect extensions (3) next week. There is not an exact science to predicting these extensions and being on the outside, I do not know who would be taking less money for an extension (a la Colt Keith’s extremely club friendly deal), or a more balanced contract like Jackson Chourio’s with the Brewers (8 Years - $80 million). Both of these deals include club options after the guaranteed years. Keith’s contract has three club options with increasing value, allowing his deal to reach nine years. Chourio has two club options for $25 million each, allowing his deal to reach ten years. Having laid out the format of what recent young extensions look like, I will not be including club options in these deals and they will be base guaranteed years.
Of these extensions, Corbin Burnes will start in 2025 after this season and the rest will start ahead of the 2024 season. How much money will we see this new ownership spend? Only time will tell, but we’ll see if I can predict the future.
1) Corbin Burnes RHSP: 9 Years - $330 million ($36.67 mil AAV)
One of the best starting pitchers gets traded to a young, promising team that is paving their own path towards sustainable success. He only has one year remaining on his contract and there is not an established ace to succeed him. Next year’s market does not contain anyone with the combination of age and dense track record that Burnes has. The time to solidify the roster is now. Lock up your ace of the future and send shockwaves throughout the league saying the soon-to-be best offense in MLB just extended one of the best pitchers for (almost) the next decade.
Just how much money Burnes will get is dependent on a few things. Naturally, he will be looking to become the highest paid starting pitcher ever with his extension. We do that here, eclipsing Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s contract by $5 million. Burnes will be looking to also eclipse Gerrit Cole’s contract, which we also do here. The only question is, how much does he want to surpass it? Cole signed his 9 yr - $324 million ahead of the 2020 season, four years before Burnes is signing his extension. The market has changed a lot in this time, inflation has had its impact and players continue to get paid more. It is possible Burnes is looking to up his contract to surpass the likes of Jacob deGrom’s $37 million AAV signed last offseason. If that were the case an additional $13.5 million give or take should not be the reason the Orioles lose out on a franchise altering player.
Considering the valuation of pitchers to WAR ($9.5 mil/win for this scenario), Fangraphs’ three year projection has Burnes at 12.3 WAR from 2024-2026. A loose -0.3 WAR per year difference brings him to 12 WAR from 2025-2027. Anyone would agree that over a nine year span, a linear -0.3 decline in WAR each year is unlikely. Therefore, I went ahead and took the liberty to make my own adjustments. Starting with the 11.4 WAR for those first three years, I added a 3.8 WAR for year four (15.2 WAR total), multiplied that by two to bring us to eight years, and added another 3.3 WAR to bring us to nine years. That is a total of 33.7 WAR times $9.5 million brings us to just over $320 million. That would make this deal well worth it. While my methods were not scientific, linear projection systems do not account for outlier Cy Young type seasons like Burnes’ 7.5 WAR 2021. However, it gets evened out by injured seasons where the player does not play or severely underperforms.
A new owner with almost twice the net worth of his predecessor, I do not think the Orioles would have to cut corners and maintain club friendly contracts to keep their players. Burnes gets paid according to what he is worth, while the organization has more than enough money to spend elsewhere.
2) Adley Rutschman C: 11 Years - $325 million ($27.083 mil AAV)
Even though the prospects are the trickiest to figure out, there is no precedent in this era for what to give Rutschman. The longest deals are Keibert Ruiz (8 years) who is not even close to Adley, Sean Murphy (6 years) who took a huge pay cut with the Braves, and J.T. Realmuto (5 years) with the Phillies in 2021. Realmuto was the best catcher in the game, got paid accordingly, but was also 29 at the time. For the sake of this exercise, I cannot assume any of these players will take such a pay cut on the level of the Braves. For these reasons, I am coming up with my own reasons for Adley’s contract prediction.
Adley Rutschman has been as much of a prodigious draft prospect as we have had since Bryce Harper. He excels at every part of the game while playing the most important position on the field. The big knock against him would be a 40th percentile sprint speed. Two years in the bigs and already proving to be one of the best defensive catchers and leaders in the league, his value extends far off the stat sheet. His leadership made waves across the industry when his post game and post inning routines were highlighted. Greeting pitchers on the field after every inning instead of in the dugout, to hugging whomever closes out a win, Adley elevates his pitchers like no other. That must be accounted for. His makeup and leadership skills will never decline and he will always make his pitchers better because of it.
Statistically alone, Rutschman posted back to back 5+ WAR seasons to start his career. The bat may not always be there, the defense could decline as could his health. Catchers are a huge risk which is why they have not gotten top of the market contracts like other positions have. As much as I would love to say that Adley will stick behind the plate his whole career, I just can’t. Buster Posey would have been a catcher a lot longer had he not broken his leg. There have been multiple rules put in place to protect catchers, but the daily grind and tax on the body does not change. Adley is the best catcher MLB has seen in a while, and he is about to enter his third year, that says a lot. His contract sets the record for both contract value and AAV for a catcher. Those are currently held by Realmuto’s $115.5 million contract with a $23.1 million AAV.
Despite the risk, I would look to extend Adley for the rest of his career. In reality, there will be opt-outs, clauses, or a much shorter contract with the intention of extending him a second time if he remains healthy. The leadership, defense and the maturity of the bat and approach are enough for me to overlook the risk. I understand that this is an extreme contract and I can say with confidence that I would expect this contract to be the farthest from reality.
3) Gunnar Henderson SS/3B: 13 Years - $351 million ($27 mil AAV)
Our last player for this week, the 22 year old sensation that took MLB by storm as a rookie. Henderson lived up to the expectations and showed out en route to winning AL Rookie of the Year. The extension here is going to mimic that of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14 year - $340 million ($24.285 mil AAV) contract signed ahead of the 2021 season. Since Tatis signed his contract, only Francisco Lindor has signed for more money than him. Henderson gets the chance to use his age to his advantage and become the highest paid shortstop in MLB history at just 22 years old.
A 22 year old rookie with a 91st percentile average exit velocity of 92.0 mph and a 95th percentile hard hit rate of 52.0% is crazy. It is only up for Henderson, and with a young, explosive lineup emerging, pitchers will not be able to pitch around him. Henderson is set up for success with Baltimore and both sides take advantage of that here. A three year projection of 14.3 WAR between the ages of 23-25 multiplied by two means Henderson is looking at roughly a 28 WAR through six years, or about half of his contract. The $8.5 million valuation per win for position players brings those six years to about $240 million. In that case, Henderson has seven years to provide at least $110 million in value. When the value is mapped out like that, this deal starts looking more club friendly than it originally did.
Of course, this is not as club friendly as a contract like Julio Rodriguez’s 12 year deal with an AAV of about $17.5 million, but this simple, inexact layout shows how this deal probably does not end poorly for the Orioles. Just because it is the most money a shortstop has ever gotten, and it is being given to a 22 year old, does not mean it is not worth it.
Look for Henderson to maintain or build upon his 123 wRC+ from last year and continue refining his approach to cut the K rate and hit the ball hard in the air a bit more often. Additionally, I believe in the defense improving, or at the very minimum, it will play up if he moves to third base. The face value of this contract might be scary, but taking a deep dive into the player will show it is worth it.
Edit: Bobby Witt Jr. signed an 11 year - $288.7 million ($26.25 mil AAV) extension after I wrote this article. Henderson’s contract will move past Witt’s deal by a small margin. The extra two years is what makes the total value so different, but the AAV is only slightly larger. Witt is known as one of the most polarizing five tool talents in the game. However, a few things should be noted. Witt’s second year in the league saw his peripherals take a huge jump. His expected stats blow Henderson’s out of the water. Witt made the big jump from being one of the worst defensive shortstops to one of the best with a 98th percentile OAA. His elite 100th percentile sprint speed is better than Henderson’s 85th percentile sprint speed, but Henderson had a baserunning run value of 6 compared to Witt’s five. It is easy to compare these players in 2023, but it cannot be stressed enough that they are a year apart, and Henderson was miles ahead of Witt at the same age. I would expect Henderson to continue progressing at a rapid pace and he will show why he got paid more than Witt in due time.