The Atlanta Braves have agreed to an extension with 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. that is guaranteed to keep him in Atlanta at least through 2026. The deal comes with 2 club option years on the end that could give the Braves control of Acuna until his age 30 season in 2028. In total, the extension could be for ten years and worth $124 million if the club picks up both option years.
The contract is certainly a team friendly one for Atlanta, a team that has never been known to dish out large contracts. In fact, Acuna instantly becomes the recipient of the second largest contract in Braves history, behind only his teammate Freddie Freeman who signed an eight year, $135 million contract in 2014. What does this mean for the Braves? On its face, it really just signifies that Atlanta wants to lock up one of their best players long term, as all teams do. This is a move that almost every team would make with a player of Acuna’s caliber, but the Braves are the defending NL East champions. Upper management clearly sees a championship window opening for this team, and they want Acuna with them for the long haul. The team has a great young core, with 22 year old second baseman Ozzie Albies to complement Acuna. Freeman, their veteran star, has not even turned 30 yet. There are some older players in the lineup, as Brian McCann, Josh Donaldson (although 25 year old Johan Camargo looks to be a viable option at third base when Donaldson’s time is done), and Nick Markakis are all age 33 or older. However, this team will be able to compete for years to come, and their hope is that Acuna’s contract covers their championship window.
Another thing to note is that this extension comes with a wave of recent extensions, with some other big names. Both returning Cy Young Award winners, Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom, received significant extensions recently. Justin Verlander and Kyle Hendricks signed with their respective teams in late march. Mike Trout signed the largest deal in baseball history in the form of an extension with the Angels on March 19th. The Astros’ Alex Bregman signed a six year, $100 million dollar extension that is very similar to Acuna’s, just over a shorter period of time. The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado also decided to forgo his free agency by agreeing on an eight year deal with Colorado. And finally, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts got a six year extension from Boston on Monday. This has always been the formula for teams with great young players under the service time system. These extensions offer substantial pay through the years in which these players would make close to nothing otherwise, and in return are almost always a bargain for the team. Why are we seeing a wave of these extensions now? It could be because teams may be more reluctant to hand out record deals in free agency, and this certainly applies to a team like the Braves. However, both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado‘s contracts over the offseason would seem to contradict that for the league as a whole. Either way, there have been 25 extensions signed by major league players since the start of the offseason. That number dwarfs the amount over the same time frame last year, which stands at only 12. It could also possibly be that players have become more willing to forgo their free agency in order to get paid earlier. Regardless, the amount of extensions has massively increased and there are likely more to come.
Finally, what does this deal mean for Acuna? Acuna is coming off of a year where he posted a .917 OPS and 4.1 bWAR. A player who can keep that up, especially a player as young as Acuna, is almost certainly in the market for a deal that pays substantially more than $12.5 million in average annual value (which is what Acuna gets in the first eight years of this deal). However, as aforementioned these deals are typically bargains for the team, and that is because without this extension Acuna would be set to make less than $1 million in both 2019 and 2020. If he were to either suffer an injury or sharply regress in those two years, it could have meant the end of his career with essentially no money. Obviously those occurrences are rare, but it is a possibility that was absolutely factored into Acuna’s decision to accept this deal. Without the deal, Acuna would hit free agency following his age 25 season. It is easy to project that a player who is arguable already a star in this league will continue to play that way up to his free agency. If that is the case, which it very well could be, Acuna’s free agent deal would probably dwarf the extension he just signed. Because of this deal, however, he will enter free agency following his age 30 season (assuming the Braves pick up their two option years on the end of the deal, otherwise Acuna would enter free agency after his age 28 season). Teams have shown a real reluctance to sign players of that age to a massive deal. If Acuna continues the level of play we saw in 2018, he will very likely end up making less total money in his career than if he declined this extension. That being said, that would only be a bad deal for Acuna if we’re strictly measuring in dollars. With this deal, he can play everyday knowing he’s financially secured. Without this deal, he would play everyday knowing that he could suffer a career ending injury and end his career with essentially nothing. This peace of mind that Acuna gets from this extension cannot be measured in dollars, and it really can’t be measured at all. People will likely disagree with Acuna’s decision because he is selling himself short a face value. However, everybody has a different price for security and peace of mind, and today we learned what Ronald Acuna Jr.’s price is.
Acuna and the Braves are off to a bit of a slow start to the 2019 campaign, as Atlanta sits at 1-3 and Acuna is 3 for 14 on the season so far with a home run. It is extremely early, but the defending NL East champs will need to pick up their play in order to win this incredibly competitive division again. However, Braves fans can feel good today knowing they have their star locked up for the next decade.
Featured Image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images