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Projecting the long-term value of free agent shortstops

The MLB's premium shortstop talent is hitting the open market once again. How might we quantify their long-term value before their big paydays?

The MLB’s premium shortstop talent has entered the open market for the second consecutive offseason. This winter, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson are all set to receive new contracts.

Like all free agency periods, buzz about contract projections has been a hot topic in the chaotic rumor cycle. And fans have jumped to analyze these projections in terms of perceived value. Buzzwords like overpaid and underpaid are frequently used to answer one question: which contract maximizes this player’s value to a team over its number of years?

I came across a tweet from MLBExecutiveBurner that piqued my interest. They asked this question with imaginary contracts for the aforementioned four players.

Some of the replies employed different strategies to answer this question. For instance, which contract may avoid declining production? Whose tools will stay consistent the longest? Who’s the best player? In this article, I’ll attempt to quantify the projected value of these players over their contracts in order to put a more concrete answer to the question at hand.

In order to quantify each of these four players’ projected value over such large timespans, I’m going to employ the use of Tom Tango’s Marcels projection system. It centers around the performance stat Wins Above Replacement (WAR), using a player’s previous three years of play, simple regression, and an age factor to project their WAR for next season. It also provides a framework for their next four years of WAR. It’s a simple system with weights I was unable to fact-check, so there are likely better systems out there than this. But for all intents and purposes, this should do just fine.

I’ve adjusted Tango’s methodology slightly to apply it to the research question. Firstly, I omitted the shortened 2020 season and instead used the 2019 season when projecting for the 2023 season. So a player’s previous three years of play would be 2022, 2021, and 2019. Secondly, I extrapolated the four-year framework over the rest of their contract duration, as the formula is constant the longer it goes. Finally, I factored in playing time by adjusting each player’s WAR to 150 games. This’ll help mostly for Correa, who only played 75 games in 2019.

These are each of the four’s projected Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR (rWAR and fWAR, respectively) over their contract durations. Their projected 2023 WAR values are numbered. It’s important to note that these WAR values are different despite their shared purpose but including both helps cast a wider net.

In 2022, teams paid, on average, about $7.7 million and $8 million per one rWAR and fWAR. When multiplying that by the sum of these WAR values for each player, I got a rough estimate of their total value provided over their contracts in dollars. It’s likely that this value will fluctuate over the next few years but not significantly. These values are tabled below, with their contracts and WAR in millions of dollars.

PlayerYearsrWAR ValueContractfWAR Value
Trea Turner9193.3288251.2
Carlos Correa10318.8325267.2
Xander Bogaerts7187.9196195.2
Dansby Swanson7134182178.4

I’ve also graphed them below to better visualize discrepancies.

What immediately stands out to me is that no projection surpasses the contract value. This may be due to how simple of a system Marcels is or due to arbitrary contract values (likely a mix of both). MLB Trade Rumorsprojected contracts, for instance, are all lower than the original tweet. While Correa’s and Turner’s are due to year reductions, it provides much-needed perspective for the fluctuations we’re dealing with.

With those observations noted, this data gives us better angles to evaluate the research question. For instance, Bogaerts’ historical data tells us that he projects to fall within at least 95 percent of his contract. So he’s likely the safest. But Correa projects to provide the most value over his contract by both metrics, even surpassing $300M per rWAR.

We can also look at it from the perspective of which contract minimizes the player’s value. As aforementioned, none of their projections match or surpass their contracts. But some gaps are larger than others. Turner’s projected rWAR, for instance, is about two-thirds of his contract value. His highest projection falls within 87.2 percent of his contract, easily the lowest of the four. Swanson’s falls within 98 percent, Correa’s 98.1 percent, and Bogaerts 99.6 percent.

I acknowledge that there’s more to this puzzle than just WAR. Clearly, different factors of WAR have different levels of predictability across multiple seasons. It’s a highly nuanced stat that deserves a deeper look than I gave it. But the goal of this experiment was to create a basic projection without focusing too much on minute details. So while it has room for improvement, it still gives a base-level understanding of how we can answer the research question effectively.

To conclude, I want to focus on my original research question. It was stated as follows: which contract maximizes this player’s value to a team over this number of years? But when asking this question, I didn’t seek one single answer. Hence why every team won’t exclusively target one shortstop. Rather, I sought a better understanding of an answer. In this case, it was using one metric that could be converted to the same unit as a contract (dollars) to compare the two.

I made a point to acknowledge how diverse peoples’ reasoning for their answers was in the tweet’s replies. It’s imperative to think about those viewpoints when attempting to answer the research question. Those nuances become more impactful as contract projections become more complex. Oftentimes, it’s not as easy as assuming a player has played 150 games each season.

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Steven Pappas

18-year-old contributor to Diamond Digest (previously Max's Sporting Studio and The MLB Enthusiast), Chicago Cubs fan, Nick Madrigal admirer and 7x Best of SNO.

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