Ronald Acuna has played only 115 games in the big leagues. Now the Braves will pay him $100 million over the next eight years. Acuna, 21, was voted National League Rookie of the Year in 2018, but baseball annals are full of hotshots who turned out to be nothing special over the long haul.
“Basically, we set a new bar for a player with less than one year,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.
Acuna’s deal is the richest ever for a big leaguer with so little experience. It tops the six-year, $43 million extension the White Sox gave Eloy Jimenez last month before he even debuted in the majors. Acuna’s deal is riskier in terms of years and dollars, but it’s the right kind of risk for the Braves.
They are paying for the player they think he will become. The risk is that he falls short, or even declines. The potential reward is having a superstar under contract on a team-friendly deal through 2026, with the Braves holding two option years for $17 million each after that.
Acuna was billed as the real deal as a prospect, was sensational as a rookie and is brimming with the potential to be much more. Anthopoulos called Acuna “the best young player I’ve seen” but said he waited to start contract negotiations until after the player reported for camp.
“I was curious to see what his attitude and demeanor would be in spring training,” Anthopoulos said. “He was the exact same guy, which was really telling.”
Acuna hasn’t been the same player early this season. He’s looked even better. It was hard to find much fault with Acuna’s hitting as a rookie, and his plate discipline looks improved now. His defense is so-so, but he’s such a fine hitter it hardly matters.
Acuna probably is worth $12.5 million per year even if he gets no better. The low end of Acuna’s projections would be a bargain for the Braves. Still, even the best young major leaguers usually must wait a few years for their big payday.
The Braves were willing to give Acuna the $100 million extension now because his potential is off the charts. The Braves have made a similar move before. In 2014, the previous front office signed Freddie Freeman to an eight-year extension for $135 million.
Freeman was 24 years old then and had just completed his first All-Star season following two good seasons. That deal has turned out great for the Braves because Freeman has been one of the better hitters in baseball. Acuna nearly matched Freeman’s production in 2018. He was the best hitter on the team after the All-Star break.
Acuna isn’t on Freeman’s level because the latter has proved himself as a star player over many years. Maybe Acuna won’t do that, but there’s a good chance Acuna will be a good ballplayer with an annual salary about 25 percent less than Freeman. If that happens, the Braves can keep Acuna for two more years at a bargain price.
Acuna increased his value significantly with his ROY season. A bigger future payday might have been possible if he’d waited but, from the outside, it’s easy to see why Acuna took this deal now (aside from, you know, the $100 million guaranteed in salary).
Under his old contract, Acuna wouldn’t have been eligible for salary arbitration until 2021 with earnings well below-market until then. Acuna could expect a raise in arbitration but, even assuming he was still producing then like he is now, it still wouldn’t come close to his true value.
Before the extension, Acuna’s free agency would have to wait until 2024, when he would be just 26 years old. Bryce Harper, 26, just signed a record $330 million free-agent contract with the Phillies. That came soon after Manny Machado, 26, signed a $300 million free-agent contract with the Padres.
It’s possible that Acuna could stay on his current trajectory and earn a similar contract once he hit the market. That’s a high bar, though. It’s conceivable that if Acuna turned down this deal, he would end up making less than $100 million in the end.
With the extension, Acuna still can become a free agent when he’s no older than 30.
“I have no regrets,” Acuna said via an interpreter. “No one can see into future. No one knows what will happen tomorrow.”
Acuna signed with the Braves for $100,000 as a 16-year-old in his native Venezuela. If Acuna ends up being worth more than this contract, he’ll still be well-compensated. Now he has more security.
I’m glad for Acuna that he got a big payday early in his career, in a system that disincentivises is. The Braves used a strategy common among MLB teams when they assigned Acuna to the minors at the beginning of 2018 so they could delay his free agency by a year. Now they’ve paid big money to delay it by two more years.
The decision is not without risk, but it’s a great deal for the Braves.
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