Braves Extension Analysis: Martín Prado

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

The Braves' most versatile weapon will be a free agent after the 2013 season. What would be a fair contract extension for both him and the team?

The Braves have a slew of players who might be good candidates for a contract extension offer. I'll be covering many of them over the coming weeks, but I'll start today with the most obvious candidate: Martin Prado, who will be a free agent after the 2013 season.

With any contract extension, there are a variety of questions that we need to ask. Many of them, however, are essentially impossible for me to answer (What is the least amount that the player will accept? How much budget flexibility does the team have?). Instead, I'll focus on the questions that I can at least estimate an answer to. These are the three most important questions:

  • What is the player's present value?
  • What are the chances that he can maintain this value in the future?
  • How much did comparable players make in their extensions?

Based on the answers to these questions, we can formulate a "fair" offer that both sides would have good reason to accept. Let's start with the simplest of the 3 questions:

What is Prado's Present Value?

Prado is entering his final year of the arbitration process. MLBTradeRumors recently estimated that he'd make about $7.7 million in 2013. There's a fair amount of wiggle room in that figure, but it provides a baseline for Prado's current value. Given that the final arbitration year's salary is typically around 80% of the player's "true" free-market value, that puts Prado at around a $10M/year salary. That is a bit low, though, based on Prado's past performance.

Since Prado has been a full-time player for four seasons now, we can use his average performance in that span (not counting his partial seasons before 2009) as our baseline. Here are his offensive full-season averages:

PA HR BABIP BB% K% BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
609 12 .314 6.9% 10.9% .294 .342 .436 .339 110

Those are solid numbers: about 10% better than league average according to wRC+, which adjusts for league and ballpark effects. That's about 10 runs (or 1 win) better than the league average, per season.

Offense is not the entire picture, of course. A huge part of Prado's value is tied to his defensive aptitude. Specifically, Prado has played six positions (all but pitcher, catcher, and center field) and has generally played them well. The problem with Prado's versatility is that he hasn't played enough at any position to get an adequate sample size.

Still, we can regress his defensive statistics to the mean. The results imply that Prado is solidly above average (about +7 runs/year) in left field, somewhat below average (-3 runs) at second base, and average to good (+1 to +8) at third base. Thus, Prado offers about the same overall defensive value at each position. Even if Prado hits at a league-average rate (and remember, he's been about 10% better so far), he'd be worth around 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at any of these positions.

Putting it all together, we get a player who has been worth about 15 WAR over the past 4 seasons (15.0 in FanGraphs' version, 14.9 in Baseball-Reference's), or about 3.75 wins per year. Using the rule of thumb that teams will pay around $4.5 million per win on the free market, that implies that Prado would be worth a bit under $17M/year in free agency, were he available right now.

* If you think that's too high, just take a look at the contracts that have been signed recently in free agency. Two comparably valuable players--Anibal Sanchez and B.J. Upton--recently signed for 5 years each and $15-16M per year. Add in the positional scarcity at 2B and 3B and Prado might be able to get $100 million over 6 years.

Of course, Prado is not yet in free agency, so we must discount that value. Let's assume that Prado must sacrifice 10% to 20% of his "true" worth in exchange for the lower risk in case he has a down year or gets hurt in 2013. That leaves his baseline value in a range from $13.5 to $15 million per season.

Combined with the estimate based on the arbitration process, we now have a solid range for the current value of Prado's future seasons: $10M at the low end to $15M at the high end.

Of course, this is all based on right now; there is no guarantee that Prado's value will hold up. Which brings us to...

What are the chances Prado can maintain his value in the future?

As with any projection, this is tricky. We can't know exactly how well Prado will hold up, but we can make some educated guesses and establish the probability that he will keep playing well. Let's start by considering four possibilities:

  1. Prado actually improves, or at least avoids injury-marred seasons like 2011, increasing his value.
  2. Prado maintains his previous performance going forward.
  3. Prado declines somewhat but remains a valuable regular.
  4. Prado's value quickly craters to around replacement level.

Since Prado is an excellent player, there is a lot more room to decline than to improve. And since he turned 29 in October, the chances that he will decline will only increase from now on. Still, 29 isn't ancient, so a decline is far from certain over the course of a reasonable-length extension.

I used Baseball-Reference to find players in the last 20 years who had been worth between 10 and 20 total WAR over their age 25 to 28 seasons (Prado was at 14.9, remember). I narrowed the list to players from Prado's 3 main positions--2B, 3B, and LF--and compared their age 25-28 years with the next four years (age 29-32).

All in all, I came up with 29 players, not counting those who are too recent to have full results (full list here). Since the group is bottom-heavy, the average age 25-28 WAR of those players was just 13.5, a bit less than Prado's. But it's still a good place to start.

Their average WAR in the 4 subsequent years was 9.2, which is about one-third less than the previous 4-year period but still good for 2.3 WAR/year, roughly league average.

Here is the full list of how the 29 players did in the following 4 years. The median WAR in the group was 9.9 (Bernard Gilkey). The best was Alomar, at 19.1 WAR, while the worst was Tony Batista at -1.9 WAR (three others were negative, including former Brave Marcus Giles).

Here's how the players did in the two 4-year periods, broken down using the 4 possibilities listed above:

Group (#) Age 25-28 WAR Age 29-32 WAR Change
Improved (4) 12.4 16.1 +3.7 (+30%)
Maintained (7) 13.9 13.8 -0.1 (---)
Declined (10) 13.5 9.9 -3.6 (-27%)
Cratered (8) 13.9 1.1 -12.8 (-92%)
All (29) 13.5 9.2 -4.3 (-32%)

That's a wide range of performance, but it does help us to establish the rough odds for each of the four groups:

  1. ~15% chance of improving (by at least 0.5 WAR/year)
  2. ~25% chance of maintaining performance (within 0.5 WAR/year)
  3. ~35% chance of declining somewhat (by more than 0.5 but less than 1.5 WAR/year)
  4. ~25% chance of cratering completely (by more than 1.5 WAR/year)

On average, a slight decline is the most likely possibility, but all four groups are certainly possible. A decline of some sort is more likely than not (~60% chance), but even many of the declining players were still valuable in the age 29-32 range. It's that roughly 25% chance of a complete loss in value that should worry the Braves.

Applying those chances to Prado's baseline performance (14.9 WAR), we should expect him to decline by around 4 WAR, total, over the 2013-2016 seasons, for an average of around 2.75 WAR/year. Using the $4.5M/win figure, that'd be worth $11M per year in salary.

If we figure on a deal for 4 years, starting in 2013, that'd be $44M total. Prado, though, is already under the Braves' control for 2013. Thus, he likely would want the extension to run an extra year, through 2017. I think such a 4-year extension (5 year contract) is most likely, perhaps with an option year tacked on. Using the same $11M/year value for buying out Prado's free-agent years, we get something like $55 million through 2017.

Based on Prado's current value that I estimated above, that's a bit low, but not insultingly so. Prado would probably seriously consider such an offer even if he wouldn't take it. The Braves, on the other hand, would likely be pleased to keep the contract cost that low, considering what teams around MLB are paying for players of Prado's caliber.

How much did players comparable to Prado get for their extensions?

One other factor will likely affect the value of any contract proposals on either side: past contracts for comparable players. Prado's versatility also interferes with this process, though; there aren't really any other players like him.

In this post at MLBTradeRumors, Mike Axisa offers up Alex Gordon as a comp. Gordon's 4-year extension covered 2 arbitration years (not 1) and included a player option. If the option is exercised, the total value will be $50M.

Prado and Gordon have some similarities: they're about the same age, they've both played 3B & LF, and they have similar career statistics (Gordon has a .348 OBP and .439 SLG in his career, very close to Prado's .345 & .435). Their career paths have been quite different, however. Prado is much better than the pre-2011 version of Gordon, but he's also clearly not as good as the 2011-12 version of Gordon.

Combining all that information, I'd have to say that Prado is worth a bit more than Gordon's deal, which was signed before his excellent 2012 season, even though Gordon is the more valuable player now. So that's one (imperfect) data point.

Unfortunately, most of the other data points aren't any better. Chase Headley might work if he signs an extension before Prado does, but there aren't many other options.

There is one solid comp, though, and it hits close to home: the Braves' extension of Dan Uggla before the 2011 season. Uggla, like Prado, had one year of team control left. He had been worth 3.9 WAR per year in his five previous full seasons, just a bit more than Prado's average. However, given that Prado is younger and more valuable defensively (and thus less likely to be a total black hole of value in the later years of an extension), you'd have to think that he's worth at least as much as Uggla, who got $62M guaranteed.

So if Prado is worth slightly more than Uggla, he'd need to get a guarantee of a little more than $62 million from 2013 through 2017. That puts us right in between the history-based $11M/year and the value-based $14M/year contracts I proposed above. Perhaps something like this:

  • $9M in 2013
  • $13.25M per year in 2014-2017
  • $8M team option in 2018 with a $1M buyout

That's $63M guaranteed over 5 years, or $70M over 6 if the Braves exercise the option. The cheap team option (in Prado's age-34 season) gives the Braves some added upside in exchange for the higher yearly value from 2014-17.

If Prado doesn't like the team option, he could trade some average annual value to ditch it, or to have the option vest at a higher value when/if Prado stays healthy in 2016-17. There are a lot of variations that would be more or less fair for both sides.

=========

All of this is moot, of course, if Prado is strongly for or against an extension. He could easily accept something even less valuable than the $55M offer I described above, or he could just as easily hold out for a potential $80M+ payday in free agency.

Regardless, Martin Prado is very likely going to be a very wealthy man by this time next year*

* Okay, he's already very wealthy by my standards, but not by MLB's.

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