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Inciarte extension the greatest Christmas present for Braves, fans

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The Braves secure one of their best players at a bargain price, essentially guaranteeing they’ll reap significant savings from the deal.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Merry Christmas Eve eve, everyone! The Braves decided to gift their fans one of the greatest presents of the year, by signing defensive wizard and all-around awesome guy Ender Inciarte to a five-year extension that also includes a team option.

Having Inciarte around for one year beyond his team control (he has four years of arbitration remaining, including 2017) is already great. Having a team option for another would-be free agent year is even better. But when you look at the prices, this is basically a “new puppy” quality of gift:

To make the comparison to anything else fair, we need to quickly sort out the signing bonus. It probably makes sense to spread it over the guaranteed years, transforming salaries of $2M - $4M - $5M - $7M - $8M to $2.7M - $4.7M - $5.7M - $7.7M - $8.7M.

For comparison to other arbitration-eligible players, see MLBTR’s fantastic predictions here. Here are some notable names:

  • Kole Calhoun - perhaps a better all-around player than Inciarte - but made $3.4M in Arb1 and is projected for $6.9M in Arb2. Inciarte won’t make that much until his final year of would-be arbitration under this deal.
  • Stephen Vogt - MLBTR projects him to get $3.7M in his first year of arbitration, though Inciarte will likely be more productive.
  • Ender Inciarte himself - MLBTR projected him to get $2.8M in arbitration this season; he gets pretty much that amount when pro-rating his bonus.
  • Shelby Miller - MLBTR projects Miller, the return in the Inciarte trade for the poor Diamondbacks, to get $4.9M this season despite his tough 2016; Inciarte won’t make that much until 2019.

Anyway, those were some illustratively-cherry picked examples, but you get the idea. The extension doesn’t necessarily underpay Inciarte relative to what he would have made in arbitration, but it also doesn’t pay him any kind of premium for buying out one or two of his free agent years.

And of course, that’s where the biggest bargains are. While it’s hard to prognosticate with any real certainty Inciarte’s value in 2021 and 2022, even if you assume no inflation in the price of free agents (which is not a good assumption), Inciarte would need to be worth just one win above replacement to justify his salaries in those years. Luckily for the Braves, and what makes this such an excellent deal, is that unless something catastrophic happens, there’s not much risk of that happening. In other words, the Braves will likely reap some nice surplus value in the early 2020s courtesy of this deal, with the potential for a genuine bargain.

Consider: Inciarte has never had a season where he was worth less than 2.7 fWAR, which even at a low estimate of $7.5 million per WAR puts his market value at $20.25 million. His $8M and $9M salaries are less than half of that. Even if you think defense is stupid and Inciarte should not gain any pluses, value-wise, from the way he mans the outfield, his WAR values for his three seasons would be:

  • 2014: 0.6
  • 2015: 1.7
  • 2016: 2.2
  • Career average to date, adjusting for time missed for injuries/platooning: 1.5

So, even if you give Inciarte no positive defensive credit at all, he’d still be worth 1.5 x 7.5 = about $11.25 million, per season, compared to the $8.7M and $9M that the Braves will pay him.

There’s almost no downside here, and a lot of upside to the extent that you think defensive value is real (which I strongly feel it is). After all, even if the price of a free agent hasn’t grown and doesn’t grow (which it has and will), and Inciarte’s defense is an illusion, he’d still be worth $4.5M or so at his worst (per his 2014 stats). That means that the only downside here is the Braves losing the same relative pittance they’re paying him early in his extension (about $4M), which is a very small downside risk.

So, rejoice! Ender Inciarte appears to be here to stay, courtesy of one of the best moves this franchise has made in recent history (in combination with the trade that brought him to Atlanta in the first place). The Braves won’t directly reap the benefits of his added team control until 2020 and 2021, but during those seasons, we may look back and give thanks to this small holiday miracle for affording the team the salary room from not paying market rate for a center fielder to sign or otherwise acquire another key piece for the team.

(Disclaimer: I was so excited about this move that I wrote this on an airplane. That’s how awesome this is for the Braves and their fans. If the math is confusing above, I can clarify in the comments later, but there’s no way this looks anything but spectacular for the Braves.)