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What would a Byron Buxton contract extension look like?

What kind of offer would it take for Minnesota to lock up Byron Buxton for the long term? If the Twins are looking for a template for a contract extension for their young emerging star centerfielder, they should look to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds just extended a rich contract offer to Eugenio Suarez, and the infielder who broke out last season at the plate took them up on the deal. It’s not a perfect comparison. I think that it’s one of the best examples to date, though, for a Buxton contract extension.

Suarez got a reported 7-year, $66 million contract as a 26 year old, which also includes a team option for an 8th year that would push the total value to $81 million.

Buxton, who is 24, is four years away from hitting free agency, whereas Suarez was only 3 years away. So the Suarez contract in effect “buys” five free agency seasons for the Reds, in exchange for cost certainty and a long-term commitment on both sides.

Before the 2017 season, Suarez had 1,300 plate appearances in the big leagues in which he hit .257/.316/.406, which is underwhelming for a third baseman. Then he broke out in a big way this season at age 26. He started walking a whole lot more, hit 26 home runs and batted .260/.367/.461. When you factor in his defense and baserunning, FanGraphs estimated that he was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement last year.

By comparison, Buxton was even more offensively challenged before 2017 — and the upside displayed in his post-June breakout was even more encouraging. Before he burst onto the scene last summer Buxton was a borderline unusable hitter, even after factoring in his exceptional defense. Then the light bulb went on and Buxton now looks like he could be a superstar in the making.

There’s the Gold-Glove defense in centerfield, the top-level speed and acceleration, and the .309/.358/.538 batting line from July 1 to the end of the season. Yep, Buxton looks well on his way to becoming a superstar player in the big leagues.

Oh yeah, and he’s still just 24 years old.

Buxton’s defensive contributions set a high “floor” for his future performance. If he suddenly forgets how to be a good hitter – or the league’s pitchers figure out how to exploit a weakness – then he’ll still bring something to the Twins. From that perspective, a contract extension should be viewed as less risky for the team, even if his offensive breakout still only includes about 250 plate appearances.

If you believe in his bat, too, then the idea of a long-term commitment should be a very easy decision from a team perspective. Buxton is a face-of-the-franchise kind of guy, there seems to be little doubt about that.

Two final things to consider before we look at comparable contract situations. 1) Buxton, you could argue, is at a greater than average risk for injury because of the recklessness with which he plays centerfield; and 2) Buxton earned a $6 million signing bonus as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012, which is a lot more money than a guy like Suarez had secured before the ink dried on his new contract extension. That could mean that the financial incentive wouldn’t be as great for Buxton to hurry up and get that first really big payday. But that’s just an assumption on my part.

So, what would a contract extension look like?

Buxton, who could become a free agent in 4 years after the 2021 season, would be 28 years old when he could really cash in. Suarez’s extension, meanwhile, comes at a time when he’s just 3 years away from free agency, and would hit the market at age 29.

If the Twins signed Buxton to a big contract this spring, they’d be paying for 4 pre-free agency seasons, probably at a higher cost, with the tradeoff of getting a good deal on the first few seasons of Buxton’s potential free agency. I don’t know how many years the team should look to buy in advance, and that question hinges a great deal on the player’s interest.

The question posed to Buxton looks something like this. Do you just want to be extravagantly rich and know where you’ll be playing baseball for the next half-decade and beyond? Or do you want to fully maximize the career earning potential? In the latter case, Buxton would be better off betting on himself, taking it year by year and waiting until free agency to strike it rich as a 28-year-old speedy centerfielder with years of offensive and defensive track records on his resume.

Suarez apparently wasn’t willing to wait, and we may learn in 10 years that it cost him the opportunity to earn some more millions of dollars during his playing career. On the other hand, he now has assured himself a constant place of employment for the next 7 years, in addition to a life-changing amount of money.

Contract comps?

SS Francisco Lindor … 24 years old … 4 years away from free agency … 5.9 fWAR in 2017
Rejected Indians contract extension, according to reports.

Lindor reportedly turned down a contract offer worth at least $100 earlier this winter. The details surrounding Cleveland’s offer are not clear, but it’s a big, round number that Lindor and his agent apparently didn’t feel was right for them. He’s in a similar spot to Buxton with respect to age and service time, but the primary difference is that Lindor already is an established star, whereas Buxton is just arriving.

CF Ender Inciarte … 26 years old … 4 years away from free agency … 3.6 fWAR in 2016
Signed with the Braves last winter for 6 years/$39.525 million, including a club option year.

Inciarte gave up potentially 2 years of free agency, and he wouldn’t have hit the market until after his 30th birthday anyway. He’s older than Buxton and I don’t think he’s as good of a player. But he was a Super 2 arbitration-eligible player, which may have given him a slight bit more leverage. And, for the moment anyway, he’s richer than Buxton.

CF Odubel Herrera … 25 years old … 4 years away from free agency … 3.8 fWAR in 2016
Signed with the Phillies last winter for 7 years/$54.5 million, including two club option years.

Herrera is a good player on a team that looks a bit like the Twins – on the upswing with young talent. I don’t see the same type of superstar upside in Herrera as I do in Buxton, and maybe that’s just my proximity bias speaking. Last year, in the first season of the deal, Herrera posted 2.8 WAR, according to FanGraphs, and he was generally solid but unspectacular. He hit .281/.325/.452 with 14 home runs, strong defense in center field, and an exactly average 100 Weighted Runs Created-Plus.

SS Paul DeJong  … 24 years old … 6 years away from free agency … 3.0 fWAR in 2017
Signed with the Cardinals this winter for 8 years/$50.5 million, including two club option years.

DeJong’s contract is interesting, but probably not a great comp for Buxton. For one thing, DeJong had 6 full seasons of team control left and would not have hit free agency until after he turned 30. And we’ve now seen what the “open market” thinks of players who have already blown out 30 candles on their cake. Another factor: DeJong, unlike Buxton, settled for a tiny signing bonus of $200,000 when he was drafted in the fourth round in 2015 out of college. Buxton as a high schooler went near the top of the draft and got millions of dollars in his signing bonus.

For those reasons, I’d think that 8 years and $50 million would be pretty light if you’re trying to convince Buxton to trade in some earning power for certainty. Again, that’s just an assumption.

3B Eugenio Suarez … 26 years old … 3 years away from free agency … 4.1 fWAR in 2017
Signed with the Reds for 8 years/$81 million, including one club option year.

For reasons stated above, I think this is the best comparable current contract. Will it be a Byron Buxton template?

Upper bound:

Mike Trout was 23 years old and 4 years away from free agency when he signed his big 6-year, $144.5 million contract with the Angels. This is the first season of huge earnings — $33.25 million in 2018 — for a guy that was already the best player in baseball at the time of the signing. The relative risk and reward is just not all that comparable to what the Twins now face with their own speedy centerfielder.

I think Byron Buxton is a great baseball player. But nobody could argue that he’s put together a multi-year track record as the best player in baseball like that guy Mike Trout.

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