Dodgers Set to Sign Andre Ethier to Long-Term Extension Today

Hey, who doesn’t like waking up to find out that breaking news happened in the wee hours of the morning? Tony Jackson, among many others, is reporting that the Dodgers have agreed in principle to retain Andre Ethier for $85m over 5 years, which would cover 2013-17, or Ethier’s age-31 through 35 seasons.

5/85? Why does that sound so familiar…

MSTI, Feb. 15, 2012:

What interests me more right now is trying to figure out just how much a big 2012 could enhance Ethier’s value on the market, because there’s a big difference between a deal for, say, 3/$36m (which I’d certainly love to do) and something more like 5/$85m (which I’d run away screaming from).

Ah. Well… damn. I’ll take “things which maybe don’t look so great in retrospect for, well, $85m, Alex,” though I’ll note that was right in between Prince Fielder & Joey Votto shattering the market with $200m+ megadeals. Obviously the 3/36 was just a random low-end number, because that was never realistic (as I said later in that post), but after doing some research, Ethier’s closest comparable heading into free agency seemed like Jason Bay. That allowed us to set a baseline for his market price, and it now looks Ethier’s very good season thus far (recent slump aside) pushed his value right up to where I thought it would:

Let’s say Ethier, no longer bothered by the knee injury that sabotaged his 2011, can put up a year that is the average of his 2008-10 campaigns. That’d be a season that looks like .289/.366/.504, with 25 homers and 88 RBI, and if he can do that or more, he’d have a pretty good chance to match Bay’s contract. Let’s be honest, though; we saw how ridiculous this winter was as far as free agency costs, even without four of the traditional big market teams (Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Mets) in the game. Considering the lack of power available next year, and figuring that neither the Red Sox or Yankees have long-term solutions in right field, Ethier – if he has the 2012 I think he might – could potentially talk his way into more of a 5/$80m type of contract.

And that’s basically what he got. Well, that is, unless you don’t include what sounds like an easily attainable sixth-year option, which could push this up to something like 6/102.5.

Ken Rosenthal:

The contract also includes a $17.5 million vesting option or $2.5 million buyout for a sixth season, the source said.

The value of the deal will increase to six years, $100 million if Ethier reaches certain plate-appearance thresholds in either 2017 or 2016 and ’17 – thresholds he has passed every year since 2008, according to the source. Ethier has made at least 550 plate appearances per season during that time.

Right. Despite what I said in February, I’d characterize my reaction to this move as “okay with it”. Remember, at the time, we were hoping that Ethier would have a productive 2012, but we couldn’t say for sure that we would ever see 2008-09 Ethier again, since he was coming off two injury-plagued seasons and a career-worst 2011. We were also looking at a team who not a person on the planet predicted would have the best record in baseball at any point, and thought that perhaps Ethier would be best served as trade bait in July. We’ve since seen him show some life against lefty pitching, which he had never done before (though it obviously remains to be seen if that’s a long-term change), and of course we didn’t even know who would be owning the club at the time. So over the last four months, we’ve learned a lot about Ethier and the direction of this team.

The market plays into it as well, because as we all know, there’s an extreme lack of power available in the free agent market this upcoming winter. Other than Josh Hamilton, who comes with his own massive set of risks, Ethier was the most attractive bat, and as hard as this team has found it to get offense with Ethier, imagine if he left and right field was yet another hole. This contract pays him as essentially a three-to-four win player, and he hasn’t always been that, though it’s hard to say that there’s someone else who could really step in and do what he does. The deal looks to be  market value or something close to it, and while that’s perhaps not as much of a deal as you’d like from a player staying with his current team, at least no one went crazy and started throwing around Jayson Werth numbers, so you’ve at least spent in a way that doesn’t seem wildly out of touch. (There’s also a pretty big PR element for the new ownership at play here, I would imagine.)

That’s not to say that I’m completely over-the-moon about it, because Ethier is still a player with his fair share of flaws. We can’t yet say with any certainties that he’s “figured out” lefties, not after so many years of flailing against them, and his defense in right field seems to hover between “adequate” & “holy wow, that guy won a Gold Glove?” Guys moving into their 30s don’t generally stay healthier than they did in their 20s, after all, and that’s a real concern too. As I joked to a friend recently as Ethier’s recent slump has reached 2-for-his-last-37, “I wonder what injury he’s trying to play through this time?”

Still, I think we need to change our mindset from the dark ages of the McCourt days, as it was back in the offseason before any of us knew what a “Guggenheim” was other than a museum. Under the McCourt regime, I may have looked at this as “okay, but does this now mean that there’s $10m left for 20 other roster spots?” Under the deep pockets of the Guggenheim ownership, paying market value for a popular, productive player seems like a pretty reasonable idea, especially since the latest this deal could run is through his age-36 season. (It’s the Albert Pujols / Alex Rodriguez deals that run through a player’s late 30s and into his 40s which really kill me.) Besides, while this will push the 2013 payroll well over $100m as Ned Colletti’s backloaded two-year deals come due, only Matt Kemp & Chad Billingsley are signed for 2014 and beyond, so there’s a lot of flexibility to work with there.

So the end result, in my view, is that the Dodgers paid a fair price to lock up one of the two best and most popular hitters on their team, a player with his share of flaws, but one who provides a service which couldn’t easily be replaced on the open market or via trade. I’m slightly apprehensive about the idea of Ethier being a $100m type player, yet I suppose I can’t really argue with the logic behind the move.

Now, next stop: Clayton Kershaw?