Pinch yourself if you want to, but you’re not dreaming. Yasmany Tomas and the D-backs have agreed to terms: six years, $68.5 million, according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez. Long rumored as a suitor but never viewed as a front-runner, the D-backs have shown that they’re serious about improving, pushing aside some of their depth to make room for someone with promise to be better. At both first and second glance, this signing looks like a shrewd move, and is for a dollar figure lower than had been rumored.
When I first addressed the topic of the D-backs courting Tomas about ten weeks ago, I wrote that signing him could be “savvy” even at $15M a year. He seemed to fit the D-backs like a glove, given the team’s stated wish to add power in a corner. The tea leaves also seemed to say that the runway was clear:
the Yankees could be out of the bidding (supposedly, but I don’t buy it) and the Mets definitely will. The Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs already have Cuban outfielders in existing outfield logjams. And Tomas is also not viewed as can’t-miss, with some literal miss to his game. That could take “smart money” teams like the Athletics and Rays out of it. I haven’t seen any team-specific speculation at all, but I think teams not typically expected in these free agent competitions could figure prominently. Maybe Marlins? Or we might see the Giants or Padres enter the bidding. The Tanaka bidding got out of control and out of reach for Arizona, but the Tomas bidding? Maybe not so much.
My suspicions about the Yankees were misplaced; in the end, they weren’t one of the four teams to have made an offer to Tomas, according to Sanchez. But the Giants and Padres were both suitors in the end, as well as the Braves. More than anything else, however, the signing seemed to have promise because it offered the new front-office-by-committee a kind of flak-less way to improve the team:
He could be a “smart money” spend: Signing premium free agents means paying top dollar (indeed, more than anyone else was willing to spend) for a player who is likely to start a path down the aging curve before the end of the deal. Not so with the 23-year-old Tomas (who turns 24 in November). Trading for an impact offensive player often costs an arm and a leg, as the D-backs organization is now acutely aware. And signing Tomas wouldn’t even mean forfeiting a draft pick, as may be the case for the teams that sign Nelson Cruz or Melky Cabrera. Signing Tomas could also be a trendy — and responsible — choice of a new D-backs front office. The organization’s financial constraints are real, and there are hard limits to what can be spent on international amateurs and Rule 4 draftees. Spending on Tomas is one of very few ways that the D-backs can add talent without subtracting either other talent or another opportunity. And wouldn’t the new GM want to put that kind of stamp on his new organization?
All of those points are just as true today as they were in early September; maybe even more true. And the fact that this deal calls for less than $11.5 million in average annual salary? Color me shocked but very pleasantly so. Answers to questions like where he’ll play will trickle in over the next couple of days. Whether the Plan A identified shortly will work will start to become clear in spring training. Whether or not this deal will pay out for the team will only start to become clear by June or July. But we rarely get this kind of news, and I’m going to gorge myself on some issues of my own. Please join me (and join in)!
Opt-Out Clause Looms Large
I assumed that Tomas was picking through two different types of offers: two-year deals with significant salaries ($30M/2 years?) or six- or seven-year deals a bit more modest. I was mulling whether it would be smart or effective for the D-backs to present a different kind of offer, with something on the short end. Turns out, the D-backs did even better: they offered Tomas the best of both worlds.
Tomas just turned 24 years old. Reportedly, the deal includes an opt-out clause by which Tomas can leave after four seasons; that would mean if he opted out and signed a new deal, he’d be 28 for the first year of his second deal. That’s young enough for a second team to think they were buying at least a couple of peak seasons; in fact, he’d be a little young for a first-time free agent. That looks like the secret to this deal, and how the D-backs set themselves apart.
If he’s not nearly as good as the industry seems to believe, he will still have banked $68.5M; that might not have been the top total he could have gotten, but it’s a lot safer than any two-year deal he may have been offered. If he’s as good as folks hope (maybe a .270 hitter who threatens 30 HR per season), he could be in line for for an even bigger deal in four years, perhaps very similar to the 5-year, $100M in guaranteed money that Pablo Sandoval got from the Red Sox (it’s $95M, with a $17M option/$5M buyout). Throw baseball inflation into the mix, and even if Tomas’s D-backs deal is significantly backloaded, it looks like Tomas’s second contract could be the biggest in his career.
Without knowing the year-to-year figures for the Tomas contract, it’s hard to know the extent to which the opt-out devalues the deal for the D-backs. But we can probably assume that the deal is not frontloaded; if it’s backloaded, it greatly benefits the D-backs (because either it will not be exercised or the team has deferred an obligation without deferring the benefits). If it’s relatively even spread year to year, the D-backs essentially signed Tomas to something like a 4-year, $60M deal (considering a chunk is deferred an extra two years, it’s not like 4 years, $68.5M). Even a 4-year, $60M deal looks really good, and so the D-backs really can’t lose.
We will return to this topic; in the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton extension, I’ve been working on a metric for valuing opt-out clauses. Stay tuned.
Where Will Tomas Play?
We will get our fill of information on this topic within the next few days, I believe. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that it will be Jake Lamb displaced by this move; we know the D-backs worked out Tomas at third base, but I never saw the team share its conclusions about whether they’d want to try him there. We don’t know enough about this new front-office-by-committee to read into their silence, but it’s worth noting that it would have been in their interest to say “he’s not a third baseman,” but not in their interest to say “we think he can play third base.” If he’s at third, Jake Lamb becomes a refugee, and Brandon Drury gets committed to second base in the minors with the understanding that both he and Tomas might change positions a few years down the road.
But let’s not try to guess what the team will do, because that news will become stale the second the organization speaks. Instead, let’s examine what the team should do.
Regardless of Tomas’s performance with the bat, he’s unlikely to be a real asset defensively. In addition to in-game power, this is probably the aspect of Tomas’s game that we know least about. But observers have considered Tomas to be a little stiff and a little slow, and as Baseball America’s Ben Badler pointed out, we should not draw conclusions from the fact that Tomas played some third base in Cuba. Badler noted that because Serie Nacionale teams are geographic, and because players aren’t traded, there’s no market force in place to kind of homogenize fielders at every position; a guy who might not be good enough to field at second base could be another team’s starting shortstop, just by virtue of being the best player available. Tomas’s time at third could be a function of that force, and considering he didn’t stick at third in Cuba, it seems unwise to plan on him manning the position day-in, day-out.
That really complicates the outfield picture. At the outset of the offseason, we thought that a perfect alignment would feature a platoon of Mark Trumbo and Ender Inciarte in left, A.J. Pollock in center (with Inciarte backing up), and David Peralta and Cody Ross platooning in right. Since then, we learned that the D-backs plan to move Trumbo to right field, and while that’s a square we really couldn’t circle, that’s might be a moot point now. Tomas in the outfield means Cody Ross will be separated from the team (although he may be brought to spring training, because if any team is going to pick him up, it will be as a lefty-killing complementary piece, and teams’ needs for that will not be obvious until later). It would also mean the end of the silly idea of having two lefty hitters in Inciarte and Peralta share time in left.
Trumbo should be the guy in left because that’s the less-demanding outfield corner, with about 5% fewer balls hit there and throwing accuracy a lot less important. That would put Tomas in right field, with Pollock undisturbed in center. David Peralta would still perform an important function as a guy who kills right-handing pitching — we’d assume that Trumbo’s massive platoon split would give the team every incentive to sit him frequently against right-handed starters, and if Tomas is not as good as advertised, Peralta could help out there as well. Unfortunately, it means really minimizing the asset that is Ender Inciarte; his defense made him start-worthy even in the corner outfield, but he and the D-backs may have to settle for making him the best fifth outfielder in Major League Baseball.
What Can We Expect from Yasmany Tomas?
This is the issue which won’t really become clear until halfway through 2015. We don’t even know if Tomas will open the season in the big leagues; if he doesn’t look sharp in March, the D-backs could easily give him some time with Triple-A Reno. That could give Lamb enough time to become attractive in a trade, if the club is thinking third base for Tomas; same for Peralta, Inciarte and Ross if the team fails to trade an outfielder before the season starts.
As little as we know about Tomas, we know his calling card is a power tool that some have graded as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale (70 is sometimes referred to as “plus plus”). Averaging up everything I’ve digested from other outlets, Tomas actually seems pretty similar to Mark Trumbo — a great power grade, some history of translating raw power to game power, and no defensive position. Eerily enough, Trumbo has even had some major league time at third base, where we think Tomas would be fringy at best. We might have some extra confidence in Tomas’s fielding in terms of range, and we might prefer Trumbo’s throwing strength, but they’re very similar.
The main differences between Trumbo and Tomas: Trumbo has proved it in the majors, and Tomas has not. But as a highly related point, Tomas is younger. And it’s extenuating circumstances that have kept Tomas from the majors thus far, not his skills; in contrast, Trumbo’s first full season in the bigs came after he turned 25. In addition to not valuing his skills as highly as Towers did, we’re lower on Trumbo than most because it took him that long to reach the majors. Players who reach the majors late — especially power guys — tend to have short peaks. Think Travis Hafner.
Tomas still has time and room to get better. 2015 is not likely to be Tomas’s best season in the major leagues. In a way, that’s not great; the D-backs are trying to contend in 2015 without sacrificing the future (which is precisely why this Tomas signing is so damned smart). But in a way, that’s fantastic. Tomas has upside. No one thinks that Tomas will become Jose Abreu, but then, not many thought that Abreu would be Abreu. And Tomas comes at a more reasonable cost. The $68.5M reported for Tomas is technically more than the $68M in guaranteed money that Abreu got from the White Sox, but as I’ve explored elsewhere, Abreu is almost certain to make more money through the contractual clause that allows him to opt into arbitration (even if he gets hurt!).
Wins are worth about $6.5M in free agency right now. The D-backs are paying him an average of $11.4M, and that will be effectively lower if we find out the deal is backloaded at all. That means that they’re paying Tomas as if he’s a solid regular, something better than Chris Johnson but not as good as Aaron Hill. Regardless of whether he turns into Mark Reynolds or Mark Trumbo or something more than that, the D-backs are almost guaranteed to get surplus value on this deal, which is amazing and wonderful and lovely and great. And it could be a lot of surplus value.
Celebrate, my friends. We give this deal our overwhelming support. It may mean that both Hill and Trevor Cahill are run out of town on a rail, but even then, there’s little hope of the D-backs sticking to their most recent payroll projection of $90M. But as the offseason started, Tony La Russa said that they’d consider anything between $80M and $110M, depending on the circumstances. At this price, Tomas practically fell in their lap, and I’m thrilled that the club stretched to take advantage of that. We’ll get more details soon. For now, though, I truly believe that it was the shrewdness of offering the opt-out clause that let the D-backs win the day. And that’s probably the best news of all.
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