Yesterday, the Cincinnati Reds and catcher Devin Mesoraco agreed to a four year, $28 million contract extension. The deal comes after a stellar 2014 season in which the 26-year-old Mesoraco hit .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI. He was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time in his career and even appeared at the end of the MVP ballot. He was worth 4.4 WAR, fifth best among MLB catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
When the deal was announced, it led me to think back to another solid defensive catcher who enjoyed a breakout offensive season relatively early in his career. Alex Avila hit .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI in 551 plate appearances in 2011. He made his first All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 12th in the AL MVP voting. He was worth 4.6 WAR, tied for the second-highest total among all catchers.
The similarities between the two beg the question: why the Tigers didn't attempt to re-sign Avila to a similar team-friendly contract extension after 2011?
Mesoraco was a couple years older than Avila when he had his big season, but both were only a couple years removed from the bulk of their playing time at the minor league level. Avila hit .264/.365/.450 at Double A in 2009, while Mesoraco hit .294/.363/.594 at Double A in 2011. Mesoraco got an extra year in the minors where he added an .855 OPS at Triple-A Louisville. Avila, on the other hand, spent most of his next season (2010) in the majors where he had an OPS of .656 in 333 plate appearances alongside Gerald Laird.
There are a few fundamental differences, though. Mesoraco was a highly touted prospect, and this season was expected for a few years now. It doesn't necessarily mean that he is more likely to continue playing this well than Avila was after 2011, but it wouldn't surprise anyone. Believers in the BABIP gods will point at Mesoraco's .309 BABIP compared to the .366 BABIP Avila had as another reason why this comparison falls apart.
Mesoraco also has the advantage of playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark, while Avila's left-handed bat was suppressed by Comerica Park's spacious gaps and deep center field wall. Swapping them may not have an effect on Mesoraco's home run totals -- seen here superimposed over Comerica Park's dimensions (via ESPN's Hit Tracker) -- but putting Avila in a smaller park would probably inflate his.
A consensus top-100 prospect two years ago, 2014 was vindication for the Reds, who stuck with Mesoraco through a couple of lean years. He struggled in brief stints in the majors in 2011 and 2012, hitting just .205/.274/.353 in a combined 237 plate appearances. He got 352 plate appearances in a timeshare with Ryan Hanigan in 2013, but did not fare much better offensively. His solid glove work could not overcome a .238 average and .287 on-base percentage, resulting in just 0.4 WAR. However, he was still better offensively than Hanigan and the Reds won 90 games. Exit Hanigan, and enter Mesoraco's 2014 season.
Now, Mesoraco is going to be getting paid an average of $7 million per season over the next four years. The contract doesn't quite break down that way, but that's not important. What is important is that $7 million per year is quite a bargain for a four win catcher. And no, it doesn't really matter if he continues to be that good. Catchers are expensive, and good ones are ridiculously expensive.
This offseason was Mesoraco's first year of arbitration eligibility. He still had three years of club control remaining; now he has four. Despite his breakout season, he was only projected to make $2.8 million in 2015 through arbitration. This contract is basically the Reds betting that Mesoraco will continue to produce at a high level in hopes of squeezing one extra year out of him at a discounted rate before he hits free agency. It's a savvy move if he stays productive, and doesn't cripple the team's payroll if his bat regresses.
So why didn't the Tigers give Avila a similar deal three years ago? Avila had an extra year of club control remaining and was not arbitration eligible at the time. Guaranteeing him more money would have been a bit foolish when he was slated to make close to the MLB minimum the next season. With another year of guaranteed money comes another year of guaranteed risk, and the Tigers would have been looking at a five or six year deal for a catcher. Even a young, talented catcher is an injury risk waiting to happen. Avila's durability during the past five seasons is the exception, not the norm.
The underlying numbers also lend credence to why the Tigers were gunshy about giving Avila more money compared to the Reds and Mesoraco. Avila put up a .939 OPS against right-handers -- including 16 of his 19 home runs -- but just a .779 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2011. The platoon splits have only gotten more severe over the past few seasons, especially once pitchers learned to stop throwing him fastballs. Alternatively, the right-handed Mesoraco had an .883 OPS against right-handed pitchers last year.
The decision to let Avila's arbitration years play out paid off for the Tigers, but this doesn't necessarily make it right or wrong. Including his 2015 salary, Avila will have made just over $13 million in four seasons following his 2011 All-Star campaign. Tack on a year of free agency at the same $13 million Mesoraco will make in 2018, and the Tigers end up saving $2 million on a hypothetical $28 million price tag.
There are a lot of loopholes we can fall into when thinking of parallel realities where Avila keeps hitting like he did in 2011. He would have been more expensive during his arbitration years, but still would have provided plenty of surplus value for the Tigers. The team may have even looked to lock him up long-term had he duplicated his '11 numbers again in 2012. Instead, the Tigers let things play out, and came out slightly ahead when Avila regressed.