Late last night, the Nationals had by far their biggest move of the offseason, signing catcher Keibert Ruiz to an 8 year extension worth up to $50 Million, per Barry Svrluga.
Wow. First thought? Just wow.
I have been a loud member, and leader at times, of harping on the Nationals consistent failures to lock up their young players. Now don't get me wrong, this doesn't totally make up for all of the misses of years past, but it is a start. More importantly, it is just nice to win one for a change.
Barry Svrluga went on to clarify that the contract covers Ruiz's two pre-arbitration years, his three arbitration years, and three years of free agency. He also adds that there are two club options for a possible 9th and 10th year, valued at the same $6.25M per year, per Spotrac. That means the Nationals have basically locked up their catcher for the next decade for $62.5 Million. Not only that, the 9th and 10th years would be Ruiz's age 32 and 33 seasons respectively, which is still widely considered to be included in a player's prime years. That means no lopsided deal for declining player in his late 30s.
What a steal.
For reference, Sean Murphy signed the last big contract for a catcher, signing a 6 year, $73 Million dollar deal with the Braves after being traded from Oakland. Willson Contreras signed the last big free agent contract for a catcher just this past offseason, inking a 5 year, $87.5 Million pact with the St. Louis Cardinals. Now both Murphy and Contreras are much more established than Ruiz is and have subsequently earned their AAVs, but that is what makes this deal even better.
At $6.25 Million per year, Ruiz currently ranks 10th in AAV for a catcher in baseball, between Max Stassi of the Angels and Mike Zunino of the Guardians. While Stassi and Zunino are respectable catchers, I don't think many are calling them top 10 catchers in baseball. Ruiz has that top 10 potential, and even if his power never comes to fruition, his defense projects to age well. All in all, Ruiz would be paid like a platoon catcher at worst with the potential to be much, much better.
The Nationals also picked a great time to strike this deal, as it happens before catchers like Will Smith of the Dodgers hit free agency, or younger catchers like Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen or even Adley Rutschman sign their next contracts. All four of those players are likely to exceed Ruiz's $6.25M AAV, with Smith and Rutschman likely to reset the market.
The next thoughts stem from something Jesse Dougherty tweeted after the news broke.
"Build through the starting rotation," is the thing that stands out to me. Yes, Dougherty then amends it to "build through the middle of the field," which is technically correct. But signing Ruiz is actually building through the Starting Rotation as well.
Think about it. Starting staffs change every single year. Bullpens change even more often than that. Competitive teams need a steady hand at the Catcher position (pun intended) and consistency at such a premium position, arguably the most premium position, is only going to help this current staff and the future staffs to come. The Nationals have handed the keys to Keibert Ruiz to not only guide these young pitchers, but lead these young pitchers. That's not to say Ruiz doesn't have more to learn himself, but knowing a guy will be here for the next decade makes you inherently defer to him in some regard.
The latter part of that second tweet by Dougherty is also eye-popping. Jesse cites CJ Abrams, Luis Garcia and a CF prospect as "next parts of the plan." Does this mean the Nationals are not done locking up their young core?
My eyes immediately turn to Luis Garcia. Not necessarily because I think he's better or more important than Abrams or any of the CF prospects, but because he and Keibert Ruiz share the same agent. Not only that, both Garcia and Ruiz just recently switched their representation from Scott Boras to Octagon Baseball. We thought this would impact the likelihood the Nationals could extend these players, but we never thought it would be so soon!
If the Nationals can lock up Luis Garcia and CJ Abrams to long term, team friendly deals, it would be an astronomical win for the franchise, one that hasn't had much to consider a win since 2019. We have long considered both Abrams and Garcia to be key pieces of the future, not just because they were top prospects, but because both have actually displayed the potential to be key contributors at the Major League level.
The immediate counterpoint is Victor Robles. After 2019, many would've considered Victor Robles a key contributor of the future. Then of course Robles has had three dreadful seasons offensively, including a demotion to AAA. Had the Nationals signed him to a long term deal following 2019, that deal would look pretty horrid right about now.
My rebuttal to that is 1) buying out arbitration years typically comes with a lower, more manageable AAV than something like the Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin contracts that are our current albatrosses. 2) I believe the improvements to the player development and analytics departments will yield positive results for all players, perhaps even including Victor Robles. And 3) it is not your money, there is no salary cap in baseball, so who cares?
Yes, the Ruiz contract is a bit of a risk considering he has only played 143 games in his short MLB career. But in reality, every single contract in any sport is a risk. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin were risks. The Marlins thought they had signed a top 5 player in baseball when the inked Giancarlo Stanton to a 13 year deal, only to trade him for pennies on the dollar a couple years later. The Yankees took a risk paying a 30 year old Aaron Judge and the Rangers took a risk paying an oft-injured Jacob deGrom. Every team weighs the risk versus reward when handing out contracts.
The fact of the matter is that the potential reward in the Keibert Ruiz contract absolutely dwarfs the potential risk. Even if Ruiz never becomes more than a platoon catcher, $6.25 Million is more than manageable. And if Ruiz does hit his top 10, even top 5 catcher potential? He suddenly has one of the most team-friendly contracts in all of baseball. That's a chance I am more than willing to take.
Be happy, Nats fans. We won one for a change.