The Cost of Winning: How Yoan Moncada Could Be a Steal

The Red Sox had to commit $63 million to sign a 19-year-old amateur free agent. It's never been done before, but could it work for a young player who has been compared to Robinson Cano?

Yoan Moncada is a beast.

No, we haven't seen him play. No, he can't legally drink in his new country for a couple more years. But here's what he looks like.

Yoan Moncada Arms
19. He's 19. Seriously. Each of his arms looks like a whole 19-year-old.

It's important not to let the eye test detract from careful, precise analysis of statistics but HOLY CRAP LOOK HOW BIG THAT TEENAGER'S ARMS ARE.

There's no question that the 19-year-old's upside is elite - he has drawn comps to Robinson Cano, and upon signing, he instantly became the most intriguing piece in a highly-rated farm system, whose batters lie in wait behind a top-rated major league offense. But was it worth the $31.5 million signing bonus, and the tax penalty the Sox took to bring the commitment to $63 million? There's a huge amount of doubt in the futures of prospects - even those of the "can't miss" variety. And no one has ever spent this kind of money on an amateur free agent. Like, ever. Not even close. This is completely uncharted territory.

Until Marty McFly leaves a copy of Grays Sports Almanac in the past, there's no formula to determine for sure whether a contract of any kind will be worth its price. What we can look at, though, are the market price of winning games and the types of player Moncada could become.

In a column last spring, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs highlighted the average predicted price per win above replacement1 for players signed during that free agency period, using several different models, some adjusted for inflation and others not.

We'll look at last year's median, rather than the average, to counter outliers like guys signed to major league deals who are expected to be essentially worthless. We'll conservatively use the adjustment for 5 percent inflation, a rudimentary compromise2 between no adjustment and 10 percent adjustment.

Cameron estimated $5.3 million per win under this model. Figuring (guessing) the Red Sox to pay $600,000 for each of three pre-arbitration seasons of Moncada, the team will have paid $64.8 million in that time. He can pay for himself in those first three years by tallying 12.23 WAR, which would be good enough to make someone the 26th best position player in the last three years (Matt Carpenter was worth 12.1 while Evan Longoria was worth 12.3). That expectation is certainly lofty, but then again, those were Carpenter's first three full seasons.

But this isn't a three-year deal. It gets a bit trickier when Moncada qualifies for arbitration3 after two, or more likely three, seasons. If he totally busts, not much money will be added to that base. If he's elite, he could end up topping David Price's record-setting $19.75 million one-year deal to avoid arbitration.

Since where he lands on that spectrum will be based on performance, however, we'll negate that and assume the team is paying him close to the inflated cost-per-win. That means for Moncada to be worth $63 million before those salaries (on paper), he should provide about 12.3 WAR in his first three years – something even Cano (7.3) failed to do.

Even so, let's not forget that the Red Sox are a big-market franchise with plenty of expendable income. So even if they do end up paying much more than average for those first three seasons, Boston may still gladly stomach it to lock up top-of-the-draft-level talent at such a young age.

Moncada's countryman, Rusney Castillo, signed for $72.5 million back in August. And while he was 27, major league ready and already a professional star, he had the same amount of major league experience as Moncada – zero. As for big contracts for "proven commodities," the team has spent on all manners of players for many years. They broke the bank on Manny Ramirez (a $160 million contract in 2000 that becomes enormous when you adjust for inflation) and saw excellent returns. His WAR among hitters from 2001 to 2008 was 17th best, despite being about as big a defensive liability as I would be (offensively, he was the fifth-best player in that time, worth 324.3 runs, but he was the worst defender in baseball, by far, costing 162.6 runs). They also signed Carl Crawford for $153 million and were grateful to the Dodgers for taking more than five of the seven seasons attached off their hands (in a high-priced year and a half, Crawford provided the Red Sox with 0.3 WAR).

Crawford has been solid after that trade. But if he had stayed in Boston and on that track, he could potentially have been paid $153 million for one win.

Because there's a gap the size of Los Angeles between the best and worst players signed to enormous contracts, these are hugely risky endeavors that owners take on when they feel the potential reward is worth it. By opting, instead of spending three or four times as much on an aging veteran, to devote $63 million to a 19-year-old whose ceiling is as high as it is, the Red Sox are similarly betting on future production. But while the odds of a zero-WAR contract life are inherently greater with a teenager than they are with an experienced free agent, the Sox are paying a more manageable price to lock up a player for his conventional prime instead of paying top dollar for his post-30 downslide.

It's never been done before. But it could signal a swing in the way teams shop.

1 WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is a statistic that relies on many factors that interpret how many overall runs a player is worth, boiling down to his value compared to an average replacement-level player, who would be valued at zero. While different websites use different methods to determine WAR, in this post, we will be using FanGraphs' version, often referred to as "fWAR."

2 This is an admittedly half-hearted attempt to water down both the fact that the bonus and tax are in 2015 dollars, even though Moncada will be under team control for six years after his major league debut, and the fact that the team spent that money just for the right to pay him what will be inflated dollars in the future.

3 A player typically hits arbitration after three seasons of service time. If the team and player don't agree to a contract to avoid arbitration, each side will submit a figure and an arbiter will rule in favor of the team or the player. Some players with under three years in the majors qualify for arbitration. Such cases, termed "Super Two" players, have reached a cutoff – last year, that was two years and 128 days of service time. MLB Trade Rumors has a great breakdown here.

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