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Gaming out an Anthony Volpe extension

Does it make sense to lock up the sophomore?

Rawlings Gold Glove Award Dinner Photo by Corey Sipkin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Over the last decade or so, the Yankees haven’t loved extending pre-arb players — with some success and some failure. Had they signed Aaron Judge to a 10-year deal after his 2017 season, he’d currently be arguably the most valuable player in baseball on an AAV basis. Had the team extended Gary Sánchez after the same season, we’d look at that deal quite differently.

We’re in the swing of #ExtensionSzn, with Colt Keith, Jackson Chourio, and Bobby Witt Jr. all agreeing to deals in the past six weeks. Two of those players haven’t even made their MLB debuts yet, as teams seek to control long-term costs. This trend of extending younger and younger talent leads us to Anthony Volpe.

There was a lot to like about Volpe in 2023, but there’s a lot of work to be done before he meets the expectations his lofty prospect status imposed. He’s in a fairly similar spot to Witt after the Royals’ shortstop’s rookie season, where the tools were visible but there were still holes, and Witt rewarded his franchise’s patience with a stellar sophomore year. That campaign led to his 11-year, $288MM extension.

Now, Volpe’s not worth that today. We don’t know that he’s going to have a 5.5-WAR season in 2024, so it’s more of a question of what Witt would have commanded after the 2022 season. Chourio and Keith are considered 60 and 50 FV prospects respectively, with Jackson ranked slightly ahead of where Volpe was at time of debut.

Jackson Chourio’s extension with the Brewers is an eight-year, $82 million deal. He is completely unproven at the MLB level, although one could argue that Volpe himself hasn’t exactly proven himself at the MLB level either — good defense and 20+ steals are nice, but an 84 wRC+ is rather smelly. Add to that that Volpe’s clock’s already started and we start to run into some challenges projecting a possible extension.

His three-year ZiPS projection pegs him for just over eight wins by the time he’s 25, his first arb-eligible season coming in 2026. You extend players for a couple of reasons; one, to keep arbitration costs predictable; two, to lock in the most productive free agent years at a discount. This is why any extension for Volpe would need to be at least eight years — he’s going to be a free agent at 27, aging curves being what they are you’d want him around until he’s 30, before re-evaluating the risks of a speed-and-glove guy past that signpost.

The price is a different question — Chourio and Keith will take less money because they’re not in the majors yet, whereas Volpe is going to get the opportunity to play every single day of his sophomore season and show growth. That leaves him just one year away from arbitration, and while you or I might be more bearish on his long-term outlook, the self-confidence any professional athlete has is going to make it harder and harder to extend Volpe the closer he gets to arb and especially arb 2.

Something like 8/$100MM starts to make a lot of sense then, buying up the prime free agency years and delivering a slight premium for the fact that Volpe’s guaranteed to be an everyday player in 2024. There’s upside here if Volpe does follow Witt’s career path, a five-win player getting $100 million or so in total compensation is an absolute steal, but the downside is you’re committing eight years of roster time to a guy who was a well below-average hitter in his first taste of action.

To be honest, if I’m writing the cheques I’m waiting another year. The Yankees have failed to pull the trigger on extensions for top guys for a while, but Aaron Judge was the deserving MVP in his rookie year and Gary Sánchez put up 7.5 wins in his first 175 MLB games. Gleyber Torres was about a half-win better than Volpe in his first season, but a better hitter by almost 40 points of wRC+. I’m always going to ascribe more value to the guy who can hit over the guy who can run and maybe hit.

We just don’t know enough about Volpe’s future value for a long-term commitment to make sense right now. $12.5 million a year on its face doesn’t really hurt the Yankees, but the years required for a deal to make sense impose a constraint similar to DJ LeMahieu’s. Keeping that roster spot locked up while performance varies does hurt the Yankees. The best time to consider an Anthony Volpe extension is likely January 2025.