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Signing a pitcher — any pitcher — to a long-term contract is inherently a risky proposition.
Throwing a baseball is a violent motion that shreds elbows and shoulders alike, and it’s awfully difficult to project how anyone who does that for a living will hold up over any span more than a couple of years. Even beyond the physical element, pitching at an elite level requires an ability for adjustments to opponents, changing strike zones, and even the possible juicing and de-juicing of baseballs.
The famous quote, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future” has been credited to historical figures ranging from Confucius to Yogi Berra, and whoever said it could easily have been talking about pitching.
With that context in mind, the Toronto Blue Jays took a significant leap of faith, signing José Berríos to a seven-year deal worth $131 million on Tuesday. Luckily for the club, within the genre of lengthy, perilous, contracts they’ve managed just about the safest bet imaginable with Berríos.
A 7-year, $131 million deal essentially breaks down as $11 million for Berrios's final arb year followed by $20 million per free agent season for six years
Deal runs through age-34 season
Credit to @JonHeyman who was first on agreement & @jonmorosi who had the seven-year term https://t.co/sWHLcpsUau
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) November 16, 2021
If you were to assess the risk of decline for any pitcher, the four places you’d look first would be age, injury history, raw stuff, and consistent productivity. There aren’t any holes to poke in what Berríos brings to the table in any of these areas.
The age component is simplistic, but important. When the Blue Jays signed Hyun-Jin Ryu prior, they did so knowing that buying his age 33-36 seasons increased the probability that his production would slip as the contract went on. Contrarily, Toronto is getting Berríos from his age 28-34 campaigns, a range that is mostly within his prime — and all at least prime-adjacent.
That’s a rare and coveted run of years to get on a long-term contract. If the Blue Jays had let Berríos go after 2022 and looked for his replacement in free agency, their options for quality starters in his age bracket would’ve been Joe Musgrove (30 in the run up to 2023) and Noah Syndergaard (30) — whom they weren’t able to land this offseason. That’s about it.
Even after the José Berríos extension, the #BlueJays are working diligently to upgrade their rotation. They continue to talk with their own free agents -- Ray and Matz -- as well as Kevin Gausman, among others. They've also spoken with the #Marlins on their starters. @MLBNetwork
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 16, 2021
Perhaps a bigger piece of the puzzle is the durability Berríos has demonstrated throughout his career. While a track record of staying healthy isn’t a magic spell warding off future injury, it’s far more encouraging than a massive series of past arm issues. Berríos hasn’t just avoided calamitous ailments, either. He’s put in work.
Since 2016 — the year he made his MLB debut — the right-hander has made at least 31 starts and pitched at least 169.2 innings in every season except the COVID-shortened 2020. Since 2017, only Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, and Aaron Nola have recorded more pro outs (39.2 of Berríos’s innings came at triple-A). The easiest way for a pitcher to fall off a cliff is to run into a series of injuries, and Berríos has been a picture of good health for a long time.
Youth and health are a great foundation to build on for sustained success, but you don’t invest in a seven-year deal for a starter unless you’re confident his stuff will hold up. In Berríos’s case, there isn’t much reason for concern. To be clear, the former Minnesota Twin is not a dominant force of nature à la Jacob deGrom, but he’s got a compelling bag of tricks, including a pair of solid fastballs he’s throwing just as hard now as when he cracked the majors:
He pairs those fastballs with a sweeping curveball that he can get batters with inside the zone...
… or well beyond it.
Add a solid changeup into that mix and you have a diverse, adjustable repertoire that’s shown no signs of losing effectiveness in his first six MLB seasons.
That stuff — and the ability to command it — has led to remarkably consistent production. Berríos has had some ups and downs, but after a rough rookie season in 2016 he’s settled in as a guy who’s truly earned the nickname ‘La Makina’:
The contract the Blue Jays signed on Tuesday is not without its potential pitfalls, but that’s only because of the nature of long-term deals as a concept, not anything to do with Berríos in particular. It’s always going to be a bit of a gamble to sign a pitcher to a seven-year contract worth nine figures, but if you’re going to bet on anyone, a guy known as ‘The Machine’ — with the receipts to back it up — is about as good a horse as you’re going to find.
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