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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Julio Rodriguez contract unique in length and in how budding rookie superstar bet on himself

Aug. 28, 2022 Updated Sun., Aug. 28, 2022 at 5:21 p.m.

Julio Rodriguez (44) of the Seattle Mariners points into the stands after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on July 4, 2022, at Petco Park in San Diego, California.   (Getty Images)
Julio Rodriguez (44) of the Seattle Mariners points into the stands after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on July 4, 2022, at Petco Park in San Diego, California.  (Getty Images)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

Ulises Cabrera, the agent for Julio Rodriguez, laid out the ground rules when Jerry Dipoto first approached him with the idea of a long-term contract extension in early July.

The answer was a qualified yes.

“I said if we approach this with the typical lens that has been used for everybody else, then it’s probably not going to work,’’ Cabrera said.

The resulting contract, nearly two months in the making and potentially locking up Rodriguez for the next 18 years at a maximum value of $470 million, was described by Dipoto as the most unique and complex he’s ever negotiated. And also the most fun.

Here’s all the two sides needed to accomplish: Make sure that Rodriguez, by bypassing his chance to reach free agency at age 26 and possibly receive the biggest payday in history, didn’t get sold short. And simultaneously, make sure the Mariners weren’t left with franchise-compromising risk if for some unforeseen reason Rodriguez doesn’t live up to the prodigious expectations the 21-year-old has built by virtue of a spectacular rookie season.

In the end, it was a matter of the Mariners betting on Rodriguez to remain the same “wonderful person” that Dipoto described at Saturday’s news conference to announce the contract. And the same transcendent ballplayer that prompted Dipoto to open negotiations halfway through his rookie season, knowing that any further delay would just increase the degree of difficulty.

“The longer you wait, the less likely it is you’re going to get something done,’’ Dipoto said. “The relationship we had with Julio since he was 16 years old has been phenomenal. And we felt like this was the right time. Because waiting a year, waiting two years, two things happen. One, there is a reasonable show of disrespect; and two once you get to the arbitration years, it’s a lot more difficult to do deals of this length and significance. Because once the player is close to entering the system, they tend to drift away, and then the next thing you know, he’s a 26-year-old free agent.”

As much as the Mariners are betting on Rodriguez, he’s betting on himself, to a large extent. Even though Rodriguez may have had a chance to set annual salary records had he gone the traditional six-year route to free agency, J-Rod’s camp negotiated salary sweeteners that are dependent on his performance in MVP voting. It was Rodriguez’s way of telling the Mariners that he had confidence in the ascendancy of his game, and also that he would be motivated to make sure it didn’t wane.

“Initially in negotiations, we did not pin anything on winning MVP,’’ Dipoto said. “That was Julio. Julio wanted us to know that he was intent on doing these things. … I found that remarkable because he could have opted for much easier pathways than having to go out to win MVP awards.

“But when you have the kind of talent he has and the kind of confidence he has in himself, you’re willing to bet on yourself, and he bet on himself. As a result, we gave him a series of bites at the apple based on how far up that food chain he got.”

Rodriguez also bet on the Mariners. He is now inextricably tied to their long-term future, possibly through 2039 if all the player and/or team options are executed. By doing so, he is tacitly endorsing Dipoto’s team-building plan and also is counting on the Mariners to construct a competitive team around him so he doesn’t become the Seattle version of Mike Trout – a richly compensated superstar burdened by a perennially subpar ballclub.

Dipoto said the contract is intentionally structured so that in the early years the Mariners will have payroll flexibility to supplement the roster. And in the later years, when Rodriguez’s salary begins its exponential rise, well, it’s one more example of one of the entities making a calculated risk.

“As the escalators start to kick in, the annual salaries are now a little bit more ambiguous based on what he achieves,’’ Dipoto said. “But we’re betting on ourselves. We’re betting on our market to continue to grow and flourish with a team that we think is flourishing. And, you know, there really is never a time where for the kind of talent that he is, we feel like it’s going to be cumbersome. At no point over the first 12 years of the contract is that even a remote concern.”

Rodriguez’s camp asked for and received full no-trade rights.

“We’ve come to see that even with full no-trade clauses, it can ultimately still end up with players being traded,’’ the agent, Cabrera, said. “But in theory, I think it wouldn’t be consistent for Julio to say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to be a Seattle Mariner for my entire career.’ And then the team say, yes, we’re willing to do that, and then not back that up with some type of written language that comes in the form of a no-trade clause.”

It was jarring to both sides when in the midst of negotiations, news broke that Fernando Tatis, the closest comp to Rodriguez in terms of a mega-contract at a young age (14 years, $430 million at age 22) had been busted for performance-enhancing drugs.

“These things are so delicate, any shift in the wind can make it all go away,’’ Cabrera said. “And so yeah, it was concerning. It was certainly something that could have created a different thought process and [the Mariners] just saying, ‘Hey, let’s pull back on this, let’s just reassess where we’re at.’ … But I think there is supreme confidence in who Julio is.”

Indeed, when asked what made him willing to assess the potential risks and still sign off on a deal of this magnitude, Mariners chairman John Stanton replied, “The person.”

Some budding superstars, most notably Ronald Acuna of the Braves, have signed long-term deals (8 years, $100 million in Acuna’s case) widely believed to have sold him short. Dipoto knew that wouldn’t fly in this case.

“We didn’t want to be the team that offered him something that was insanely club friendly,’’ Dipoto said. “And maybe as importantly, we didn’t want to lose him.”

Which brings us back to the unique, complex – and fun – nature of the negotiations.

“You can’t expect a team to guarantee a ton of money, if he doesn’t have production to validate that,’’ Cabrera said. “And you can’t expect a kid who’s 21 years old, who could potentially be a free agent after 26, to just sign things away and limit himself like some of the other guys have in the industry. So if we’re going to go into this thinking that it’s going to look like something that’s already been done, then the answer probably is, we might as well not waste our time.”

The news conference Saturday, in a room filled with Rodriguez’s teammates and Mariners staff, was proof that the two months of intense negotiations was not wasted. It was a case of both sides simultaneously taking and reducing risks, all of which Dipoto summed up succinctly:

“He will be among the elite in his compensation if he turns out to be among the elite in his play on the field, which is what we were trying to achieve.”

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