Nationals, Keibert Ruiz Agree to eight-year extension

The Nationals are in agreement with the 24-year-old backstop Keibert Ruiz to an eight-year contract extension that guarantees $50M, as first reported by Wow Deportes (Twitter link). Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post (Twitter link) reports that the contract also contains two club options. The Nationals are expected to officially announce the deal tomorrow, writes Mark Zuckerman of Ruiz is an Octagon client.

It’s a long-term commitment from the rebuilding club to a player they consider a franchise winner. Washington acquired the new Ruiz at the 2021 trade deadline as part of the blockbuster hit that sent Trea Turner and Max Schercher to the Dodgers. Ruiz and starter Josiah Gray four player comeback title. Both were top-tier prospects, and Ruiz would look to be Washington’s primary backstop until the end of the ’21 campaign.

After playing in 23 straight games, Ruiz earned the nod as the Opening Day catcher last season. He played in 112 games and made 433 appearances, although his season was cut short when he had to be hospitalized after being hit in the groin by a foul. Before that unfortunate conclusion, Ruiz hit .251/.313/.360 in his first full season at the major league level. That offense was a bit better than the average catcher, with a league hitting .228/.295/.368 line from the position.

Ruiz didn’t hit for a ton of power, connecting on just seven home runs. He drew walks in a modest 6.9% of his trips to the plate. However, Ruiz displayed excellent net contact skills, striking out in less than 12% of his plate appearances while putting the bat on the ball in 86.3% of his swings. Only the Blue Jays star Alejandro Kirk showed comparable contact skills at the position.

Putting the ball in play has been Ruiz’s calling card throughout his professional career. The native of Venezuela appeared among the top prospect lists for a few seasons during his time in the Los Angeles farm system. Evaluators have long praised his hit tool, though reviews of his upside and defensive acumen have been more middling.

According to public metrics, Ruiz’s defensive performance as a rookie was mixed. Statcast pegged him as a slightly below-average pitch framer. However, he was rated positively for his ability to keep the ball in front of him. Statcast estimated that he blocked five more pitches than average during his 865 plate appearances. His four past balls were manageable. He did a good job controlling the run game, throwing out 28.2% of his punt attempts (more than three percent higher than his league mark).

While Ruiz isn’t a finished product, his rookie season was more or less in line with his long-term prospect profile. He proved that his top contact skills can translate against big league pitching and handled things well defensively. The Nats are certainly hopeful that he will tap into a little more impact out of the base over time. He had connected on 21 home runs in 72 Triple-A contests in 2021, and while that was certainly aided by a favorable offensive environment, it suggests at least double-digit homer potential for Ruiz at the MLB level.

Ruiz had between one and two years of service time. He wouldn’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2024 campaign and didn’t head to free agency until the 2027-28 offseason. That deal precludes any possibility of him going through arbitration and buys out at least three years of free agency. If the club exercises both options, it would extend its control window by five seasons in a deal that could reach a decade in length.

It is technically the third largest guarantee for a player on this service. Ke’Bryan Hayes holds the official record with last spring’s eight-year, $70MM extension with the Pirates. Andrelton Simmons made $58M over seven seasons in a 2014 extension with the Braves. Michael Harris signed an eight-year, $72 million deal with Atlanta last summer that, for all intents and purposes, is also part of the utility pool. Harris technically had less than a year of service left at the time of his deal, though he was certain to finish in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting and secure a full year of service by the time he signs in August.

Ruiz’s guarantee checks in just south of the Hayes and Harris contracts, though one could argue that the latter two players were safer bets. Harris and Hayes are excellent defenders and have played a bit more aggressively than Ruiz has to date, even if each has some questions about their overall impact potential at the plate. Early career extensions for arrests were not particularly common. Ruiz becomes the first backstop with less than three years of service to sign an extension since then Roberto Perez in April 2017.

In exchange for the upfront security, Ruiz is giving up some long-term earning potential. This is the case with any early career extension of this type, although the potential ten-year tenure makes it especially true in this case. If Washington exercises both options, Ruiz would not reach free agency until well into his age-34 campaign. Had he progressed year-to-year through arbitration, he would have first qualified for free agency at age 29.

Of course, doing so would run the risk of injuries or poor performance derailing his career. Ruiz wasn’t a high-profile amateur signing, signing for just $140,000 in 2014. It’s easy to understand the appeal of avoiding risk and securing the first payday of his life-changing career.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are locking up a key player whose aging curve aligns with when the club needs to be more equipped to deal. They are due for another non-competitive season in 2023 and look unlikely to compete until next year. However, Ruiz is now locked up for a few years into the 2030s, and the club obviously expects to have plenty of opportunities to compete for a playoff spot in the medium to long term.

The financial collapse of the contract has yet to be reported. The deal has an average annual value of $6.25 million that will count evenly against the luxury tax ledger over its lifetime. This is not a concern in the short term. Washington’s projected payroll for 2023 is more than $100 million south of this year’s cap. However, the organization has paid the CBT in years past, so it’s not out of the question that they could push toward that limit again a few years down the line if the team’s competitive window comes into clearer view. Continued uncertainty about the Lerner family’s ownership plans clouds the picture, though ownership is clearly at least willing to sign off on future-oriented moves of this nature.

Washington will continue to audition younger players to hopefully join Ruiz in the core over the next two seasons. Grey, near stop CJ Abramsleft handed Mackenzie Gore and debut prospects, such as James Wood and Robert Hassell have joined the organization in deadline blockbusters. Right handed Cade Cavalli he is a former first round pick and a very valuable pitching prospect. Of course, not everyone in this group will be successful, but there is now no shortage of intriguing players who will try to establish themselves at Nationals Park in the coming seasons.

Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.

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