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Looking at a potential Tyler Mahle contract

I wanted to see if I could come up with a creative way to sign Tyler Mahle, even though he’s missing at least part of 2024.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The other day, J.P asked us writers what we thought about signing Tyler Mahle. I hadn’t given him any thought at the time and dismissed him. But I thought a little more, and an incentive-laden one-year deal made sense to me. But what exactly does such a contract actually look like? It’s clear whatever deal he signs will have innings bonuses, but what’s the base salary? I wanted to find out.

Full disclosure: I’ll show my work, but I probably am going to present a more complicated deal than is strictly needed. And the main reason why is because it was fun to do. That’s the whole reason. Some team might give him a one-year, guaranteed deal with no incentives necessary, but that team won’t be the Cardinals and it’s also boring.

First things first, Tyler Mahle had Tommy John surgery on May 22nd. That means there’s a roughly zero percent chance he’ll be ready on Opening Day. Tommy John surgery recovery can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. This is a rather wide range and in fact 18 months means he wouldn’t pitch at all. I believe this is Mahle’s first Tommy John so it is reasonable to assume he won’t require an 18 month recovery.

When considering a base salary, I asked myself “what is a reasonable estimate of recovery time where we can be pretty sure he’ll return?” And I landed at a 14-month recovery. I think you can guarantee Mahle a salary with the expectation that he will give you about two months worth of starts. The rest is where incentives come into play.

Onto his projection, his 2024 projection was originally 2.1 WAR over 129.2 IP. Injuries negatively impact projections. My gut feeling was to knock off half a win, if you assume the same amount of innings, which you obviously can’t. And I confirmed those feelings by looking at John Mean. He was at 2.3 WAR in 147 IP for 2022, then had Tommy John and his new projection was 1.1 WAR over 111 innings (which would have been 1.6 in 147). Now Means probably had a slightly worse projection for the following year, so about half a win does indeed sound right.

That projection also assumes 5.4 innings per start, and I think that should be reduced to 5 innings per start. Thus, I think you can pay Tyler Mahle a guaranteed salary based on 10 starts and 50 innings. Which, by my updated projection, would be 0.6 WAR, or $6 million.

The “upside” of the deal, if you will is that he takes exactly 12 months to recover and is pitching in the majors on June 1st. Something like 20 starts. And honestly if he’s really back that early, you can probably assume more than 5 innings per start. But 100 innings will be the upper end of the innings bonus.

So, we have what I feel is a reasonably conservative estimate of how many starts he can make (10) and a reasonably optimistic estimate of how many starts he can make. We can’t pay Mahle based on the conservative estimate, nor on the optimistic estimate but we can take the middle ground. Guarantee him the conservative estimate with incentives that could give him the middle ground. I don’t really think he would do better than that (on a one-year deal anyway), because no team will assume best case.

Based on that structure, here’s the deal I came up with: 1 year, $4 million base salary. He’ll get a $1 million bonus when he reaches the following milestones: 1 game pitched, 25 innings, 50 innings, 75 innings, 100 innings. I’d also tack on a $1 million bonus if he wins Comeback Player of the Year, which would be extremely minor because he’s worth $10 million if he wins that.

I’m not done. As I said, I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be. That’s right. We’re going full Padres on this one. I, as the Cardinals, would like a little more upside on this deal. And Mahle probably wants a little bit more security if things go badly. So we’ll have a somewhat complicated 2nd option year.

The 2025 option year will start at a $5 million player option. Each time he reaches the milestones above, it’ll have the same effect on 2025 as it did on 2024. So if he throws 100 innings, it’ll be a $10 million player option. If he throws 50 innings, it’ll be an $8 million player option. If things go even remotely okay, he’s not likely to accept this.

But once the player option is rejected, the Cardinals have a team option of their own. This option does not start at $5 million though. It starts at $15 million. And same exact thing: each milestone reached is a $1 million bonus. Hypothetically it can be maxed at $21 million. And now that I’ve brought this up, there’s another element to this deal: the buyout, if it comes to pass. Which is to say, we can guarantee Mahle at least $4 million without the base salary of 2024 being $4 million. Let’s make it a $2 million buyout and we’ll add $1 million each if he reaches 50 IP and 100 IP

So basically here’s the deal:

2024: 1 year, $2 million

$1 million each if milestones are reached: 1 GP, 25 IP, 50 IP, 75 IP, 100 IP, Comeback Player of the Year

2025 Player option for 1 year, $5 million

$1 million added for each milestone: 1 GP, 25 IP, 50 IP, 75 IP, 100 IP, Comeback Player of the Year

If rejected 2025 Team option for 1 year, $15 million ($2 million buyout, add $1 million for 50 IP, 100 IP)

$1 million added for each milestone: 1 GP, 25 IP, 50 IP, 75 IP, 100 IP, Comeback Player of the Year

The potential outcomes are he doesn’t pitch at all in 2024, in which case the Cardinals pay him $2 million in 2024 and I still don’t really think he’d take a 1 year, $5 million option, so likely the Cardinals punt $4 million for 0 innings pitched. Big whoop. If he somehow takes 1 year, $5 million that’s not really terrible either.

The second bad outcome is that he doesn’t pitch very well and takes the player option, but a year removed from Tommy John, I don’t know that 1 year, $7 or 8 or 9 million deal is really the worst use of funds for a 30-year-old pitcher. Just think of it as reliever money not actually used on a reliever.

As far as good outcomes, him rejecting the player option likely means he pitched at least fine, so even if the Cardinals don’t feel he’s worth a 1 year, $17-$20 million investment, they’ll get a decent starter for $10 million or less, much needed this year. And obviously the best case is that the Cardinals enthusiastically accept the team option and then for the year after, give him the qualified offer.

What do you think? Would you take this deal? Would Mahle take this deal? Mahle will still be just 29 next year, which means he’d still enter free agency at 31-years-old (possibly saddled with a QO, but still)