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Is Mike Moustakas playing his way into a big contract?

Third baseman don't typically break the bank.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014,  Mike Moustakas hit rock-bottom, professionally. He put up a line of .214/.271/.361, the eighth-worst OPS in baseball that year. He was befuddled by radical defensive alignments that seemingly turned every hard-hit ball to the right side into an out. Determined to save his career, Moustakas decided he would begin trying to hit the ball to the opposite field. And it made all the difference in the world.

Last year, Mike Moustakas was a revelation. His .284/.348/.470 was the sixth-best in baseball for a third baseman, and he earned his first All-Star appearance. You might expect him to regress to old habits this year, and the number of balls he has pulled has risen slightly, although not quite to his 2014 numbers. However the number of balls he has hit the opposite field has actually increased (while the balls he has hit up the middle has gone down), suggesting he is still doing a good job of hitting the ball to all fields.

The interesting thing about this year is that Moose is hitting the ball for more power than ever. He already has seven home runs this month, equaling a career high in a month. Since August 1 of last year, Mike Moustakas is hitting .281/.353/.577 with 19 home runs in 73 games. Selective end points, sure, but if Moose has really turned the corner, they have a pretty valuable player on their hands.

But of course, with small market teams, the question is - can we keep him?

It all depends on whether he can keep this up. Remember, it was just two years ago in May that Mike Moustakas was demoted to Omaha. It has only been very recently that he has been a productive third baseman. Still, he has always been a solid defender, and when he hits free agency after the 2017 season, he will be just 29 years old. If he is able to put up two more productive seasons before free agency, should Mike Moustakas expect a big pay day?

Thus far in his career, Mike Moustakas has been a .248/.304/.406 hitter, with 10.5 fWAR in just over five seasons. With his production this year, ZIPS projects him to be a 3.9 fWAR player this year. If he can put up another 3-5 WAR season in 2017, he will be trending in the right direction.

Moose will enter free agent with a number of third baseman, which could flood the market. Teams will have to weigh Moustakas against Todd Frazier, Jung-Ho Kang, Trevor Plouffe, and Brett Lawrie to decide who makes the best fit, both on the field and in the payroll. With Scott Boras as his agent, Moose will have to be careful not to out-price himself in the market.

There is not a strong track record of free agent contracts in the market recently. In the past ten years, I could only find two free agent third basemen under the age of 30 who signed long-term contracts - Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley. Sandoval signed a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston before the 2015 season, after hitting .294/.346/.465 with 106 home runs in 869 games, and 20.2 fWAR with San Francisco. Chase Headley re-signed with the Yankees for a four year, $52 million deal before the 2015 season after hitting .265/.347/.409 with 93 home runs in 96 games and 23.1 rWAR. Both Sandoval and Headley had put up two or more 4+ WAR seasons in their career, something Moustakas still has yet to do.

Kyle Seager of the Mariners and Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals have both signed long-term deals before they hit arbitration. Kyle Seager was around a 4 rWAR player right out of the gate, prompting Seattle to sign him to a seven year, $100 million contract before the 2014 season. Carpenter was immediately a sensation in St. Louis, signing a six-year, $52 million deal before the 2014 season, just after he finished fourth in MVP voting.

It would probably take a big spike in performance over the next two years for Moustakas to expect a contract anywhere near these numbers. What, exactly, he should expect is hard to estimate. Aside from top shelf talent, teams have been reluctant to commit to third basemen. Former All-Star David Freese was only able to get a one-year contract this past winter after turning down a Qualifying Offer. Slugger Mark Reynolds was only able to get a one-year offer from Cleveland when he reached free agency for the first time in 2012. Pedro Alvarez, who is really a third baseman in name only, was non-tendered and received just a one-year offer from the Orioles. There simply has not been much of a middle-class for free agent third basemen.

Mike Moustakas probably falls in the middle of these two groups, as a player young enough to have a few more good years in him, but without a consistent track record under his belt to command a large deal. A good comparison might be Chone Figgins, who at age 31 signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners before the 2010 season. Figgins was a much different kind of player than Moustakas - he was not much of a power hitter, but could get on base a lot and use his tremendous speed. However like Moose, he was a guy that started slowly and trended upwards before hitting free agency. Figgins was lauded as tremendous defender that provided much of the value of his monster 6.5 fWAR season just before he signed his deal with Seattle.

Moustakas can probably expect a similar four-year deal, and with salary inflation, we can probably bump his figures up to around $40-45 million if he continues on his current trend. With his youth, you could even throw in an option year at the end at around $10-14 million. That could be workable for the Royals, although they may find they need to use their resources to fill other needs, particularly if they feel Cheslor Cuthbert or Hunter Dozier could be the solution at third.

However, even if his new approach translates into a big season, we should not really expect Moustakas to break the bank. The Royals may indeed be committed to keeping this team together longer than the two-year window they have most of the team under control. If so, it should not necessarily be cost-prohibitive to keep Moose in Royal blue into his 30s.