Why the Brewers gave Jackson Chourio $80 million before his MLB debut

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Zero big-league at-bats. Nineteen years old. Eight years and $80 million dollars.

Multiple outlets are reporting that the Milwaukee Brewers and minor-league outfielder Jackson Chourio are finalizing what will be a monumental, record-setting extension. Chourio, a consensus top-three prospect in baseball, spent the majority of last season at Double-A Biloxi, where he smacked 22 homers, stole 43 bags and slashed .280/.336/.467 despite being nearly five years younger than the average player at that level. His expected deal would be the highest ever for a player who’s yet to make his MLB debut. 

The Venezuelan phenom doesn’t turn 20 until March and has all the makings of a generational player at a premium position: elite bat speed, enough contact ability for his power to play at the MLB level, 50-steal potential and the pace to hold center field for the next decade. The tools are loud, but the intangibles are just as impressive. Chourio draws rave reviews from coaches, scouts and evaluators across the game for his mature in-game approach, his off-field work-ethic and his overall character. 

This is what a face of the franchise is supposed to look like.

But the contract, which with escalators and options should stretch the max dollar figure well above $100 million, does not come without risk, for both Chourio and the Brewers. If Chourio blossoms into an MVP candidate, there will have been money left on the table. And while a number of young players have signed long extensions in the early days of their MLB careers — Corbin Carroll, Julio Rodriguez and Evan Longoria come to mind — this deal is far and away the longest and richest pact for a player yet to appear in the big leagues. Indeed, only five players have been extended as prospects before making their MLB debut, and the results are quite mixed to say the least.

Singleton, Kingery and White were all disasters for different reasons. Singleton struggled with off-field substance abuse issues, issues he weathered sufficiently enough to make an inspiring comeback with the Astros this season at 31 years old. It’s an incredible story, but the contract itself was an undeniable L for Houston. Kingery had unidentified pitch recognition issues which, alongside a bad relationship with former Phillies manager Joe Girardi and a rash of injuries, all of which limited him to just 52 games over the last four years of his deal. Injuries have also severely stunted White’s development. The now 27-year-old first baseman has played just 84 games in the majors. 

Jimenez has been more of a mixed bag. He has flashed tantalizing middle-of-the-order pop at times during his five-year tenure in Chicago, but injuries and a lack of fitness — which many around the game consider to be related — have left him either unavailable or ineffective. We could see the White Sox pass on his option with another subpar year in 2024.

Robert, on the other hand, has been an absolute steal from the team’s perspective. The 26-year-old Cuban was one of the game’s best center fielders in 2023 and remains one of the few bright spots for an organization wandering through the darkness. Chicago — or another organization if Robert is traded — will almost certainly pick up his two-year option.

Chourio’s deal and how it interacts with the Brewers’ current organization situation, presents a different dynamic than the five preceding pre-debut contracts. None of the Astros, Mariners or Phillies were financially hamstrung by these deals gone bad. The overall dollar figure and payroll hit was small enough that even a mid-market club like Seattle has been able to more or less maneuver around that black hole of cash.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, plays in the league’s single smallest media market and has run a relatively small payroll during its recent cycle of contention. With the shocking departure of former skipper Craig Counsell to the Cubs and the less-shocking departure of exec David Stearns to the Mets, it’s clear the Brewers are entering a new era. Chourio could be one of the higher-paid players on the team’s 2024 roster before he even plays a game. That means, for a penny-pinching outfit like the Brewers, the downside of Chourio “pulling a Kingery” represents a lot more risk.

Still, the risk is worth the gamble. Chourio has a chance to be a perennial All-Star. At worst, he’s a rich-man’s Esteury Ruiz, a good center fielder who racks up steals by the dozen. The two biggest question marks for an untested hitter like Chourio: (1) Can he get his barrel to elite velocity in the bigs? (2) Can he lay off enough big-league breaking stuff? Sources around the game indicate that his numbers against fastballs above 95 were actually better than his overall line. And over the course of the 2023 season, Chourio gradually cut down his chase rate against out-of-zone breaking balls. Nothing can replicate the experience and pressure of big-league pitching, but the underlying data shows Chourio is pretty much as capable a player as can be.

The deal also makes sense for Chourio, who, with the likely option years and MVP escalator incentives, is securing guaranteed money while giving himself the opportunity to earn into a higher range. While he could be limiting his future earnings, it’s hard to fault any 19-year-old for accepting a deal like this.

And for the Brewers, who appear to believe they can contend in the NL Central in 2024, the Chourio deal is an opportunity to re-energize the fan base after Counsell’s astonishing exodus left many Milwaukee ball fans angry and frustrated. If the Crew holds on to Willy Adames and Corbin Burnes, it stands a solid chance to contend in a wide-open NL Central. Either way, the upshot here is that the Brewers, an organization that has to operate with a smaller budget, is committing to a player that could, in a few years, be one of the brightest stars in the entire sport.

It’s a new era in the cream city.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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