Who is Jackson Chourio? Explaining the logic behind and ripple effects of the Brewers' record-setting deal with their top prospect

The Milwaukee Brewers have reportedly signed top prospect Jackson Chourio to an eight-year, $82 million extension, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan. That $82 million figure is guaranteed, but the deal could reach up to $142.5 million based on option years and escalators in Chourio's contract.

The record-setting deal marks the continuation of MLB teams’ increasing confidence and early investment in their youngest potential stars. It makes Chourio one of the most fascinating, most pivotal players in the National League in 2024, and it could have ripple effects for the rest of the offseason.

So let’s start from square one. What makes this teenager, who spent most of 2023 playing Double-A ball in Biloxi, Mississippi, so special? And what does the deal mean for the Brewers?

Who is Jackson Chourio?

A 19-year-old center fielder from Venezuela, Chourio is an exciting prospect who blends a fast bat and fast feet. After posting a .286 batting average, 47 homers and 68 stolen bases across 272 games in the minors, while perpetually playing against older competition, Chourio is viewed as a potential star.

He blitzed the minors in 2022, going from intriguing teenager to top-10 overall prospect and reaching Double-A. He played virtually all of 2023 at Double-A before getting a taste of Triple-A in September. Right now, he's batting .379 in the Venezuelan Winter League against competitors who are, on average, 9 years his senior.

Set to turn 20 in March, Chourio now figures to open the season both as the Brewers’ No. 1 prospect and in their major-league lineup. The list of recent hitters who have accrued significant playing time in MLB before turning 21, as Chourio now appears set to do, is short and prestigious. Since 2010, only nine hitters have played 100 or more games before their 21st birthdays: Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Starlin Castro, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rougned Odor, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Giancarlo Stanton.

Together, those nine account for seven MVP awards. Only one (Odor) has not made multiple All-Star Games. Chourio has a lot to prove before he actually achieves any of that, but his mere presence among this group is certainly a good sign.

And he’s signing a contract before debuting in the majors?

Yes, a record contract. Chourio is only the sixth player to sign a guaranteed deal before making his MLB debut, and his $82 million deal is the largest of the bunch, surpassing fellow center fielder Luis Robert Jr.'s six-year, $50 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. Like Robert's, Chourio's deal reportedly includes two team options on the back end that will likely be exercised if he turns into the type of player the Brewers expect and remains healthy.

Here’s the list of pre-debut contracts:

Chourio, Brewers center fielder: eight years, $82 million with two club options

Robert, White Sox center fielder: six years, $50 million with two club options

Evan White, Seattle Mariners first baseman: six years, $24 million with three club options

Eloy Jimenez, White Sox outfielder: six years, $43 million with two club options

Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman: six years, $24 million with three club options

Jon Singleton, Houston Astros first baseman: five years, $10 million

A host of other players have signed early deals less than a year after debuting, including Corbin Carroll last spring and superstars such as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Julio Rodríguez.

Why would this deal happen now?

The impetus for teams to do deals such as this has to do with how young players are paid under the normal process and how bright a team believes their futures to be. A player in his first six years of major-league service is paid the major-league minimum, or he receives raises at the team’s discretion for either two or three years, depending on how early he arrives in his first season. For the rest of his time under team control, he is subject to the arbitration process, which uses past precedents and statistics to assign salaries on a year-by-year basis. After those six years of service are up, he can hit the open market.

If a team such as the Brewers believes they are about to summon an All-Star-caliber performer, especially one who will be so young upon arrival, it makes sense for them to see if they can both achieve cost certainty and potentially extend his time with the team. The best young players can earn real paydays in arbitration. Mookie Betts, for instance, landed on figures of $10.5 million, then $20 million, then $27 million in his three seasons going through the process. San Diego Padres outfielder Juan Soto, who also debuted at a very young age, is projected to make more than $30 million this season, his last before hitting the free-agent market.

For players, extensions such as this run the risk of undershooting their true potential — Acuña’s eight-year, $100 million deal with Atlanta is an example of that — but secure them life-changing money, a guarantee the typical process cannot make. Due to injury or underperformance or both, players such as Kingery and Singleton would not have achieved the same salaries if they had gone year-to-year and posted the same performances.

What does this record contract say about Chourio?

The shape of Chourio’s contract reflects his status as one of the sport’s most exciting young talents, with emphasis on the “young.” While public prospect lists from industry evaluators won’t be released until January at the earliest, Chourio appears to be tracking for top-10 placement in all of baseball.

That mirrors where Robert and Jimenez stood when they signed their standard-bearing deals in Chicago. Chourio, however, has the advantage of age. A 20-year-old has the advantage of impending growth, sure, but also the advantage of leverage. Chourio’s free-agent years, some of which the Brewers are buying out, would’ve begun when he was only 26, rarified and lucrative territory if his career even sniffs the level of expectations.

Also of note: Chourio figured to make a push for the majors early in 2023 regardless of his contract status, but the collective bargaining agreement signed ahead of 2022 offers incentives to teams that carry on their Opening Day rosters prospects who go on to factor into Rookie of the Year, MVP or Cy Young races.

What does this deal say about the Brewers’ offseason?

It at least sends a message that the Brewers aren't intending to enter a rebuild. A lot of signs are pointing toward a step back for the defending NL Central champions. Hailed manager Craig Counsell departed for the rival Chicago Cubs, and the Brewers non-tendered injured pitcher Brandon Woodruff as trade rumors swirl around ace Corbin Burnes, who is one year from free agency, and shortstop Willy Adames.

Still, the Brewers have been relentlessly competitive since 2018, making the playoffs in five of six seasons despite Opening Day payroll rankings that range from 18th to 26th. They are in the middle of the largest commitment in franchise history — Christian Yelich’s nine-year, $215 million extension — and they have several promising or outright good, young pieces — most notably breakout catcher William Contreras — who could form the backbone of a competitive core even if Burnes is moved. The choice to promote bench coach Pat Murphy into the managerial seat also leant itself to continuity, not a reset.

Of course, signing Chourio doesn't telegraph what the Brewers will do with veterans such as Burnes or Adames, whom they perhaps believe they will not retain on the open market, but their motivations appear geared toward continuing to press for NL Central supremacy, rather than taking a concerted step back.

Anything else I should know about Chourio?

Be careful if you’re trying to scout his stat line.

In his first season in the national prospect spotlight, Chourio slogged through a relatively slow start at Double-A that overlapped neatly with the Southern League's MLB-implemented experiment with pre-tacked baseballs, which reportedly had the effect of creating more movement on pitches.

His slash line with the stickier baseballs — from Opening Day through July 13, the end of the test — was .249/.304/.410, 12% below average for that league, by wRC+. From July 14 until Sept. 16, when Chourio was promoted to Triple-A, he batted .323/.380/.544, 44% better than average. That, combined with reports that shine an optimistic light on his existing ability to smash the baseball at very high exit velocities, provides a lot of positive signs that Chourio will be a good major-leaguer with more power potentially on the way as his body fills out.

Still, there are legitimate questions about his pitch-recognition skills, which might lead him to swing too often at bad pitches or whiff too often on breaking balls against better competition. That’s a common issue, especially for players this young, but it’s something to watch as he moves toward high-pressure at-bats in the majors more rapidly than he might’ve otherwise.

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