Inside Pitch: Teams lock up young talent
Growing number of players land contracts early in careers
Teams have been less willing to deal their top prospects in recent years, a trend that has killed several potential trades.
Another trend that underscores the rising value of top young talent is the growing number of teams more willing to lock up club control players to contracts covering five years or more.
Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who received a six-year extension worth $70 million over the weekend, is the latest in a growing class of players who have landed fat contracts without having pending free agency as bargaining leverage.
Ramirez is one of seven players with fewer than three years of Major League service, or who were under club control, to sign an extension covering five years or more during the past 15 months.
Milwaukee left fielder Ryan Braun ($45 million over eight years), Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki ($31 million over six years), Atlanta catcher Brian McCann ($26.8 million over six years), Detroit center fielder Curtis Granderson ($30.25 million over five years), Arizona center fielder Chris Young ($28 million over five years) and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, who landed a six-year, $17.5 million extension last month despite having spent just one week in the Major Leagues, are others who landed lengthy extensions years away from free agency.
Fourteen players with fewer than three years of service have signed extensions since Jan. 1, and half were for less than five years.
Players aren't eligible for arbitration until they've been in the Major Leagues for three years. After three more years a player can elect to become a free agent.
Arbitration can be expensive. The Phillies, for example, lost their arbitration case this year with slugger Ryan Howard, who was awarded $10 million.
By signing a player before he reaches arbitration, teams can have cost certainty over those unpredictable and typically most expensive years of a player's career. The player gets security sooner rather than later, though perhaps not the payday he would have received had he tested free agency.
"John Hart started that years ago in Cleveland and did very well with it," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "Certain clubs obviously are trying to do it more and more now and I can't say that's wrong."
The Indians have been the forerunners of the practice since Hart started the practice and current Indians GM Mark Shapiro continued it. Among the players with fewer than three years experience who Shapiro signed to long-term extensions were Grady Sizemore ($23.4 million over six years), Victor Martinez ($15.5 million over five years), Cliff Lee ($15 million over four years), Jhonny Peralta ($13 million over five years), C.C. Sabathia ($9.5 million over four years) and Fausto Carmona ($15 million over four years).
Other teams have taken notice.
Hendry would consider it in some instances, but as with any long-term commitment, there are risks.
"Obviously, if people stay healthy and continue to perform up to the way they are when they're getting these deals then there's obviously a cost savings, and the flip side of that is the player obviously gets tremendous security for the first time after a short Major League career," Hendry said. "It's a risk and reward probably for both [sides]. They're good deals for the club if the player performs well and stays healthy and they're not if somebody breaks down. Durability is something you can't answer definitely. A guy can be completely healthy and all of sudden he needs major knee surgery or he blows out his elbow."
There's always the risk that the player will get injured or won't continue to perform at the level he did in his first year or two.
"I think the Brewers did a very smart thing [securing] Braun's arbitration and first two years of free agency," an AL scout said. "The year he had last year [when Braun won the National League Rookie of the Year Award], he keeps that up they never would have been able to re-sign him as a free agent. No way. Same thing with [Hanley Ramirez]."
The Brewers will pay Braun $10 million for 2014 and $12 million in what would have been his first two years of free agency.
"Relative to the state of baseball, there's a little bit of a sea change here," Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said at the press conference announcing Braun's contract. "There's been a number of young players now who are getting signed, and I think what you see is there's a real economic incentive on both sides to do something."
Ramirez would have been arbitration-eligible after the season.
Now the Marlins have one of the game's best players signed through his three arbitration years plus at least three years of free agency.
Lance Berkman's incredible start this year is in sharp contrast to what the Astros first baseman did in 2007, when he hit .253 in April and .237 in May. He had six homers, 28 RBIs and seven extra-base hits during April and May last season. Berkman is hitting .382 with 16 homers, 44 RBIs and 33 extra-base hits entering play Thursday.
Such a sharp drop sometimes can be attributed to injury, but Berkman said that wasn't the case last year.
"Mechanically I was off, physically I was fine," Berkman said. "This is my [eighth] full season. I've gotten off to really good starts four or five of those years. One year I was hurt with the knee. I've gotten off to a bad start twice. How can you explain any of that? I don't know. I hit .278 [last season] which was a career low, but I don't put a lot of stock in batting average, either. If I drive in a hundred [RBIs] and hit 30 home runs, I feel like I've done my job."
So what's his theory on the turnaround from one May to the next?
"I wish I knew because then I would do it the same every year," Berkman said.
Former Astros second baseman Craig Biggio is coaching high school baseball in Houston, a first step in his post-playing career that some think will eventually lead to Biggio getting back into the pro game as a field manager.
Arizona's Brandon Webb has nine wins and figures to get perhaps two more starts this month. Though he lost to Florida on Wednesday night, the Arizona right-hander remains on a pace that has him in select company.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau Steve Carlton had five wins at the end of May, 1972, en route to 27 that year. Detroit's Denny McLain had eight at the end of May in his 31-win season in 1968. Sandy Koufax had seven in 1963 and finished with 25, seven in '65 on his way to 26 and eight in '66, when he wound up winning 27.
Webb is also ahead of the pace set by Bob Welch (27 wins in 1990), Ron Guidry (25 in 1978), Ferguson Jenkins and Catfish Hunter (both won 25 in 1974) and Tom Seaver (25 in 1969).
San Diego GM Kevin Towers is frustrated with his team's poor showing. The Padres, 17-31 entering Thursday night's game against Cincinnati, have the worst record in baseball.
"We're bad, no question about it," Towers said. "You can't just say it's early in the season. I haven't seen any signs in the last couple weeks that lead me to believe or our fans to believe we're going to turn this thing around.
"It's up to the guys in this clubhouse. I am certainly not going to watch this for four more months."
The Padres have lost 25 of their last 34 games. They lost their ace, Jake Peavy, to the disabled list this week.
"You're looking for even a little bit of progress," Towers said. "It's like Groundhog's Day, over and over." "To me, when I wake up and look at the box score and see San Diego at the bottom, that hurts. Seeing where we're at in the standings, it's a reflection on all of us. I just hope we all have the same feeling when we wake up and look at the box score. If we don't, then you shouldn't be here."
The Yankees, last in the American League East, are four games under .500. That's nothing compared to last year's deficit, when the team was 14 1/2 games out of first place and eight games under .500 on May 29 before going on to win 94 games.
"They haven't had [Alex Rodriguez] and [Jorge] Posada, and their starting pitching hasn't been as good as they thought," one AL scout said. "They should be fine when they get everybody healthy. The difference this year is that division is tougher. I don't see them getting  wins against the four [other AL East teams] this time. I don't think they're going to have a much tougher time."
Last year the Yankees were 39-33 against AL East teams and a combined 25-4 against Cleveland, Texas, Kansas City and Minnesota. The Yankees haven't faced Minnesota or Texas yet this season, and are already 4-6 against the Indians and Royals.
Justin Verlander went 18-6 with a 3.66 ERA last season but this year the Detroit right-hander is 2-7 with a 5.61 ERA. He's allowed 38 earned runs, the most in the American League.
"I think his velocity is down a bit, so he overthrows to compensate and when you do that, it affects control," an AL scout said.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.