Extensions for pre-arb players looking sensible
Recent successes may be reason for large increase in contracts
Extension Season, as it ought to be known, appears to be winding down.But it has impacted 39 players since the beginning of the calendar year, with 20 of those players receiving contract extensions for four or more years and one -- Joey Votto -- getting a gargantuan 10-year, $225 million commitment from the Reds. And one noteworthy takeaway from Extension Season revolves around the youth of the players involved. Ten of the extendees were pre-arbitration players (players with fewer than three years of service time who did not qualify for "Super Two" status): Madison Bumgarner, Alcides Escobar, Derek Holland, Jonathan Lucroy, Cory Luebke, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, Jon Niese, Salvador Perez and Carlos Santana. Two other pre-arb players -- Sergio Santos and Matt Moore -- also signed extensions since the end of last season. Compare that with the 2010-11 offseason, when the number of pre-arb extensions was five, according to mlbtraderumors.com, and the year before that, when the number was seven, and you see that while the trend of locking up young players not long after their Major League debuts is not a new one, it does appear to be a rising one, particularly among lower-revenue clubs. And it's rising for a variety of reasons. "Between the influx of higher national media money going to the teams and higher local media money going to some teams now and some teams soon," said agent Brian Goldberg, who negotiated Maybin's deal with the Padres, "that's probably the main reason why teams have been approaching players to do that more often lately." And then, of course, there are the potentially punitive costs of the arbitration process. This winter, 142 players who were eligible for arbitration came out with, on average, an 89-percent rise in their salaries, according to The Associated Press. Rather than having that jump subjected to the vagaries of player performance and an always evolving comparable contract marketplace, some teams see the benefit of attaining a semblance of cost certainty going forward.
Extensions signed in 2012
|Player||Team||Years||Amount (in millions)||Service Time|
|Brandon Morrow||Blue Jays||3||$21||4.091|
|Casey Janssen||Blue Jays||2||$5.9||5.063|
|Dustin McGowan||Blue Jays||2||$3.5||5.113|
For the clubs, it comes down to risk-tolerance. And while the risk can be greater when the extension involves a player still largely unproven at the Major League level, the financial parameters can prove negligible if the player lives up to his potential and even, in some cases, if he doesn't. The Indians are regarded as pioneers in the department of locking up core players before they hit free agency, having engineered the process to their advantage in the building of their mid-1990s powerhouses, but the Rockies, Rays and Brewers took it to a new level in 2008. First, the Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year, $31 million extension just 180 games into his Major League career. Then, the Rays signed Evan Longoria to a six-year, $17.5 million guaranteed commitment (with three option years tacked on) just six games into his career. Finally, the Brewers inked Ryan Braun to an eight-year, $45 million extension with 154 games to his name. In the time since, both Tulowitzki's and Braun's contracts have been extended through 2020. So while the Rox and Brewers received more than adequate value from their initial investment, they've taken on added risk for the players' post-prime years. The Longoria contract, meanwhile, has proven to be the best bargain in baseball. Even if, heaven forbid, Longoria suffered a debilitating injury tomorrow and never played another game for the Rays, they've gotten much more than their money's worth over the course of the deal. And that's one reason the club was willing to roll the dice once again with a five-year, $14 million commitment to Moore, just 19 innings into his big league career. Naturally, Longoria's is an extreme case. "No club goes into it looking to have the best contract ever," Indians president Mark Shapiro said. "If you look at the balance of them, you hope they work out to be somewhat fair for both sides." Shapiro was part of a particularly illustrative case. Center fielder Grady Sizemore signed a six-year, $23.45 million deal with the Indians with fewer than two years of service time, and it was, at the time, the largest commitment ever given to a pre-arbitration player. For three years, as Sizemore attained All-Star and Gold Glove status, it was among the most club-friendly contracts in the game (one agent referred to it as the "Sizeless" contract when instructing his players on the value of getting to free agency as quickly as possible). But when injuries began to pile up and Sizemore struggled to stay on the field, the benefits of the deal shifted to the player. Over the course of the six years, the Indians got 23.5 wins above replacement (as calculated by FanGraphs.com) out of Sizemore -- or about one win per $1 million spent. If we compare that to the estimated worth of a win in free agency (FanGraphs places this value at about $5 million), then the Indians still got tremendous bang for their buck, injuries and all. And Sizemore got cost certainty, even as his days on the disabled list piled up. "Some work out well for the players, and some work out well for the club," Shapiro said. "But going into it, you're looking to find the acceptable level of risk for each side." Beyond Braun, Longoria and Moore, four players with less than one year of service time, according to Cot's Contracts, have received extensions with an average annual value of $1.1 million or more -- CC Sabathia ($2.375 million annually, on average, from 2002-05), Salvador Perez ($1.4 million annually from 2012-16), Roy Halladay ($1.23 million from 2000-02) and Brandon Webb ($1.1 million from 2004-06). The jury is still out on Perez, the Royals catcher who is out until midseason with a knee injury, but the other three all proved to be big bargains. Cot's lists five players who received at least $4 million annually in extensions signed when they had between one and two years of service time. The Indians' Santana ($4.2 million average through 2016), is the latest, while the D-backs' Chris Young ($5.6 million average from 2009-13) received the largest commitment. Young, currently out with a shoulder injury, is a dynamic talent with three 20-plus homer seasons, so the investment has seemed worthwhile, though Young is now at the point where his cost to the club is rising and his performance must rise accordingly. Tulowitzki ($5.2 million average from 2008-13) is next on this list, followed by Nomar Garciaparra ($4.7 million average from 1998-2002) and Brian McCann ($4.5 million average from 2007-12). All of those proved club-friendly. And among those between two and three years of service time, the 10 largest average annual values have gone to Hanley Ramirez ($11.7, 2009-14), Tim Lincecum ($11.5 million, 2010-11), Carlos Gonzalez ($11.4 million, 2011-17), David Wright ($9.2 million, 2007-12), Andrew McCutchen ($8.6 million, 2012-17), Justin Upton ($8.5 million, 2010-15), Jay Bruce ($8.5 million, 2011-16), Gio Gonzalez ($8.4 million, 2012-16), Pat Burrell ($8.3 million, 2003-08) and Robinson Cano ($7.5 million, 2008-11). Only the Lincecum, Wright, Burrell and Cano contracts from that list can be fairly evaluated at this point. And while Wright is coming off an injury-plagued 2011 and Burrell was a steady power producer, though not a superstar, for the Phillies, it's fairly safe to assume the Giants, Mets, Phils and Yankees would, in hindsight, sign up to do those deals again. So if the largest contracts given to pre-arb players have generally worked out, teams should feel fairly confident in going down that road with players their internal evaluators have identified as core pieces, right? Well, that all depends. After all, the costs of getting these deals done is increasing, as players point to the growing list of comparables. And as those costs climb, the level of risk shifts more toward the team than the player. "While both sides do their best to fairly predict what may happen," said Goldberg, "almost all of these contracts, by the time they're done, are not a 100-percent accurate reflection of what has happened. Both sides have to be comfortable with that." And if Extension Season has taught us anything, it's that plenty of clubs and players are comfortable with that equation.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.