As their share of baseball’s revenue pie continues to shrink, and methods to suppress their earnings proliferate, 22 emerging or established Major League Baseball stars waved something that looked like a white flag this spring.
Free agency as they knew it already was broken before this group of nearly two dozen players opted for long-term security via contract extensions now, rather than dance with the game’s wounded golden goose.
There’s no fighting City Hall: MLB players are stuck with this Collective Bargaining Agreement through 2021. So, cue the big tradeoff: Accepting nearly $1.7 billion in salary – while forfeiting 71 potential seasons of free agency.
If freedom ain’t what it used to be, players are left to make the best of what’s still around.
“The free agent process has changed,” says Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who received a $210 million deal on the open market before the 2015 season. “Teams used to covet players, marquee players, and be aggressive at trying to bid on ‘em.
“Don’t feel like that’s the case anymore.”
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While the extensions touched a diverse swath of players – from budding superstar Alex Bregman to elite 30-something pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale, to potential stars like Eloy Jimenez who haven’t even had a major league at-bat – these deals are in many ways the legacy of two players who dominated the winter discourse.
Sure, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got paid – receiving deals of $330 million and $300 million, respectively. Yet the limited markets they encountered – with just three to five teams actively engaged – had a chilling effect.
Enough to prompt the greatest player in the game – two-time AL MVP Mike Trout – to sign his own mega-deal: 10 additional years at a whopping $360 million, a record-setting and objectively massive pact, yet still probably not optimized for his worth.
Trout called the limited market for Machado and Harper a “red flag” after signing his extension. After all, if those 26-year-old superstars could not incite a bidding war, what hope would mere mortals have on the open market?
“You’re talking about three guys who are at the top of the game,” says Yankees reliever Zack Britton of Harper, Machado and Trout. “Having some insight (being former teammates with Machado), it blows my mind. You’d think every single team in baseball could use them and should want them on their team.
“There’s a lot of things those guys bring to a franchise, other than being extremely good at baseball. You would think more teams would be in on them, at least.”
And so came the flood of deals, which some viewed as panic. Dig deeper, though, and the 14 most significant deals among them look a lot more like pragmatism:
The Hall of Fame parachute
Justin Verlander, two years, $66 million, Astros: Verlander will receive $33 million in his age-38 season, running his career earnings to nearly $300 million. Hard to quibble. “A guy like Verlander?” says Britton, who signed for three years and $40 million this winter. “That’s a great contract.”
Second contract, bigger deal
Trout, 10 years, $360 million, Angels: Fold it into the final two years of his six-year, $144.5 million contract and the Greatest Of His Time gets a cool $426.5 million. Might have done better two years from now, but grossing a half-billion dollars without reaching free agency is astounding, and appropriate for a player his caliber.
Chris Sale, five years, $145 million, Red Sox: Deals can be as much about personalities as they are dollars. Sale opted for security once before – a $59 million contract that bought out three years of free agency – and he does so again, only much larger.
Paul Goldschmidt, five years, $130 million, Cardinals: He sheds perhaps the game’s most player-unfriendly contract – six years, $44 million for at least four top-five MVP finishes – and does about as well as he might have expected after next winter. He outkicked his former Diamondbacks teammate, J.D. Martinez, by $20 million despite being two years older by the time he’d have hit the market.
Nolan Arenado, seven years, $234 million, Rockies: For Arenado, it’s simple math – reaching Machado money as a 29-year-old free agent was going to be a longshot. A pretty fair “hometown discount.”
Bregman, five years, $100 million, Astros: “Betting on yourself” used to mean going year-to-year via arbitration. For Bregman – who may out-earn the $43 million guarantee through three arbitration years – the big bet is believing he’ll still cash in as a 30-year-old free agent while pocketing $28.5 million in each of what would have been his first two years of freedom.
Brothers in arms
DeGrom, five years, $137.5 million, Mets: Keep in mind that deGrom was still two seasons away from free agency, so falling short of other extensions (like Stephen Strasburg’s $175 million deal) is understandable. Given that his free agency would fall during this CBA and that he’s already one Tommy John surgery in, a prudent grab.
Aaron Nola, four years, $45 million, Phillies, and Luis Severino, four years, $40 million, Yankees: The two deals that provoke a two-part reaction from their brethren. A sigh, because these aces were halfway to massive free agent paydays. And then a nod of understanding – because it’s hard to knock a pitcher for taking a life-changing guarantee.
Blake Snell, five years, $50 million, Rays: “I don’t see the point in signing a deal,” Snell told USA TODAY Sports in February. “I’d rather just try to max everything else out in arb, believe in myself, push myself.” So, what changed? A significant guarantee that only delays his free agency by one year.
Kyle Hendricks, four years, $55.5 million, Cubs, and Miles Mikolas, four years, $68 million, Cardinals: Lacking overwhelming velocity in Hendricks’ case and dominant strikeout numbers in Mikolas’, neither were going to be a nine-figure free agent. So team and player carved out a fair deal to continue a mutually beneficial relationship. What a concept!
Eloy Jimenez, eight years, $62 million, White Sox: This figure assumes Jimenez is indeed a fantastic player and the White Sox exercise two option years. Certainly a nice guarantee, but the deal carries with it the ugly underside of service-time manipulation. Jimenez was ticketed for the minors – and a seven-year slog to free agency – before agreeing to this deal.
Brandon Lowe, eight years, $46 million, Rays: Like Jimenez, we’ll assume the Rays pick up two option years on a contract that otherwise guarantees him $24 million. The deal is nearly identical to that signed a year ago by Phillies infielder Scott Kingery, who received $24 million guaranteed and up to $65 million for three club options. Not a bad heap of cash for players who likely won’t become superstars.