Syndergaard, Gray Top Extension Candidates Among Pitchers

Last spring, for the first time in a decade, maybe more, no pre-arbitration pitchers signed a contract extension taking away multiple free-agent seasons. There were a few decent candidates in Jacob deGrom, Sonny Gray, and Carlos Martinez, the last of whom just signed a contract extension of his own earlier this winter. None of those players signed last spring, however, and it’s a possible indicator of a chilling effect on these types of extensions. The lack of deals isn’t due to a lack of candidates, though. In fact, a few of the best pitchers in baseball might be prime for long-term extensions.

When attempting to characterize the recent history of such deals, it’s difficult to say what’s a trend and what’s a random event because only two to five players sign extensions of this sort every year. The recent drought might be a product of players and agents beginning to recognize how much clubs were benefiting from signing extensions with younger players. It’s possible, on the other hand, that teams were less likely to dole out guarantees when the outcome of the CBA was in doubt. When Madison Bumgarner signed his extension right as the 2012 season was starting, he was one of five young pitchers to do so. When Chris Sale signed his ahead of the 2013 season, he was the only one. Sale and Bumgarner’s contracts have proved to be two of the bigger bargains in the majors.

When the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Red Sox for Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe, and Victor Diaz, they weren’t just trading Chris Sale. The White Sox were also trading Chris Sale’s contract, which included a $12 million salary for 2017 and options for 2018 and 2019 totaling $26 million. If Sale hadn’t signed that contract, he would have been a free agent this winter and received $200 million. San Francisco has no interest in trading Madison Bumgarner — who would have also been a free agent this winter — while they’re contending, so his value to the Giants is greater as a player on the field than in a trade. His contract is similar to Sale’s and so favorable that it had some discussing whether the team should negotiate a contract extension out of fairness, which does have some precedent.

Whether players have seen those contracts and been reluctant to sign at a hugely discounted rate or teams have looked at the rate of surgery and ineffectiveness among pitchers and shied away from extensions is hard to say. Over the last three years, there have been just seven contract extensions for pre-arbitration pitchers, including one for a reliever and another that guaranteed just $12.5 million.

Pre-Arbitration Pitcher Contract Extensions Since 2014
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Service Time Contract*
Corey Kluber 450.1 3.34 2.95 10.6 2.074 5/38.5, 2
Jose Quintana 336.1 3.61 3.99 5.3 1.133 5/21.0, 2
Julio Teheran 211.2 3.44 3.85 2.5 1.062 6/32.4, 1
Chris Archer 158.0 3.47 3.94 1.7 0.156 6/20.0, 2
Yordano Ventura 198.1 3.22 3.74 2.3 1.013 5/23.0, 2
Sean Doolittle 116.1 3.09 2.46 3.2 1.122 5/10.5, 2
Martin Perez 162.1 4.05 4.21 1.7 1.038 4/12.5, 3
*Yr/$M, Options

The Sean Doolittle contract was signed, in part, so that the A’s could transition Doolittle to closer without risking the higher salaries that relievers with saves tend to get during the arbitration process. Otherwise, the A’s might have been compelled to leave Doolittle in a setup role with the intent of of saving significant amounts of money, even if the role was slightly suboptimal. As the numbers show, Perez had done very little at the time of his extension, and the Rays really jumped ahead by signing Chris Archer to a contract before he even reached a full year of service time. Quintana’s deal is a big bargain, Teheran’s deal is working out well for Atlanta. Sadly, we won’t get to see Yordano Ventura continue pitching for the Royals after his tragic accident.

Below are eight current pitchers who’ve recorded at least two years of service time and might jump at the chance of a little long-term security.

Pre-Arbitration Extension Candidates
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Service Time (Yr.Days)
Ken Giles 181.1 2.48 2.20 5.2 2.113
Anthony DeSclafani 341.1 3.99 3.78 5.2 2.062
Robbie Ray 330.2 4.65 3.80 5.1 2.007
Aaron Sanchez 317.1 2.86 3.78 4.7 2.069
Jimmy Nelson 436.0 4.38 4.44 4.1 2.107
Chad Bettis 370.1 5.01 4.30 4.1 2.096
Roberto Osuna 143.2 2.63 3.11 3.2 2.000
Kendall Graveman 306.1 4.08 4.43 2.2 2.014

It probably isn’t a really great sign that the WAR leader above is a reliever. Relievers generally don’t make great long-term investments, especially if a team can go year to year, even with the high arbitration rates for saves. Let’s take the same list and look at just last season.

2016 Numbers for Pre-Arbitration Extension Candidates
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Service Time (Yr.Day)
Aaron Sanchez 192.0 3.00 3.55 3.9 2.069
Robbie Ray 174.1 4.90 3.76 3.0 2.007
Chad Bettis 186.0 4.79 4.26 2.6 2.096
Anthony DeSclafani 123.1 3.28 3.96 2.0 2.062
Roberto Osuna 74.0 2.68 3.20 1.8 2.000
Kendall Graveman 186.0 4.11 4.39 1.6 2.014
Ken Giles 65.2 4.11 2.86 1.5 2.113
Jimmy Nelson 179.1 4.62 5.12 0.8 2.107

Aaron Sanchez seems like the ideal candidate for an extension after his breakout 2016 season; however, his agent is Scott Boras, which makes such a deal unlikely. Robbie Ray is a player the Arizona Diamondbacks should look to secure long term. His ERA is ugly, but he had a very high .352 BABIP and 15.5% HR/FB rate, which likely inflated that ERA above what we can expect going forward. He’s 25 years old, he struck out 28% of batters last season, and projections say he’ll be better this year than last. The rest of the group is solid, and a case could be made either way regarding a long-term deal.

There’s a short, but great ,list of players who are likely to head to arbitration as Super-2 players at the end of this season.

2016 Numbers for Pre-Arbitration Extension Candidates
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Service Time (Yr.Day)
Noah Syndergaard 183.2 2.60 2.29 6.5 1.149
Carlos Rodon 165 4.04 4.01 2.7 1.168
Lance McCullers 81 3.22 3.00 2.1 1.140
Likely Super-2 players after 2017.

While the Mets might be unable to sign Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom long term (although a deal still might be possible with the latter), getting Noah Syndergaard to sign would more than make up for it. After this season, Syndergaard will make millions in arbitration. Given the fickle nature of pitching, the Mets might be able to take advantage with some long-term security. Rodon is another Boras client and also signed $6 million-plus draft bonus fewer than three years ago, so another Sale/Quintana deal seems unlikely with Rodon. McCullers has some health-related questions, so the Astros might be more comfortable going year to year.

We have one more group of players. Among the pitchers in the first chart from the beginning of this piece, all but Corey Kluber signed with less than two years of service time. Signing pitchers to a deal when a team still has their services for five more years can be risky, but those extra years can be incredibly valuable. Here are a few more pitchers at whom teams should take a look this spring.

2016 Numbers for Pre-Arbitration Extension Candidates
Name IP ERA FIP WAR Service Time (Yr.Day)
Jon Gray 168.0 4.61 3.60 3.7 1.062
Steven Matz 132.1 3.40 3.39 2.8 1.099
Aaron Nola 111.0 4.78 3.08 2.8 1.076
Joe Ross 105.0 3.43 3.49 2.1 1.094
Vince Velasquez 131.0 4.12 3.96 2.2 1.086
Daniel Norris 69.1 3.38 3.93 1.1 1.073
Dylan Bundy 109.2 4.02 4.70 0.9 1.026

If the Rockies actually find a pitcher who seems capable of excelling in the altitude of Colorado, it seems like a good idea to keep him around as long as possible. Gray did receive nearly $5 million when he was drafted four years ago, so he should be okay for money, but a $30-plus million guarantee might get him to consider delaying free agency by a bit, especially given the difficult conditions under which he’s pitching. The Mets could look to sign a deal for one of their other young pitchers in Steve Matz ,while the Phillies have a ton of money and not much to do with it just yet, so getting a young starter or two locked in wouldn’t be the worst idea. If the Orioles or Tigers believe that Dylan Bundy or Daniel Norris, respectively, have broken out, they might be decent targets. After getting shut out last year, we will see if we can’t get a little more activity this spring.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

This is an excellent article, Craig.
Here are some points that agents should, but not necessarily will, convey to their clients, before refusing extensions of this sort.

1. I have no background in economics, finance or statistics, so I don’t know the correct terms, but it is obvious to me that each dollar guaranteed is worth more than the one after it.
This is most obvious when the amounts are large as in MLB contracts. A young player who signs an extension of 5 years for $50M has already earned enough to buy anything he could reasonably want in terms of wine, women, song, cars, mansions and yachts. Any additional money would likely be wasted.
2. If he really wants more money to waste, he still has a good chance to get it after 5 years.

3. This is not a zero-sum game. A win for the team is not necessarily a loss for the player.

4. How many players have or will turn down one of these extensions and then bust due to injury, illness, or who knows what? Nobody is reporting this number, but this is a lot of misery.

formerly matt w
5 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

“I have no background in economics, finance or statistics, so I don’t know the correct terms, but it is obvious to me that each dollar guaranteed is worth more than the one after it.”

It’s called the diminishing marginal utility of income and wealth–although your explanation is a lot clearer than that technical term.

5 years ago

There’s also time value of money (money now is worth more than money in the future because you can use it sooner). By signing an extension, a pre-arb player usually secures an increase in his immediate earnings in exchange for a decrease in future earnings.

Choos on first
5 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

I’ve been trying to make this point for years, but it seems that every time I make it, I get slammed for it, even by people on FG.

And don’t forget that these players make a ton in endorsements as well, so it’s not just the value of the contract that should matter to them. And if they become a fan favorite because they signed a team friendly deal where they are happy to play, then those endorsement values go up, and the player will be a more desirable asset for companies to target. In this situation, it’s a win-win-win-win situation. The team wins, the player still has more money than god in a place that they would theoretically enjoy playing, the fans are happy to have young talent locked up, and advertisers can get better endorsements from a fan favorite.

Players seem to falsely equate more money with more respect, but it just doesn’t work that way. Money can’t buy respect, having money doesn’t mean you’re respected, and demanding obscene money often turns off fans – especially if the player starts to suck shortly afterwards.

5 years ago
Reply to  Baltar

“How many players have or will turn down one of these extensions and then bust due to injury, illness, or who knows what?”

From the looks of the first chart in this article, about 1/7.