The Possible Extinction of the Early-Career Superstar Extension

On Monday, the Cardinals announced yet another contract extension, having agreed to a long-term deal with outfielder Stephen Piscotty. This (presumably) wrapped up a busy extension winter for St. Louis, as they had previously kept Yadier Molina from hitting free agency after the season and had bought out Carlos Martinez’s arbitration years in exchange for a few of his free agent seasons. This followed last year’s long-term deal for Kolten Wong, who himself followed Matt Carpenter in deciding to take guaranteed money from the Cardinals early in his career. And this group is all coming on the heels of similar deals for Jaime Garcia and Allen Craig. It’s safe to say that the Cardinals are fans of the early-career contract extension.

And it’s pretty easy to see why. While the Craig deal has turned into a lemon, they were able to move him for value while he was still viewed as an asset, and they’ve saved a bunch of money with the Carpenter extension. The history of these kinds of contracts suggests that the Cardinals are more likely to save money on the Piscotty and Martinez deals, and the franchise’s ability to keep their home-grown stars is one of the reasons they’ve been so successful for so long.

But the Piscotty extension is interesting beyond just a continuing example of the Cardinals being a well run franchise. Because, barring some type of unexpected signing in the next few weeks, it feels like Piscotty — a perfectly solid player with perhaps limited star potential — is now the kind of guy who teams are more able to sign early on.

Since the end of the World Series, eight players in the “0-3” service time bucket — meaning pre-arbitration players and Super-Two guys, all of whom are at least four years from free agency — have signed long-term extensions with their current teams. Piscotty rounded out the group, which also includes Rougned Odor, Jose Ramirez, Roberto Perez, Tim Anderson, Kevin Kiermaier, Ender Inciarte, and Odubel Herrera.

These guys are nice players, but of this group, Kiermaier is the only one who could be considered a legitimate star at the moment, and his stardom is based on the premise that he’s the best defensive outfielder in baseball, which is still the area where we’re least confident in our ability to quantify value. Ramirez played very well last season, and would be a star if he kept that up, but few expect him to repeat his 2016 season again. Anderson has a lot of interesting tools, but is also pretty raw, and has the shortest Major League track record of the bunch.

This group is a mix of players with a decent amount of risk (Odor, Anderson, Herrera), guys who weren’t going to get paid for their skills in arbitration anyway (Kiermaier, Inciarte, Perez), and perceived lower-upside types who have performed well but aren’t seen as future stars (Piscotty, Ramirez). Kiermaier is the only one who could currently be seen as a legitimate franchise player, and he’s a defense-first guy who has had injury problems, so his market value might not be a great match for his overall value.

And this isn’t just a 2017 thing. Last year, I openly wondered where all the contract extensions were, as the only pre-arb extensions we saw were given to Wong and Gregory Polanco. And if we look at the longer-term picture, it appears that the trend of pre-arb extensions has slowed significantly.

Pre-Arb Extensions By Year
Year 0+ 1+ 2+ Total
2012 1 4 6 11
2013 0 4 4 8
2014 2 7 3 12
2015 0 3 3 6
2016 0 1 1 2
2017 1 1 6 8

From 2012-2014, there were an average of 10 long-term deals for pre-arb players; the last three years, we’ve averaged five per season. There were more extensions for players with one year of service time in 2014 than we’ve seen in the last three years combined. And the types of players signing up for these early deals has definitely shifted.

Back in 2012, the Pirates locked up Andrew McCutchen and the Giants signed Madison Bumgarner. In 2013, Chris Sale took the early-career offers from the White Sox and Buster Posey agreed to spend most of his career in San Francisco. In 2014, some guy named Mike Trout signed a long term deal with the Angels, while the Rays locked up Chris Archer. It’s easy to look back with hindsight and see what guys have become since signing these deals, but these weren’t middle-of-the-road talents; these were high draft picks with obvious tools coming off strong seasons, in many cases already establishing themselves as among the best players at their position.

The current versions of those kinds of players? They’re not signing long-term deals. Manny Machado has gone year to year in Baltimore, as has Nolen Arenado in Colorado. Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson signed two year deals that only guaranteed them certain arbitration payouts, and didn’t push their free agency back in any way. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts have, thus far, rejected extension overtures from the Red Sox. The Indians weren’t able to get Francisco Lindor to sign long-term before the season started. The Astros haven’t locked up Carlos Correa or George Springer yet. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still eligible for free agency after six years of service time in Chicago, and Corey Seager and Joc Pederson are still on track for the same in Los Angeles.

And that’s just the hitters. We have an amazing group of young arms in baseball right now, and despite the health risks that come from throwing the ball for a living, almost none of the high-end guys have taken early-career certainty in the form of a long-term deal. The Mets haven’t locked up any of their group of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, or Steven Matz. The Pirates didn’t get Gerrit Cole signed. Jon Gray hasn’t decided to stick around Colorado past his six year mark yet. Jameson Taillon, James Paxton, and Lance McCullers all have significant injury histories that you would think would incentivize them to take what they can get sooner than later, rather than betting on staying healthy for years to come, but they’re still all unsigned.

Given how well these types of early-career deals have been for teams, you’d think there would be motivation on their end to try and do as many of these as possible, but this generation of young superstars seemingly have rebuffed most of the advances towards extensions. They just don’t have the same incentive to sign these kinds of deals.

As we talked about in the post about Jose Ramirez’s deal, he signed for $50,000 as a 17 year old, and this was his first real shot at legitimate life-changing money. But the Harper/Machado/Bryant/Correa/Lindor types were all top-10 picks, got multi-million dollar signing bonuses before playing their first professional games, and have endorsement opportunities that can give them income streams even before they reach free agency.

They don’t need to sign a long-term deal to get that set-for-life money; they’re all already there, and the odds of any of them being non-tendered at any point before they reach free agency is basically zero. Even if their production took an immediate downward turn, there’s just no real scenario where teams wouldn’t keep paying them in arbitration on the hope that their overall talent would eventually win out. And with All-Star and MVP awards all over the place, these guys already have pretty decent arbitration payouts lined up.

These guys were so good so fast that the leverage teams have over young players expired before negotiations could even really begin. At some point, one or two these guys might end up signing a long-term deal just because they like their organization and don’t want to deal with questions about their future, but none of these guys need a long-term deal to get financial security. They’re already there.

For the MLBPA, this has to be seen as good news. If they can get the Machados and the Harpers and the Bryants to free agency, they have a chance to change the narrative about owners beating the union in the last few CBAs, and set new baselines for the market value of young elite players. And with those guys seemingly uninterested in pushing their free agency back, the pre-arb extension seems to be in decline, at least for now.

Maybe the next generation of stars won’t be this good as quickly, but for now, the instant success of many of the best young talents could mean that future free agency is finally going to be interesting again.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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RoyalsFan#14321
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RoyalsFan#14321

Is Kiermaier a star? He’s a darling of readers of this site, but I would think of that list in the 4th paragraph that Odor qualifies as the star…

Los
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Los

Perhaps you are seeing stars from being punched in the face by Odor?

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

I don’t disagree. The seething masses do still like the long ball.

fredsbank
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fredsbank

Yeah Kiermaier is a WAR-star, not a real world star.