2012 Extension Candidates Rumors

Extension Candidate: Neil Walker

With Andrew McCutchen's extension completed, the Pirates will focus their attention on second baseman Neil Walker, according to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  Biertempfel believes a Walker extension may be "pricier than they originally expected," but the team will still pony up.  What would be a fair deal for the 26-year-old Walker?


Walker currently has one year and 166 days of big league service, meaning he'll be arbitration eligible as a Super Two player after the 2012 season.  A direct comparable for Walker may be difficult to find, as few infielders with less than two years of service have signed extensions in recent years.  Walker is only six days shy of two years of service.  If we look at second basemen who signed extensions with between two and three years of service, we get Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia, Aaron Hill, Ian Kinsler, and Robinson Cano.  Their contracts ranged from four to six years, guaranteed $12-40.5MM, and had at least one club option.  

Walker owns a .280/.338/.423 line in 1171 plate appearances across 286 games, with 24 home runs, 149 RBI, 138 runs, and 12 steals.  Kinsler's numbers through '07 are better, aside from RBI, but not wildly different.  Kinsler signed a five-year, $22MM contract that paid $13MM for his three arbitration years and $7MM for a free agent year, plus a club option on another.  The contract is four years old, however.  Zobrist seems another decent comparable.  He had much more service time than Walker, but a similar number of career plate appearances.  Zobrist trumps Walker's home run total and platform year but was similar career-wise.  But even coming off an MVP-caliber year, Zobrist signed a four-year deal worth $18MM with a pair of club options.  He received $14.5MM for his three arbitration years.

Neither Kinsler nor Zobrist was a Super Two player.  Walker must be compensated for four arbitration years, perhaps at $18-20MM total.  If the contract is to include one free agent season it'd probably be around $8MM.  A five-year, $27MM deal beginning with the 2013 season could be fair for Walker.  From the Pirates' point of view, Walker doesn't have the power or service time of Kinsler of Zobrist, perhaps justifying the inclusion of two club options for the Hendricks Sports client. 

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Extension Candidate: Jacoby Ellsbury

Icon_13052718There was some talk out of Boston about the Red Sox exploring a multiyear deal with Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason, though it's perhaps no surprise the club decided to handle its front-office shakeup and more immediate player concerns before trying to lock up a player who is still under team control through 2013.  There is likely also a sense of wanting to see exactly they really have in Ellsbury before committing to a major contract.

Last season, Ellsbury didn't only bounce back from an injury-riddled 2010, he dramatically raised his own performance ceiling.  Ellsbury finished second in AL MVP voting after slugging 32 homers and hitting .321/.376/.552 in a league-best 732 plate appearances, just to erase any doubts about his durability.  All three totals in his slash line were career highs but the power was particularly surprising — Ellsbury had hit just 30 homers in his entire major and minor league career (2705 plate appearances) before 2011.  To top it off, Elsbury also provided excellent center field defense (a 15.7 UZR/150 and a Gold Glove) and stole 39 bases.

The Red Sox avoided arbitration with Ellsbury by agreeing to an $8.05MM deal for 2012, a significant bump up from his $2.4MM 2011 salary.  If Ellsbury comes even close to repeating his performance from last season, he'll earn another big raise for his last arbitration year; MLBTR's Ben Nicholson-Smith projected as much as a $13MM salary for Ellsbury in 2013.

For our long-term price range, let's look at the contracts received by Matt Kemp and Ellsbury's teammate Carl Crawford over the last two offseasons.  Kemp was also heading into his last arbitration year when he signed an eight-year, $160MM extension with the Dodgers in November.  Crawford, meanwhile, was 29 (Ellsbury hits that age in September) when he signed his seven-year, $142MM free agent deal with the Red Sox on the open market.

Hard as it would've been to believe 12 months ago, power is the key statistic in determining the size of Ellsbury's extension.  If he puts up another 30-homer season, agent Scott Boras will argue that Ellsbury is now a proven five-tool threat and deserves a Kemp-like contract.  If Ellsbury's homer total drops even to around 20 dingers, the Red Sox will have an argument for a slightly lesser but still-sizeable contract akin to Crawford's deal. 

Of the five 2012 projections used by Fangraphs, all have Ellsbury's OPS dropping significantly next season, with three of five forecasting a drop of more than 100 OPS points.  It's worth noting that Ellsbury's center field defense is also not quite a proven commodity.  He posted a -10.0 UZR/150 playing the position in 2009, leading to the Red Sox signing Mike Cameron that offseason to take over in center.

Presuming Ellsbury, like most players, doesn't want to talk contract once the season begins, Boston has a month to work out an extension while they still have some leverage over the length of the deal.  Right now, the Red Sox could aim for a six-year extension that covers Ellsbury's last arbitration year and his first five free agent seasons.  This would cover Ellsbury through his age-34 season, sparing the club at least one year of paying $20MM to a player in his mid-thirties (though the Sox could add a club option).  Of course, as noted earlier, if Ellsbury's power surge continues into the start of the 2012 campaign, the leverage swings back in his direction and Boras will look for a minimum of seven years in any new contract.  

Boras usually advises his clients to test the free agent market, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the 2012-13 offseason also pass without a multiyear deal between Ellsbury and the Red Sox.  Two high-profile Boras clients have recently signed extensions prior to free agency — Carlos Gonzalez's seven-year, $80MM deal with the Rockies and Jered Weaver's five-year, $85MM deal with the Angels — but neither of those contracts matches Ellsbury's situation.  Gonzalez was still four years away from free agency and Weaver specifically wanted to stay in Anaheim, even at the cost of leaving millions on the table in free agency.

Though Boston has been conscious of exceeding the luxury tax limit on payroll this winter, the team obviously has the money to pay Ellsbury fair value if they want to make him part of their long-term future.  A lot depends on what Ellsbury does at the plate in 2012, but a seven-year, $133MM deal ($13MM in 2013 to match his arbitration number and then an average of $20MM in each of the following six years) is definitely within reach.  Ellsbury would join Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez as Red Sox players locked up through at least 2017.  With Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz all on reasonable contracts that include equally reasonable team options, Boston's long-term payroll is relatively flexible for such a big-market franchise. 

Photo courtesy of Tony Ding/Icon SMI

Extension Candidate: John Axford

John Axford isn't yet arbitration eligible, but he may be approaching his first multimillion dollar payday as a Major Leaguer. The Brewers are discussing an extension with the late-blooming closer following his dominant 2011 performance.

Axford (pictured) could have a case for a $6MM salary as a first-time eligible player if he replicates his 2011 numbers this year. A first-year arbitration salary that high would lead to further raises in future years and the 28-year-old would soon cease to be a bargain. Axford is a valuable pitcher, but he’s no Mariano Rivera, and the Brewers’ pockets aren’t as deep as the Yankees’.

John Axford - Brewers

Matt Swartz showed this offseason that an elite closer with a history of saves gets paid far more than a set-up man or any other reliever. Axford, one of 13 pitchers in history to total at least 70 saves in his first three seasons, is well on his way to a significant paycheck via arbitration, so the Brewers are interested in capping costs. 

If Axford stays healthy and retains the closing job this year, he'll set himself up for a generous payday in 2013 when he’s arbitration eligible for the first time. If he has a modest but successful season — say 60 games, 30 saves and an ERA of 3.25 — his credentials would match up favorably with the ones Chad Cordero, Brad Lidge, Brian Wilson and Andrew Bailey had as first-time eligible players. Those four each obtained deals in the $3.9-4.4MM range, so it's easy to imagine a 2013 payday of $4MM-plus for Axford. He already has 71 career saves, and all active pitchers who had 70 saves by the time they were arb eligible obtained at least $3.3MM if they signed one-year deals.

Here’s where it gets interesting, and maybe a little scary, for the Brewers. If Axford comes close to repeating his 2011 numbers, he will be comparable to Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks, two closers who did exceptionally well for themselves as first-time eligible players. Both had 110-plus career saves by the time they hit arbitration for the first time, and with another 40-save season, Axford would be in their company. Papelbon earned a record $6.25MM salary through arbitration and Jenks checked in at $5.6MM, so Axford could be looking at a $6MM payday if he can replicate his 2011 success.

It’s not as though the Brewers can’t afford a $6MM closer. They’ve increased payroll substantially since Mark Attanasio bought the club and will spend approximately $100MM on the 2012 product. But relievers who earn $5-6MM as first-time eligible players can become too expensive in a hurry. For example, the White Sox non-tendered Jenks two years after awarding him a $5.6MM salary.

The Brewers could cap costs now by guaranteeing Axford enough money. They’ve discussed a deal of at least four years with the Beverly Hills Sports Council client, who could insure himself against an injury by agreeing to a long-term contract.

Now for the question that assistant GM Gord Ash and agent Dan Horwits are trying to answer: what would an extension look like? Joakim Soria, Sergio Santos and Manny Corpas are among the closers who signed multiyear extensions as pre-arbitration eligible players. However Axford has twice as many saves as any of them did at the time of their deals, to go along with a lower ERA, more appearances, and, in the cases of Corpas and Soria, more service time. Unlike those relievers, Axford won't be attainable for $8-9MM (Wilson's deal, while considerably more lucrative, kicked in after his first arb season, so it's not a great comp for Axford this early in his career).

A four-year deal would cover Axford’s final pre-arbitration season and three of his four seasons of arbitration eligibility. I’m guessing that four-year chunk of Axford’s career is worth $15-20MM. The year-to-year breakdown would depend on the preferences of the team and the player and isn’t possible to predict completely, but perhaps a deal like this would work for both sides: $500K in 2012, $3.75MM in 2013, $5.5MM in 2014 and $7.25MM in 2015. 

A four-year, $17MM extension would provide Axford with the kind of security that would have seemed unattainable when he was bartending a relatively short while ago without delaying his arrival on the free agent market. The Brewers, meanwhile, would cap costs to ensure that his salary doesn’t escalate to the point that they have to trade or non-tender him.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.

Extension Candidate: Brandon McCarthy

The Athletics' one-year, $1MM base salary deal with righty Brandon McCarthy turned out to be one of the best contracts of the 2010-11 offseason, as the 28-year-old went on to rank 13th in the American League with a 3.32 ERA.  McCarthy showed an ability to go deep into games, ranking 10th in the league with 6.83 innings per start.  Despite having fewer than 550 career big league innings on his resume, McCarthy will reach six years of service this season.  It's been a long road to traditional free agency.  

McCarthyPrior to the 2005 season, Baseball America ranked McCarthy the 49th-best prospect in the game, though on the White Sox he was outranked by Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney.  In February of that year, manager Ozzie Guillen compared McCarthy to Jack McDowell, adding, "He's going to be something special."  By May, McCarthy made his big league debut, replacing an injured Orlando Hernandez to face Mark Prior.  McCarthy continued to fill in for El Duque periodically as a rookie, but the Sox went with Hernandez on the playoff roster and he came up big as a reliever in the team's World Championship run.

McCarthy spent most of '06 in Chicago's bullpen, and GM Kenny Williams noted he was "very much a part of our future" when July trade rumors swirled.  It seemed McCarthy finally had his full-time rotation spot when Williams traded Freddy Garcia to the Phillies in December of that year, but then the GM shipped McCarthy to the Rangers for John Danks and others in a bold trade a few weeks later.

A blister problem affected McCarthy for much of '07, but a bigger concern was revealed in August when he hit the DL for a stress fracture in his right shoulder.  The injury seemed minor at first, but then elbow soreness surfaced the following spring.  He pitched only 53 2/3 innings in '08 and was sidelined again in each of the '09 and '10 seasons due to the stress fracture in his shoulder.  By November of 2010, Rangers GM Jon Daniels decided to remove McCarthy from the 40-man roster, making him a free agent.

Toward the end of '09, McCarthy began to consider major changes to his repertoire and mechanics, he told Ryan Campbell of FanGraphs.  By the time he was pitching in Winter Ball in what amounted to a free agent audition in 2010, McCarthy had fine-tuned his new approach.  He scored a Major League contract with the A's and won their fifth starter job out of spring training.  That same shoulder stress reaction came back in May, leading to a six-week DL stint.  McCarthy stayed healthy and effective thereafter, earning a total of $1.95MM with incentives.  He received a $4.275MM contract for 2012, an arbitration raise of more than $2.3MM on his '11 earnings.

McCarthy has been a free agent before, but if he impresses again in 2012, this time will be different.  To date, it does not appear the A's have had extension talks with McCarthy.  Their hesitation is understandable, with McCarthy having totaled 229 pro innings from 2008-10.  He hasn't had an injury-free campaign since '06, and the same shoulder problem continues to affect him.

Still, there's a ton to like about McCarthy, who in 25 starts provided over $20MM worth of value last year according to FanGraphs.  Even with the DL stint last year, he tossed 170 2/3 innings over 25 starts.  He's 28 and comes with the pedigree of a top prospect.  He's got excellent command and posted a career-best 46.7% groundball rate last year, suppressing career-long home run concerns.  And for those thinking his success is owed to the Oakland Coliseum, consider McCarthy's 3.40 xFIP away from home last year.

In terms of starting pitchers extended entering walk years, Ryan Vogelsong, R.A. Dickey, Wandy Rodriguez, and Joe Blanton could be comparables, as our extension tracker shows.  Vogelsong and Dickey were feel-good stories who had unexpected success in one season, and both signed two-year deals in the $8MM range with club options attached.  Both, however, were coming off seasons in which they earned under a million bucks.  McCarthy earned almost $2MM last year, and makes $4.275MM this year.  Short of a completely lost 2012 season, he could at least replicate that salary on the free agent market.  He may not feel the urgency to cash in that Vogelsong and Dickey did.  

Blanton and Rodriguez had provided innings and made decent money going year-to-year through arbitration.  Blanton, the lesser of the two, had his free agent years valued at $8.5MM apiece.  I don't think McCarthy can get to that level right now, but he's probably worth more than Vogelsong, who gave up a free agent year for $5MM.  $12-13MM over two years would be a reasonable risk for the A's on McCarthy, if they're OK with the condition of his shoulder.  Otherwise, McCarthy will be pitching with free agency on the horizon and the possibility of becoming one of several solid options for teams unable to afford what's left of Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Anibal Sanchez.

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Extension Candidate: Yadier Molina

For the second straight winter, the Cardinals could face the prospect of losing a long-time star to free agency.  Yadier Molina is not Albert Pujols, but the catcher's defensive prowess and his underrated bat will make his long-term future a major topic of concern for the Cards throughout this season.

Molina's next contract is likely to pay him in the neighborhood of $10MM per season, though his skillset makes him markedly different from the only other two catchers (Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer) who have signed deals with a $10MM AAV.  Those players were both known primarily for their bats — Posada was a below-average defensive catcher while in Mauer's case, it's seemingly just a matter of time before injuries will eventually force him to move from behind the plate.

In Molina's case, however, defense is his calling card, be it throwing out would-be base-stealers (a 44% caught stealing rate over his career), picking off baserunners or his four Gold Gloves.  As if being considered the best defensive catcher in baseball wasn't enough, Molina is also an underrated threat at the plate.  Molina has hit .291/.348/.396 over the last four seasons, culminating with a career-best .814 OPS and 14 homers last season.

Molina is entering the last year of his contract with the Cardinals after the team made the no-brainer move of picking up their $7MM option on Molina for 2012.  GM John Mozeliak said last month that there was a mutual interest between the team and the catcher in an extension, and that the Cards were "going to try to find a way to make it work."

Though he turns 30 in July, Molina's age shouldn't prevent him from finding at least a four-year deal on the open market, provided of course that he produces as usual in 2012.  Between his consistent numbers, his defense, the scarcity of the catching position and his reputation as a clubhouse leader, Molina should be on pace to receive a four- or five-year contract worth $10MM per season, plus probably a club option year tacked onto the end.  

Molina and his representatives at MDR Sports Management could certainly find a contract like that on the free agent market, but would they find it in St. Louis?  One bright side of Pujols' departure is that it leaves the Cardinals with a good deal of long-term payroll flexibility.  Lance Berkman and Kyle Lohse come off the books after this year and Jake Westbrook's $8.5MM team option is unlikely to be exercised, so that frees up just under $33MM.  The Cards will have to decide about extending Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright (the latter is likelier than the former, though Wainwright's health is a bit of a question mark post-Tommy John surgery) and also maybe explore multiyear deals for young stars like Allen Craig, Jason Motte and David Freese.  With just $68MM committed to the 2013 payroll, there seems to be no financial reason why the Cardinals couldn't bring Molina back.

There have been whispers that Molina may be disenchanted with the Cards' organization because they let his close friend Pujols leave, though new manager Mike Matheny denied this after recently speaking to Molina.  While most St. Louis fans have made their peace with Pujols' departure given the sheer size of his Angels contract, it wouldn't be good for the Cardinals from a PR perspective if another homegrown star (one who would've commanded far less of a financial commitment) also left town. 

Only Molina and his inner circle know if he truly wants to remain a Cardinal or not, but even if he doesn't, the Cards at least need to make every attempt to re-sign him.  Molina is too much of a pro to carry any negative feelings onto the field, so if the two sides can't work out a new deal before Opening Day, expect a relatively drama-free season akin to how Pujols carried himself in his walk year.  An extension would essentially guarantee that Molina retires as a Cardinal and, ironically, would mean that he would be supplanting his old friend as the face of the franchise.

Extension Candidate: Jordan Zimmermann

The Nationals have been one of baseball's most active teams this offseason, signing both Edwin Jackson and Brad Lidge in addition to trading for and extending Gio Gonzalez. GM Mike Rizzo doesn't have to worry about the top of his rotation for a while since Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg are under control through 2016, but another one of the club's young starters can hit the open market a year earlier.

Icon_12916043Jordan Zimmermann qualified as a Super Two by little more than a week this offseason, meaning he'll be eligible for arbitration four times instead of the usual three. The two sides agreed to a $2.3MM salary for 2012 as our Arbitration Tracker shows, working out a deal before salary figures had to be exchanged. The 25-year-old right-hander broke out last season, pitching to a 3.18 ERA with 6.9 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 with a 39.4% ground ball rate in 161 1/3 innings across 26 starts. His 8-11 record doesn't do his actual performance justice.

Although he has nearly three full years of service time, Zimmermann only has about a year and a half worth of big league starts to his credit. He missed part of 2009 and most of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, but players do collect service time while on the DL. The injury and subsequent lack of innings kept his salary down this winter, and that will have a trickle down effect in future years since he's starting with a lower base salary.

As our Extension Tracker shows, the typical extension for pitchers with 2-3 years of service time has been in the four-year, $30MM range with one or two club options that buy out free agent years. Jon Lester, Yovani Gallardo, Ricky Romero, Clay Buchholz, Trevor Cahill, and Jaime Garcia all signed contracts with that framework. Zimmermann lags behind those guys in counting stats like innings and wins due to the elbow surgery, though his strikeout and walk rates match up with any of them at the time of their extensions. ERA as well.

A four-year deal for Zimmermann figures to check in a bit under $30MM given his injury history, so perhaps $22-25MM or so. That would cover his four arbitration years, and the club options could come in around the usual $10-12MM based on those similar pitchers. Zimmermann and the Nationals are in a unique position because his salaries are depressed by his elbow surgery, and the team could take advantage of that by signing him long-term at an even further reduced rate.

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Extension Candidate: Anibal Sanchez

Before he turned 24, Anibal Sanchez had been dealt in a blockbuster trade, pitched a no-hitter and undergone an operation for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The unpredictability of the right-hander’s early career has subsided and Sanchez, who turns 28 next month, has established himself as a dependable, accomplished starter.

Anibal Sanchez - Marlins

Since 2010, Sanchez has averaged a 3.61 ERA, 196 innings, 8.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and a 44.7% ground ball rate. He’s entering his final season as an arbitration eligible player, and the Marlins view him as a candidate for a contract extension. The club approached Sanchez about a long-term deal late last season, Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald reported in the fall.

The Marlins offered $6.9MM for 2012, while Sanchez countered with an $8MM submission, as MLBTR's Arbitration Tracker shows. Let’s place his 2012 earnings at $7.5MM to keep things simple. 

Sanchez’s free agent years figure to be considerably more expensive for the Marlins. C.J. Wilson, who was able to solicit bids from all 30 teams this offseason, will earn $15.5MM per free agent year under his new contract with the Angels. Since 2010, Wilson has out-performed Sanchez in terms of wins, ERA and innings, so it's hard to imagine an annual salary of $15.5MM for Sanchez's free agent years at this point. Another Angels starter, Jered Weaver, signed an $85MM deal, but it’s also out of reach for Sanchez.

There’s little doubt that Sanchez’s free agent years are each worth $10MM-plus. Johnny Cueto, Trevor Cahill and other statistically similar pitchers had free agent years valued above $10MM on extensions, although those pitchers were considerably further from free agency than Sanchez is now. This gives us a likely $10MM floor for each free agent year to go along with the presumed ceiling of $15.5MM.

John Danks signed a five-year, $65MM deal with the White Sox and though the left-hander has historically been more durable than Sanchez, his deal could figure in to talks between the Marlins and Icon Sports Group. Danks’ free agent seasons were valued at $14.25MM each, a target Sanchez could approach.

A 2012 salary of $7.5MM and a $14MM salary for 2013-15 would amount to a four-year total in the $50MM range. The deal would not rival Danks’ contract in terms of length or overall value, but Sanchez has more labrum operations than 200-inning seasons at this point in his career, and the Marlins will surely take that into account when considering the possible risks of locking Sanchez up.

However, Miami committed $58MM for four seasons of Mark Buehrle and appear to have offered Wilson considerably more. They’re willing to spend on pitching and if they believe Sanchez can replicate his 2010-11 success, he could be their next long-term investment.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.

Extension Candidate: Eric Hosmer

Icon_13093773This past week was a rough one for the Royals. Not only did they watch the reigning division champs add Prince Fielder, but they also caught a glimpse of what it could take to keep Eric Hosmer in town long-term should he develop into the type of player they think he can become. After giving him $6MM as the third overall pick in 2008, it's clear Kansas City expects great things.

Hosmer, 22, was called up to the big leagues in early-May and went on to finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year. He hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers and 11 steals in 128 games. The Royals likely delayed his free agency by a year with the late call-up, but Hosmer is almost certain to qualify as a Super Two after the 2014 season. That means he'll be arbitration-eligible four times rather than the usual three, which can get expensive in a hurry.

For comparison's sake, Hunter Pence hit .289/.340/.488 during the first three years of his career, and parlayed it into $20.8MM during his first three years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. He earned $3.5MM his first year of eligibility, $6.9MM in the second, and recently agreed to $10.4MM for the third. Barring an unexpected non-tender next winter, Pence will earn north of $32MM during his four years of arbitration-eligibility. Surely the Royals would want to avoid a similar payout for Hosmer.

The largest contract ever given to a player with less than one full year of service time is the eight-year, $45MM pact the Brewers bestowed upon Ryan Braun during the 2008 season. I'm sure the Royals would love to lock up Hosmer's next eight years at that price, but it might be unrealistic since he's a Scott Boras client. If there's one thing Boras is good at, it's breaking contract records. Evan Longoria's six-year, $17.5MM deal is the only other contract ever given to a position player with less than one year of service time worth more than $1.5MM annually.

If Kansas City plans to buy out any of Hosmer's free agent years, they're looking at a minimum contract length of seven years. That would cover his six years of team control and just one free agent year. It would also be the longest deal in franchise history by two years, and anything more than $55MM would make it the richest as well (Gil Meche and Mike Sweeney hold the record with matching five-year, $55MM contracts). I'm not suggesting that a deal of that size would be appropriate for Hosmer after one year in the bigs, but like I said, Boras is fond of breaking records. Those are some benchmarks he can target.

The Royals have more pressing issues than extending Hosmer (like extending Alex Gordon), and there's no real rush to get a deal done now. They will pay their first baseman little more than the league minimum over the next two years, so time is on their side. The Fielder contract serves as a harsh reminder though, a reminder that if Hosmer turns into the franchise cornerstone Kansas City hopes he'll be, he might price himself right out of Kansas City. A long-term contract extension could help prevent, or at least delay that.

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Extension Candidate: Joey Votto

With Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols off of the market, Joey Votto is officially the next MVP-caliber first baseman scheduled to hit free agency. The 28-year-old will become available two years from now, after the 2013 season, and if he continues producing, he’ll obtain a mega-contract of his own. 

Joey Votto - Reds

Talk of a Brandon Phillips extension has persisted throughout much of the Reds’ offseason, but Votto, who signed a three-year deal just 12 months ago, is a candidate for a long-term deal of his own. The Reds are poised for a big year after acquiring Mat Latos, Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall, and may prefer to wait until after the season to explore a new contract for the first baseman.

If and when they do discuss a deal, there’s no indication the Reds are going to get a hometown discount from Votto. The Etobicoke, Ontario native finds himself well-positioned for a nine-figure contract. In the past five years, six first basemen have signed deals worth at least $100MM, and those contracts, which are listed below in chronological order, provide a frame of reference for agent Dan Lozano and Reds general manager Walt Jocketty:

  • Miguel Cabrera, Tigers – eight-year, $152.3MM contract signed 3/24/2008 (deal includes six free agent years at average annual value of $21MM each plus two arbitration years)
  • Mark Teixeira, Yankees – eight-year, $180MM contract signed 1/6/2009 (AAV of $22.5MM)
  • Ryan Howard, Phillies – five-year, $125MM contract signed 4/26/2010 (AAV of $25MM)
  • Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox – seven-year, $154MM contract signed 4/15/2011 (AAV of $22MM)
  • Albert Pujols, Angels – ten-year, $240MM contract signed 12/8/2011 (AAV of $24MM)
  • Prince Fielder, Tigers – nine-year, $214MM contract agreed to 1/24/2012 (AAV of $23.78MM)

Back in November, before Pujols and Fielder signed, Ken Rosenthal reported that Reds CEO Bob Castellini appears to believe an extension for Votto is possible. Talks haven't begun yet, according to Jocketty. The GM told John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer yesterday that he hopes to keep Votto in Cincinnati for “a while.” The Reds haven't had a payroll over $81MM since hiring Jocketty and if accommodating Votto's salary in 2012, when he earns $9.5MM, or in 2013, when he earns $17MM, seems difficult, then buying out his free agent years surely will, too.

Securing free agent years from the first basemen above cost a minimum average annual value of $21MM. Cabrera and Howard were two years away from free agency when they signed their contracts and Gonzalez was one year away when he signed his, but they didn’t have to sign at a discount. Neither will Votto. 

If the Reds wanted to lock the 2010 NL MVP up now, I expect it would cost at least seven additional years for $23MM or so per season. Adding a $161MM commitment to the $26.5MM on Votto’s current contract would keep Votto in Cincinnati through his age 36 season — the same age through which Gonzalez, Fielder, Howard and Teixeira are under contract.  

An extension for Votto would be an immense investment for a small-market team such as the Reds, but there’s a dearth of power on the free agent market and the power bats who do become available get paid. In an offseason when the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Dodgers weren’t serious bidders for first basemen, Pujols and Fielder signed the third and fourth largest contracts in MLB history. Votto would seem to be next in line for a nine-figure free agent payday, so the Reds will have to spend big — probably $160MM-plus — to keep him in place.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.

Extension Candidate: Michael Bourn

Icon_13642453The Astros have gone into full rebuilding mode over the last few seasons, and one of the beneficiaries of their retooling has been the Braves. They acquired leadoff man and center fielder Michael Bourn at last year's trade deadline for a package of four young players, though he was unable to help them get to the postseason. As an arbitration-eligible player, Atlanta retained his rights for 2012.

The 29-year-old Bourn and the Braves settled on a one-year deal worth $6.845MM earlier this week, avoiding an arbitration hearing during his final year of eligibility. He's scheduled to hit the open market after the season, and will represent the one legitimate center field/leadoff hitter type in the free agent class. Bourn won't get Jose Reyes or Carl Crawford money, but he's poised to land a sizeable multiyear guarantee with another strong effort this coming season.

Though he hit just .278/.321/.352 in 249 trips to the plate with the Braves following the trade, Bourn had his best offensive season in 2011. He hit .294/.349/.386 overall and stole 61 bases, the most in all of baseball and for the third straight year, the most in the National League. His defense is highly regarded as well, with a +22.9 UZR over the last three seasons. In terms of wins above replacement, Bourn has been worth between 4.2 and 4.9 wins in each of the last three years. His 13.8 WAR since the start of 2009 is the eighth most among all outfielders.

Juan Pierre's five-year, $44MM contract with the Dodgers gives us an idea of what a high-end center field/leadoff hitter type can get on the open market. He hit .298/.343/.383 with eight homers and 160 steals in the three years leading up to his free agency (age 26-28 seasons), while Bourn has hit .283/.348/.373 with seven homers and 174 steals in the previous three seasons (also age 26-28 seasons). Pierre got caught stealing more often (61 to 38), but Bourn struck out more (389 to 118). Pierre's defense was also a notch below Bourn's (+8.9 UZR from '04-'06).

It's worth noting that Bourn is a Scott Boras client, and earlier this month we heard that the two sides had not yet begun discussions about an extension. It's been five years since Pierre signed his contract with the Dodgers, and adjusting up a bit for inflation indicates that five-year, $50MM extension would make sense for both Bourn and the Braves. Atlanta lacks a long-term center field solution in their farm system, but luckily they already have one of the game's best players at the position in the prime of his career at the big league level. Whether they try to keep him beyond this season is another matter.

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.