Last year, 56 position players with less than six years of Major League service time were worth at least 2.5 wins above replacement. Of those, 21 have contract extensions that bought out or gave a club option on at least one free agent year. That comes to 37.5%. As popular as extensions are for above-average young position players, 62.5% of our sample has not delayed free agency. Let’s take a closer look.
Of the 35 players who do not have an extension, eight are represented by the Boras Corporation, including Chris Davis, Bryce Harper, Desmond Jennings, Eric Hosmer, and Pedro Alvarez. Boras tends to encourage his players to go year-to-year and reach free agency as early as possible. What about the other 27 players?
- Josh Donaldson, Athletics: Certainly players can and do sign long-term deals after just one elite season, which is what Donaldson has under his belt. Last year was also Donaldson’s first full season as a regular, which at age 27 makes him a late bloomer in this group. One other factor is that he changed agencies within the last few months. Donaldson is off to a torrid start in 2014, increasing his price tag if he decides to do a deal after the season.
- Manny Machado, Orioles. 2014 was also Machado’s first full season as a regular, at age 20. He suffered a torn knee ligament in September that required major surgery (his minor league rehab assignment began tonight), so it made sense to wait on exploring a deal.
- Ian Desmond, Nationals. During the offseason, the Nationals proposed a multiyear deal to Desmond believed to be worth around $90MM, reported Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Instead, a two-year deal was reached that did not affect Desmond’s path toward free agency. One of Desmond’s agents, Doug Rogalski, told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post that talks with the Nationals have been amicable. Elvis Andrus’ eight-year, $120MM deal a year ago will be a factor in discussions.
- Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays. Rasmus posted a 4.8 win season in 2013, but had been worth only 1.6 wins in the previous two seasons. He’s had a couple of agency changes along the way, and is now months from becoming a free agent at age 28.
- Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks. Parra generates much of his value defensively, and has a pair of Gold Gloves to prove it. Defensive-minded players have started to see the dollars more, but offense still earns the big bucks in arbitration and free agency.
- Jason Castro, Astros. The Astros have acknowledged some level of discussion involving a Castro extension, but it hasn’t happened yet. There’s no indication as to how large of a gap the two sides face.
- Brandon Belt, Giants. Belt posted a very strong 2013, but he’s scorching in 2014 with seven home runs in 92 plate appearances. In February, Belt described talks with the Giants as “preliminary.” The price has probably gone up since then.
- A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks. Pollock owed much of his value last year to defense, and with one year of service under his belt there’s no reason to rush to lock him up.
- Jed Lowrie, Athletics. 2013 was Lowrie’s first full, healthy season, and now he’s in his contract year. The 30-year-old will be well-compensated if he posts another healthy campaign, more so if his stellar 2014 walk rate holds up to some degree.
- Chase Headley, Padres. Headley is also in his contract year. He had an MVP-caliber 2012 season, and while 2013 was good, it was a more defense-minded campaign. Headley has had extension talks with the Padres for years, but he appears headed to free agency.
- Kyle Seager, Mariners. Seager has posted two strong seasons for the Mariners, but it’s possible a gap in perceived value exists due to his pronounced home/road splits.
- Craig Gentry, Athletics. Gentry has generated a lot of value defensively and has been something short of a regular, so he remains year-to-year.
- Jason Heyward, Braves. Like Desmond, Heyward signed a two-year deal that did not delay free agency. He was elite by WAR in 2012, but a top-five MVP finish always seem possible for the 24-year-old, and he hasn’t gotten there yet.
- Jean Segura, Brewers. Segura’s breakout 2013 season led to extension talks, but agent Joe Klein told Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, “With a guy this young, it’s hard to figure out what the right numbers would be.”
- Todd Frazier, Reds. Frazier has posted a pair of solid seasons, but the Reds aren’t jumping to extend him after a .234/.314/.407 offensive line in 2013.
- Welington Castillo, Cubs. As a player with one good year, the Cubs can afford to wait to see if Castillo is their catcher of the future.
- Mark Trumbo, Diamondbacks. Trumbo may be year-to-year on account of being a one-dimensional player, though consistent power typically gets paid.
- There are 10 more players who were worth 2.0-2.5 wins in 2013 and have not signed extensions. Some, like Juan Lagares and Gregor Blanco, haven’t established themselves as regulars. Players like Leonys Martin, Brian Dozier, Josh Reddick, and Chris Johnson haven’t had extended success. Others are good but not spectacular, like second basemen Neil Walker and Daniel Murphy.
Boras is a big reason many of the game’s best young position players don’t give up free agent years. The other reasons are varied, with late bloomers, players affected by injury, inconsistent performers, and players who have short track records. While it may not fit the narrative of baseball’s growing extension trend, one overarching theme may be that most of the game’s best young position players still prefer to avoid leaving money on the table to acquire long-term security.
Data from FanGraphs was used for this post. If you’d like to explore this topic further, check out MLBTR’s Extension Tracker. Please note: Yasiel Puig was omitted due to the special circumstances with his seven-year contract.