Extension Candidates Rumors

Extension Candidate: Josh Harrison

Asked to create a list of candidates for the 2014 NL batting title five months ago, few would have seriously suggested Pirates utilityman Josh Harrison. However, it’s September 11th, and the .318 mark that Harrison carried into the day paced the National League. A decline in performance for Pedro Alvarez and an eventual season-ending injury for the slugging third baseman have opened the door for Harrison to serve as the club’s everyday option at the hot corner down the stretch — an opportunity on which he has capitalized. Though the 27-year-old Harrison had never even topped 276 plate appearances prior to this season, he’s tallied 472 and should finish the season well north of 500.

"<strongThe Pirates acquired Harrison with little fanfare in the 2009 trade that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Cubs and watched him produce steady batting average and on-base percentage marks as he ascended the minor league ranks. However, while his glovework graded out favorably heading into the season, he also carried a career slash line of just .250/.282/.367 into 2014.

Harrison hasn’t drastically changed his approach at the plate — his swing and contact rates are similar to his previous marks — but he’s slightly increased his walk rate, cut down on his pop-ups and laced line drives at a career-high rate. On top of that, Harrison has found some power despite never hitting more than six homers in a minor league season. He’s swatted 13 long balls and posted a .196 isolated power mark even though he plays at PNC Park, which is known to significantly diminish right-handed pop. The end result has been an outstanding .318/.351/.514 batting line to go along with those 13 homers, 17 steals and strong defensive marks.

Harrison has cleared three years of Major League service time now and will be eligible for arbitration this offseason. Clearly, an NL batting title, 15 or so homers and 20 or so steals will help his agents at Millennium Sports Management make a strong case. However, first-time arb salaries are based on a player’s entire career to that point, unlike second- and third-time arb salaries which are based more on a player’s most recent season. With the agents likely touting an elite platform season and the team likely pointing to earlier seasons to drive the cost down, a multi-year contract might be worth examining. Pittsburgh would get cost certainty, while Harrison would receive financial security in the event that he does not replicate his brilliant 2014.

Of course, from the Pirates’ point of view, they may look at Harrison as a player whose most consistent attributes are defense and baserunning — two aspects that, while valuable, are not highly rewarded in arbitration. While he does have a career-high in homers, the Pirates could also look to Harrison’s average fly-ball distance of 279.98 feet — 136th in the Majors according to BaseballHeatMaps.com — and the fact that seven of his 13 homers fall into the “just enough” category on ESPN’s Hit Tracker. Those two stats suggest that he may have difficulty sustaining this level of power, which would subsequently deflate his arb prices in future cases. A low-payroll team like the Pirates may express hesitancy at over-committing in the event that his power numbers won’t stay this high.

As such, Harrison and the Pirates may have trouble reaching common ground should either side look to pursue a long-term deal that buys out free agent years. The Pirates will cite Harrison’s short track record and reliance on defense and baserunning to provide value. Harrison’s agents, meanwhile, will likely position him as a breakout player and could point to five- or six-year pacts signed by other infielders in the past year or so. However, even a similar late bloomer like Matt Carpenter had an excellent 2012 season and a fourth-place MVP finish in 2013 before signing his six-year, $52MM contract. Harrison has just one elite season.

While Harrison isn’t the first player to jump from utility player to All-Star (though the feat certainly isn’t common), few, if any players have found themselves in his situation and his service bracket and ultimately inked a long-term deal. A look at extensions for infielders with three to four years of service time shows few deals that serve as comparables. Pablo Sandoval signed a three-year, $17.5MM to buy out his arb years at the same stage of his career, but he had a much better offensive profile at that point. Elvis Andrus‘ original three-year, $14.4MM extension was signed when he had an even three years of Major League service. He lacked an offensive season in the vein of Harrison’s excellent 2014, but he had a longer track record of providing value.

The Pirates are one of baseball’s most cost-conscious teams, and as such there would seem to be some benefit to securing Harrison’s arbitration paydays, and for a player with no track record prior to 2014, I’d think that holds some appeal to him as well. Perhaps the two sides could work out a three-year deal in the $15-16MM range to provide Harrison with a lifetime of financial security but still position him to hit free agency at a relatively young age in search of a significant payday. While Pittsburgh would undoubtedly have interest in adding a club option that could push the total value of the contract into the Michael Brantley range (four years, $25MM) if exercised, that doesn’t seem to be a worthwhile trade-off for player and agent, even if the buyout was fairly significant.

Beyond Harrison’s three arbitration years, the situation feels to this writer like one in which the team’s lack of margin for error (due to payroll constraints) makes betting on Harrison’s surprise breakout a bit too risky to pay him like the late-blooming star he could very well be. Of course, there’s risk for the team to pass on a long-term deal as well; if Harrison is capable of sustaining something close to this level of production, his price tag on a long-term deal a year from now could exceed that of Carpenter.

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Extension Candidate: Kole Calhoun

The Angels’ farm system hasn’t won much praise recently, but it seems to have produced a hit in Kole Calhoun. The outfielder sped through the minors despite a relatively modest pedigree (he was an eighth-round pick as a college senior in 2010), skipping Double-A and making it to the big leagues in two years. Last season, in his first extended shot in the Majors, he hit .282/.347/.462 in 222 plate appearances, and this year he’s proven that was no fluke, hitting .294/.349/.485 so far. Offensively, Calhoun combines high batting averages with good power, and he also provides reasonable baserunning and corner outfield defense.

Since he’s already nearly 27, Calhoun’s opportunities to cash in on his early-career success might be somewhat limited. He can’t become a free agent until the 2019-2020 offseason, by which point he’ll be 32. With so much time remaining before free agency, and after receiving a very modest $36K signing bonus out of college, it would probably behoove Calhoun to consider the security of a long-term deal. A pre-free agency extension might represent the best chance for Calhoun and his agent, Page Odle, to land a big contract.

USATSI_8000156_154513410_lowresGiven that the Angels already control what are likely to be Calhoun’s prime years, an extension need not be such a priority for them. And since he isn’t exceptionally athletic and already plays corner outfield, betting on him continuing to be productive well into his thirties seems excessive, from the Angels’ perspective. Signing Calhoun to an extension would, however, have the benefit of controlling his arbitration salaries while possibly also giving the Angels options to control a year or two more than they do now.

Extensions for players with between one and two years of service time used to be somewhat rare, but they’ve become increasingly common since Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo signed deals in Spring 2013. Via MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, seven players with between one and two years of service have agreed to extensions this year: Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons, Jose Quintana, Starling Marte, Yan Gomes, Jedd Gyorko and Sean Doolittle.

Since Marte is an outfielder, his six-year, $31MM deal (which also includes two options) is the most obvious precedent that might guide a long-term deal for Calhoun. Before that, the last extensions for outfielders with between one and two years of service time were those of Jose Tabata (2011) and Denard Span (2010). Both contracts are now too ancient to really matter, with contracts for players like Simmons and Freddie Freeman reshaping the extension landscape since then.

The problem with using Marte’s deal as a precedent, though, is that a Calhoun contract would have a slightly different purpose. Marte was a toolsy, high-upside 25-year-old at the time of his deal, so for the Pirates, his contract was about retaining him long term. Calhoun is older and may have already reached his upside. On the other hand, his offense-heavy profile is more likely than Marte’s was to get him paid in arbitration. Therefore, we might expect a Calhoun contract to be a bit shorter than Marte’s, and perhaps a bit less option-heavy. We might also expect Calhoun to make more than Marte in his seasons of arbitration eligibility.

The possibility of Calhoun becoming a Super Two player following the 2015 season is also a factor. Calhoun entered the 2014 season with 130 days of service. This year’s projected Super Two threshold is two years and 128 days of service time, which means Calhoun could end up on either side of the line. Quintana had one year and 133 days of service when he signed his extension before the season, and his contract with the White Sox contains a clause that pays him an extra $5.5MM if he becomes Super Two eligible. Perhaps a Calhoun extension could include a similar clause.

Of course, Super Two eligibility would not affect Calhoun’s free agency timeline. A five-year deal (beginning in 2015) with one team option might make sense for both Calhoun and the Angels — such a deal would buy out all of Calhoun’s pre-free-agency seasons while giving the Angels the rights to his first season of free agency eligibility. Calhoun would become eligible for free agency as a 33-year-old at the latest, potentially giving him another shot at a multi-year deal if he continued to hit.

Given that the Angels already control one or perhaps two of those five years at the league minimum, the total guaranteed figure for a Calhoun extension need not be huge. Marte will make $21MM over the course of his contract if one leaves aside the last guaranteed year (including his signing bonus and a $2MM buyout on his option in 2020). Calhoun might get a little more than that guaranteed over a five-year deal if he is not Super Two eligible (including a buyout on the Angels’ option for a sixth year), perhaps with a clause bumping his contract to $27MM-$30MM if it turns out he is.

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Extension Candidate: Corey Kluber

The Indians have been active in locking up top young players where possible, with Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Yan Gomes all receiving lengthy guarantees this spring in exchange for cost savings to the club. But the organization has been much stingier with promising dollars to pitchers. Most recently, the team declined to act on the seemingly reasonable demands of Justin Masterson over the past offseason (before ultimately dealing him away this summer). According to MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, the last time Cleveland promised future money to a big league hurler, Roberto Hernandez was still known as Fausto Carmona. Indeed, he was the last arm to receive an extension from the Indians, way back in April of 2008.

That track record suggests that, as aggressive as the Indians have been in making investments in position players, the club has been wary of doing so with inherently injury-prone pitchers. But whatever risk the team builds into its internal models, at some point it makes sense to pursue a deal. That is especially true when unique bargaining leverage might be had, as the player might be more inclined to take a relatively modest guarantee rather than rolling the dice on his own health.

The reason for that lengthy introduction? The team’s current ace, Corey Kluber. Where does the righty stand on the year? 2.46 ERA over 171 2/3 innings. 9.8 K/9 against 1.9 BB/9, 49.7% groundball rate. 2.43 FIP, 2.69 xFIP, 2.70 SIERA. 5.2 fWAR, 5.2 rWAR. 28 years old. Expected service time at end of 2014 season: 2.074, good for a first run at arbitration in 2016.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers

Put simply, these are the kinds of circumstances where an extension could make sense for both sides. Cleveland will no doubt be content letting Kluber go out and prove his worth year-to-year, comforted by the fact that he is controlled through his age-32 season. But arbitration can get expensive, and cost limits (as well as cost certainty) might be attractive. The club’s future commitments drop off after 2016, when the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn deals are up, leaving plenty of space to add some guaranteed dollars. (As things stand, Cleveland has promised just $18.742MM of salary for 2017.)

Meanwhile, for Kluber, a substantial future guarantee would seem to represent a major attraction. As good as he’s been, he had thrown just over 200 MLB innings coming into the season. His strikeout and walk rates are each better now than they ever were over a full minor league season. As a fourth-rounder back in 2007, he was not a bonus baby. And he is still more than a full season away from being paid a fraction of his actual value through arbitration — let alone reaching the open market. And even then, his advanced age would be a major factor. (I looked at the situation of James Shields a few months back, concluding that he would struggle to reach five years at a $20MM AAV in free agency when he hits the market in advance of his age-33 season.) In many respects, Kluber’s situation is not unlike that of the late-blooming Josh Donaldson, with the major difference that Kluber’s earning capacity depends upon the health of a right arm that is subject to immense strain on a daily basis.

What kind of deal might make sense for team and player? It is difficult to find a direct comparable, given Kluber’s rather unique, suddenly-emergent excellence. Kluber’s value is undeniable: he landed at 42nd on Dave Cameron’s list of the game’s most valuable players. But even apart from his poor bargaining position, his age is a major limiting factor on his ability to command big dollars well into the future.

The most recent extension for a 2+ service time starting pitcher was given to Chris Sale of the White Sox before the 2013 season. Sale received a five-year, $32.5MM deal with two option years — the latest example of an oft-copied extension model. (Somewhat notably, Kluber is represented by Jet Sports Management, according to Baseball-Reference, the agency that negotiated Sale’s contract as well as the recent Charlie Morton extension.) More recently, Julio Teheran was able to command $32.4MM over six years from the Braves, while giving up one option year, despite being a year behind on service time.

Those deals guaranteed at least one free agent year, and Cleveland may not be interested in promising any cash for Kluber’s age-33 season. Might the Indians look to promise four years while obtaining two or even three options at a similar guarantee to those contracts? Could the team look to shave something off of the dollars in those packages, possibly in return for reduced future control? Presumably, the key motivation for the team would not be to extend control, but rather to achieve significant cost savings. There are plenty of possibilities, and creative strategies abound to create a fit.

As usual, a motivated club would be the key to striking a deal. Cleveland is in an enviable position with respect to Kluber, who is producing like an in-prime ace (with the peripherals to match) but doing so for a pittance. That situation also brings the temptation of reaching an even better bargain. And surely Kluber’s camp would have to listen hard to any possibilities of signing up for a life-setting payday that might otherwise require plenty more hard work and good luck to achieve. Needless to say, it would be an intriguing storyline to track if either side looks to kick-start offseason negotiations.



Extension Candidate: Pedro Alvarez

USATSI_7848313In May 2013, Pedro Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras, declared that he and his client would be "open" to the possibility of a long-term contract with the Pirates. Since then, and particularly since the Bucs inked Starling Marte to a long-term deal last month, the Pittsburgh media has chattered about the Pirates' chances of signing Alvarez.

That Boras was open to an Alvarez extension wasn't that surprising. Boras' antipathy to pre-free agent deals, or perhaps the impact of his antipathy to pre-free agent deals upon actual negotiations, is sometimes overstated — a number of Boras clients, including Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Pena, Elvis Andrus, Jered Weaver and Ryan Madson, have signed them. (Besides, Alvarez was hitting just .200/.257/.406 at the time of Boras' comments.)

Nonetheless, that Boras is Alvarez's agent is still an issue. Alvarez himself would probably have to be strongly in favor of a deal for Boras to sign off on it. The squabbles between Boras and the Pirates after the Bucs drafted Alvarez in 2008 might be anecdotal evidence that neither Boras nor Alvarez will cede much ground on an extension (although 2008 was also long enough ago that it might not matter). And Boras recently criticized "donut contracts" for pre-free agency players that feature options at the end. It probably would not be easy at all for the Pirates to work out a long-term deal for Alvarez.

Alvarez is set to make $4.25MM this year, his first year of arbitration eligibility, and to become eligible for free agency following the 2016 season. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Travis Sawchik has frequently compared Alvarez's career to that of Chris Davis, and if Alvarez's age-27 season were to go as well as Davis' did, Alvarez would get enormous raises in his last two arbitration seasons — Davis, for example, got a raise from $3.3MM to $10.35MM after hitting 53 home runs last year. Still, a 50-homer season isn't likely for Alvarez, and arbitration salaries are broadly predictable, so let's guess that Alvarez will make about $22-25MM from 2014 through 2016 if the Pirates don't sign him long-term. (A $22MM-$25MM projection suggests he will still get fairly steep raises, given that power tends to be rewarded in arbitration.)

A long-term deal for Alvarez would likely start there. Where it would end up is another matter, and Freddie Freeman's enormous eight-year, $135MM contract with the Braves would be a very tough precedent for the Pirates to get around, given that both Freeman and Alvarez are both corner sluggers with between three and four years of service time. The Pirates might argue that Freeman is two-and-a-half years younger than Alvarez, and has a much better track record hitting for average. But even if we lop the last two years off Freeman's contract to address the age difference, we're left with six years and $91MM, which would be a lot for the Pirates to pay Alvarez, given that his next three seasons will be relatively cheap. Dropping that $91MM total somewhat to reflect Freeman's broader base of offensive skills would only help so much.

And even that might concede too much for Boras' taste. While Freeman is a better player than Alvarez, Boras might not see it that way, perhaps arguing that Alvarez's superior power ought to make him every bit as valuable to the Pirates as Freeman was for the Braves.

At this point, we're left with the question of just what a pre-free agency extension for Alvarez would be for. Alvarez is already 27, and the Pirates control him through his age-29 season. The only point in signing Alvarez long-term would be to control seasons beyond that, and Alvarez and Boras would surely want to be paid quite well to give up those seasons.

The problem is that it's not clear how valuable Alvarez will be in his thirties. His raw power is outstanding, on par with Davis', but only so much of Alvarez's raw power is usable, because of his struggles with strikeouts (he whiffed at least 180 times in both 2012 and 2013) and hitting for average. The track records of sluggers with serious strikeout issues are spotty — Mark Reynolds, for example, was productive while striking out prodigiously in his mid-twenties, but he hasn't had a truly strong offensive season since age 27. Ryan Howard's career and contract provide more cautionary tales. Alvarez's low averages (he's only hit above .244 once in his career) are already a concern. His plate appearances so far in 2014 have looked much better than in years past, so perhaps there's a faint possibility that Alvarez can master his strikeout issues. Unless he can prove himself over a longer time frame, however, it makes little sense to bet on that.

Then there are Alvarez's other skills. He's become an average third baseman and baserunner, but it's questionable whether he'll be able to maintain his current defensive and baserunning abilities as he heads into his thirties, given his bulky physique and lack of raw speed.

Given the likelihood that Alvarez won't age well, then, the Pirates' best course of action may simply be to enjoy the three years of him they have left. Signing a big, strikeout-prone slugger into his thirties doesn't make sense, even accounting for the slim possibility that he'll break out and become the next Chris Davis. Long-term contracts are calculated risks, and other things being equal, it's better to take the risk on a younger, more athletic player like Marte.

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Extension Candidate: Jason Kipnis

USATSI_7305594Second baseman Jason Kipnis and the Indians discussed the possibility of an extension last spring, but put those talks on hold when the 2013 season began. This year, Kipnis is again open to discussing an extension, as Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports. "Absolutely," Kipnis said when asked whether he would consider a multiyear deal. "We haven’t talked about it yet. My guess is if we started it would probably start in spring training when everyone reports. I think they have their hands full with arbitration cases right now."

Kipnis is the Indians' best player, and there are few holes in his offensive game. He hits for excellent power for a middle infielder, draws plenty of walks, and adds value on the bases. There's every reason to expect him to continue to be productive for the next few seasons. Those are seasons the Indians already control, however, which might make it tricky to negotiate a long-term deal with his representatives at Beverly Hills Sports Council.

Kipnis has 2.069 years of service time and will become arbitration-eligible next winter. He's eligible for free agency after 2017, which is his age-30 season. According to MLBTR's Extension Tracker, no second baseman with between two and three years of service time has signed an extension since Ben Zobrist in 2010. Expanding the field to include shortstops and third basemen doesn't yield many particularly revealing comparables, either, although Alexei Ramirez's four-year, $32.5MM contract, signed prior to the 2011 season, comes close. The deal did not kick in until 2012, however, which would have been Ramirez's second year of arbitration eligibility. Kipnis won't hit arbitration for the second time until two years from now.

To fashion a possible extension for Kipnis, let's look at recent arbitration cases to see what Kipnis might make in the 2015 through 2017 seasons. Via MLBTR's 2013 Arbitration Tracker, here are last year's arbitration results for players with between three and four years of service time. One that stands out is Ian Desmond, a shortstop who had been less consistent than Kipnis through that point in his career, but who had a similarly broad package of hitting and baserunning skills. Desmond made $3.8MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Neil Walker, another broadly-similar player, made $3.3MM, although that was as a Super Two.

Our starting point for Kipnis' 2015 season probably ought to be somewhat higher than Desmond's $3.8MM for 2013, compensating for Kipnis' greater consistency. If we guess that Kipnis might make $4.4MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility next winter, then he might make a total of about $20MM in his three arbitration seasons. Add in the $500K or so Kipnis is set to make this season, and we have a basic framework for an extension. The Indians might want to add in another guaranteed year, perhaps including an option. That might bring the total to something like five years and around $30MM-$35MM.

The main reason teams like pre-free agency extensions, however, is because they can control players beyond when they would have previously been eligible for free agency. How valuable Kipnis' free agent seasons will be, though, remains to be seen. Kipnis didn't debut until he was 24, and isn't eligible for free agency until he's about to turn 31.

Baseball history is filled with examples of good second basemen who faded quickly and/or at relatively young ages, including Edgardo Alfonzo, Brian Roberts, Jose Vidro, Chuck Knoblauch and former Indians great Carlos Baerga. Second basemen have to deal with hard slides around the bag, and because many of them (including Kipnis, who played shortstop in high school) are converted shortstops, they often don't represent the best athletes to begin with. Those concerns probably don't apply quite as readily to truly elite second basemen, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs points out. That's one reason the Mariners and Red Sox have been willing to pay big bucks for Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia's thirty-something seasons. But Kipnis isn't in that category.

There is no reason for Kipnis to agree to an extension at a steep discount, either — he's only one season away from arbitration eligibility, and if he continues to produce, hitting free agency at age 30 rather than age 31 or 32 could make a significant difference in his first contract on the open market. Even though Kipnis is a star, then, the Indians could simply decide to take him year-to-year for now. They already control what are likely to be his prime years, and have limited leverage to get him to sign away seasons beyond 2017.

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Extension Candidate: Jean Segura

Early in the season, the Brewers reportedly offered shortstop Jean Segura an extension. As FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported, though, Segura's agent, Joe Klein, had limited interest in an extension for his client, in part because Segura had so little big-league experience that it was hard to tell what he was worth. "[W]ith a guy this young, it’s hard to figure out what the right numbers would be," said Klein. "It would be good, be nice if it was possible to do. But I don’t know. It’s way, way on the drawing board.” USATSI_7315030

Segura is making close to the league minimum this season, and one would think he would be highly motivated to sign an extension. "God give me the opportunity to be professional baseball player and you know, this tough decision to make, but I just wanted to be successful to help my family be good. You know?" Segura told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in May. "And I think this is the only way that I can help them, quickly, you know?"

Still, an extension negotiation so early in the season would have put Klein in a tricky spot. Segura only had about 300 big-league plate appearances to that point, and an extension, even though it would have provided Segura and his family with financial security, would have had every chance of quickly turning into a bargain for the Brewers. In recent years, there have been only three long-term extensions for players with less than a year of service time: Evan Longoria's 2008 deal with the Rays, Matt Moore's deal with the Rays three years later, and Salvador Perez's five-year pact with the Royals. Longoria's contract was unquestionably a great deal for his team, and Moore's and Perez's look like they will be as well.

Now that the season is almost over, there's no indication that Segura and the Brewers have talked again, but Klein's worries about the lack of information about his client should be less of an issue. Klein also now has more leverage, since Segura is closer to arbitration eligibility. Segura now has more than twice as many big-league plate appearances as he did when the two sides reportedly talked early in the season. While Segura cooled down after a very hot start, his abilities to hit for average, steal bases and play shortstop make him an asset worthy of a long-term deal. At age 23, he has been one of the better shortstops in baseball this season.

Jose Altuve's recent four-year, $12.5MM contract with the Astros provides an obvious precedent for an extension for a middle infielder with between one and two years of service time, but Segura is a far better player. According to MLBTR's Extension Tracker, other recent examples of extensions for players with one to two years of service time include Paul Goldschmidt (five years, $32MM), Madison Bumgarner (five years, $35MM) and Carlos Santana (five years, $21MM). All four deals include at least one team option.

Segura is unlikely to produce the sort of power numbers that would have made Goldschmidt lots of money in arbirtation, but a deal weighted toward the low end of these three extensions might work. Currently, Segura is eligible for arbitration after the 2015 season and for free agency after 2018. A five-year deal, therefore, would buy out all of his remaining pre-free-agency service time. The Brewers would certainly want to include a team option or two in exchange for assuming greater risk. A five-year deal, plus an option, for around $20MM-23MM guaranteed might make sense.

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Extension Candidate: Wilson Ramos

The Nationals' 2013 season has hardly gone the way the team hoped and expected. Some of the contributing causes — Ryan Zimmerman's throwing issues; the underwhelming performances of newcomers Denard Span and Rafael Soriano; Danny Espinosa's collapse at the plate — remain concerns going forward. Wilson Ramos's missed time, however, is a factor that promises to turn in the Nats' favor next year. With Ramos set to enter his first year of arbitration eligibility, could this be an opportune time for the Nationals to lock him down for the future? 

Ramos

Ramos's importance to the club is undeniable. While he recovered from ACL surgery and battled a hamstring injury, the recently-departed Kurt Suzuki handled the Nats' primary catching duties. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference grade Suzuki right around replacement level over his 79 games and 281 plate appearances in 2013. Meanwhile, in just 47 games and 181 plate appearances, Ramos has been worth about a win and a half over replacement level (1.2 fWAR; 1.8 rWAR). His .289/.320/.480 triple-slash is good for a 120 wRC+ — 11th among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. Certainly, Washington would have loved to play Ramos for a full season in 2013. Having dealt Suzuki, the team seems poised to do just that next year.

Looking ahead, Ramos seems a good bet to continue to perform. Only recently turning 26, he has a career .273/.330/.443 line over 794 big league plate appearances, well above average for a catcher. Though his defensive performance has had its ups and downs, the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell recently composed an interesting argument that Ramos has consistently enhanced the performances of the Nats' pitchers through his presence behind the dish. 

Of course, Ramos is one of several young Nationals who could warrant long-term commitments, even before considering headline stars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. MLBTR recently looked at the two primary candidates, with Steve Adams profiling the extension possibilities for starter Jordan Zimmermann back in May and Tim Dierkes exploring the case for shortstop Ian Desmond in April. With the price only rising on those two players as they get closer to free agency and continue to perform at a high level, Ramos could represent an even better value proposition for the team.

Previous first-time arbitration-eligible extensions for established backstops are somewhat sparse, but there are a few potential comparables. Suzuki, for instance, signed a four-year, $16.25MM deal before the 2010 season after two solid platform years. The contract bought out his arbitration eligibility at an average of $4.95MM per season, and included a $8.5MM team option season (as well as a vesting component). More recently, coming off of a strong 2011 offensive campaign, Nick Hundley inked a three-year pact that guaranteed the Padres backstop $9MM over three arbitration-eligible seasons and included a $5MM team option for his first free agent year. (Carlos Ruiz and Chris Iannetta both received similarly-valued, three-year deals.)

By depressing his statistical accumulation, Ramos's injury history will reduce the price he might expect to command through arbitration — and, presumably, the price of an extension. Notably, while Suzuki had logged about 600 plate appearances in the two years before he reached arbitration eligibility, Hundley only managed about 300 plate appearances in his three pre-arb seasons. Ramos, on the other hand, has logged less than 300 total plate appearances since his 113-game rookie campaign. 

If the Nats could structure a deal along the lines of the Hundley contract, the team could reasonably expect to achieve significant excess value. For his part, Ramos could well be motivated to seek guaranteed money; he has never earned more than league minimum, has experienced significant injuries, and already faces prospective arbitration earnings that likely understate his true value. And Ramos is represented by an agency, SFX, that has worked out several recent extensions for its clients.

Of course, Ramos's injury history could also be cause for some hesitation on the part of the team. While his ACL tear was something of a fluke, he has followed that up with two long DL stints for hamstring strains this season. Both Ramos and the Nats seem confident in his durability, however, with manager Davey Johnson calling him "a horse." Nationals GM and president Mike Rizzo, meanwhile, has made clear that he views Ramos as a long-term solution behind the dish.

It will be interesting to see whether Rizzo will seek to turn that expectation into a commitment in the coming months, especially with other extension candidates on the docket. Either way, after paying Suzuki $6.45MM for replacement-level play this year, the Nationals should expect to see a substantially better return on investment behind the dish in 2014.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images/Rick Osentoski.


Extension Candidate: Starling Marte

Starling Marte has arguably been the biggest key to the Pirates’ 21-16 start, and at 24, the outfielder looks like an emerging star. This weekend on Twitter, Pirates bloggers and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Travis Sawchik discussed the merits of a possible contract extension for Marte. Given Marte’s skimpy big-league track record — he has just 341 career plate appearances — a long-term deal might seem a bit ambitious right now. But if Marte’s productivity continues, the Pirates will surely consider offering an extension at some point, and there may be a case for offering one sooner rather than later.

According to MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, there have been only three recent extensions for players with less than one year of service time: the Royals’ 2012 pact with Salvador Perez, and the Rays’ deals with Matt Moore in 2011 and Evan Longoria in 2008. All three contracts included three team options, and all gave their teams the rights to multiple free agent years. USATSI_7245576

There would be little point to the Pirates signing Marte to an extension without such team-friendly terms, since a good portion of Marte’s value will likely come from his superior defense and baserunning, which aren’t likely to win him huge arbitration salaries. Whether he’ll continue to post gaudy offensive numbers is less certain. Marte could still be very productive without big counting stats, but without them, he isn’t likely to make huge sums in arbitration.

Therefore, from the Pirates’ perspective, the point of an extension would be to buy the rights to some of Marte’s free agent years while ensuring that the prices of his arbitration-eligible seasons remain low. Any multi-year contract would set Marte for life, and Marte only received an $85K bonus as an amateur, so there would be reason for the Legacy Agency client to consider a deal, even at terms somewhat favorable to the Pirates.

Projecting what Marte might make in arbitration is just about impossible this early in his career. His current line of .336/.399/.517 is likely unsustainable, due to a .422 BABIP. But his speed and minor-league history (he batted .312 in his minor-league career) make him a good bet to continue hitting for average. Scouts also like his power potential. His Achilles heel, if he has one, will likely be his lack of plate discipline — he has just 15 walks in 341 career plate appearances. Even if he struggles as National League pitchers begin to adjust to his tendency to swing at pitches outside the zone, he should provide plenty of value with his defense, but his career could still range anywhere from “superstar” to “Jeff Francoeur.”

Nonetheless, an extension is a risk that the Pirates probably ought to consider. A speculative extension for a largely-unproven player has downside, as the Bucs are finding with their six-year, $15MM deal for now-fourth outfielder Jose Tabata. But it’s difficult for the Pirates to find stars through other means, so it behooves them to lock up their best young players early and cheaply. It’s no accident that the Royals and Rays, whose payrolls are typically somewhat similar to those of the Pirates, are the teams experimenting with early-career contracts for Perez, Longoria and Moore.

Perhaps the best precedent for a Marte extension, though, would be the Twins’ five-year, $16.5MM deal with Denard Span. Span doesn’t have Marte’s power, but like Marte, he generates plenty of value through defense and baserunning. The Twins signed Span before the 2010 season, when he had one year and 111 days of service time. A five-year deal that begins in 2014, when Marte himself will be between one and two years of service time, would put Marte on a similar track. Marte’s potential for big arbitration payouts might actually be somewhat higher than Span’s, due to Marte’s power, so a slightly higher dollar figure might be in order. Span’s contract has one option year; the Pirates could attempt to wrangle at least one additional option year from Marte to help compensate for the risk of signing him so early in his career.

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Extension Candidate: Jordan Zimmermann

On Monday, it was reported that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has approached Jordan Zimmermann's representatives at SFX about a potential contract extension. While we heard in the offseason that both sides were interested in such a deal, this is the first indication that the two sides have begun talks. 

Zimmermann entered the season with three years, 154 days of Major League service time and is controlled through the 2015 season. A Super Two player, the 26-year-old avoided arbitration for the second time this offseason by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $5.35MM.  Zimmermann

A look at MLBTR's Extension Tracker shows that few Super Two starters with three-plus years of service time have signed extensions, and none are particularly good comparables. Expanding the search to include non-Super-Two starters with three to five years of service gives a few more examples. Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez signed five-year extensions worth roughly $80MM that included their final two years of arbitration. Dan Haren, Josh Johnson and Zack Greinke all signed four-year extensions in the neighborhood of $40MM that did the same.

In terms of overall value it seems the Greinke, Haren and Johnson extensions are too light. Zimmermann will likely earn more than $8MM via arbitration in 2014 and should see that salary climb well above $10MM in his final arb year. He doesn't have the track record that Hernandez and Verlander had at the time of their extensions, making $80MM seem rich.

Matt Harrison's five-year, $55MM contract could serve as a framework, but Zimmermann has considerably better numbers at this stage of his career than Harrison possessed when he signed his extension. Harrison's contract seems to be the floor for Zimmermann. Something in the range of $60-65MM over five years seems like a more reasonable target. Such a deal could pay Zimmermann $8MM in 2014, $12MM in 2015 and $14-15MM per free agent season.

Keep in mind, also, that the extensions for Verlander and Hernandez occured prior to the wave of new TV contracts that have left teams with far deeper pockets. Those contracts were also signed under the old CBA, when more players were hitting free agency. Today's game sees more and more good players sign extensions before hitting the open market, which is part of the reason that Zimmermann's case is unprecedented to some extent. Given the influx of cash in the game and the increasing imperative for teams to lock up home-grown talent, the $75-80MM range reached by Verlander and Hernandez in 2010 is probably no longer out of the question.

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Extension Candidate: Jason Heyward

Braves right fielder Jason Heyward is one of few star-caliber players currently going year-to-year.  Just 23 years old, Heyward is under the Braves' control as an arbitration eligible player through 2015.  What would a fair extension look like for the Excel Sports Management client?

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One comparable could be the Orioles' Adam Jones.  Jones signed a six-year, $85.5MM extension in May of last year, about three months after the salary for his second arbitration year was determined.  A Heyward extension, if it were done during this season, would include that second arb year.  Jones was closer to free agency than Heyward is, which generally gets the player more money.  Since Heyward has less service time than Jones did, perhaps the Braves could replace the fifth guaranteed free agent year with a club option.  That would put us around $75MM over six years (2014-19).  Even if the 2020 club option is exercised, Heyward would be able to enter free agency at age 31 and get another big contract.

The Braves, perhaps, could point to an older but more evenly matched Orioles outfielder extension, the one Baltimore did with Nick Markakis prior to the 2009 season.  At the three-year service point, Markakis compared favorably to Heyward in terms of OBP and SLG.  Both players had exactly 59 career home runs, but Markakis had 33% more RBIs and a superior platform year, one in which he posted a .406 OBP.  So even though that contract is four years old, the Braves could make a case against guaranteeing much more than the $63.1MM Markakis received covering his second arbitration year through his third free agent year (five years in total for that slice).  The Orioles did not get a club option on Markakis or Jones, however, so that will be a tough sell for Heyward.

One thing to note about Heyward, of which the Braves are surely aware, is that last year he derived a lot of value through defense, and that generally doesn't pay in arbitration.  Last year's high-water marks of 27 home runs and 82 RBIs are decent, but Heyward would have to take his offensive counting stats to another level to break the bank in arbitration.  In February there was talk of the Braves trying to buy out Heyward's arbitration years, but I don't see much reason for the club to do a two-year deal.  They haven't done a long arbitration year extension in general since Brian McCann in March 2007, according to our extension tracker, and Heyward has significantly more service time than McCann did.  If the Braves want to secure some of Heyward's free agent years, now might be the ideal time.  A five or six-year offer in the $63-75MM range would be fair.

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