Pre-arbitration extensions aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. We’ve seen an increasing number of long-term deals with newer MLB players — and even pre-MLB players — over the past decade or so. (Way back in 2013, for instance, I referred to a “baseball-wide trend of … early extensions.”) Last winter featured a dizzying number of extensions, including quite a few involving players that hadn’t yet cracked into the big-dollar earnings stages of their careers.
Some further contracts of that kind were to be expected. But we could be seeing yet more expansion of the kinds of players targeted. The early-career extensions inked by still-youthful reliever Aaron Bummer and swingman Freddy Peralta may only be the tip of the iceberg, ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan indicates on Twitter.
It seems there’s something potentially afoot that goes beyond typical team-by-team extension targeting. Passan says that “teams across baseball are trying to lock up pre-arbitration players,” specifically, and that “there could be a rash of such deals in the coming weeks.”
This evidently widespread effort is all the more interesting given the marked open-market shift observed in the just-completed offseason. In each of the two prior winters, free agents — even high-end, younger ones — were approached with obvious reluctance. But MLB teams attacked the 2019-20 market vigorously, doling out both market-moving superstar deals and a series of hefty, lengthy payouts to quality older veterans.
It goes without saying that it’s good for business for a MLB organization to put a quality product on the field. But doing so consistently and in a cost-efficient manner is the gold standard. That’s also naturally quite challenging, since a baseball season is not only a zero-sum game but one that can swing upon innumerable, not-always-controllable factors.
Teams understandably prefer only to enter competitive bidding situations for free agents as needed. It’s not difficult to recognize a team’s potential upside in drafting (or trading for), developing, and then extending a player at an early enough stage in his MLB career that it can lock in low-cost, productive seasons for many years to come. There are obvious risks here as well. The Yankees-Luis Severino extension seemed a slam dunk but has been gutted by unfortunate injuries. But that deal could easily still pay out. Even if it doesn’t, it’d equate to whiffing on a good but not great free agent signing.
Anyway, all of that has long been appreciated and acted upon by MLB teams. So, what to watch for the rest of this spring? Beyond the obvious — whether specific young stars will be approached and wooed — it’ll be interesting to find out how far teams can take this approach. Remember: it’s still unclear just how certain major issues — the next CBA, the lively ball, universal DH, robo umps — will be resolved in the near term. Will there be a chase for upside or an attempt to lock in reasonable rates of pay for solid pieces? Will teams look to get a jump on anticipated changes to the labor market? MLB organizations also value roster flexibility and will be loath to tie up future payroll to non-productive players. Much remains to be seen, but it appears we’re in for another lively and interesting extension season this spring.