Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to an extension with right-handed pitcher Chris Archer, getting control of two of his free agent years in the process. Archer becomes the 15th player during the 2014 calendar year to sign an extension that buys out control of at least one free agent year. The Pittsburgh Pirates made one of those deals, extending Starling Marte two weeks ago.
There have been a lot of extensions of this nature around baseball this off-season. In total there have been 19 extensions that bought out control of at least one year of free agency. In total, MLB teams have combined to guarantee $1.018 billion dollars since the start of the off-season on these extensions. That doesn’t include the potential amount of the option years, which are usually the most expensive part of the deal if they’re picked up.
This isn’t a new trend in baseball. Here are the extension counts, per year, that bought out at least one year of free agency.
2014: 15 (through 4/3)
The 2013 season was a down year. The 2014 season looks to be right on pace with other years if this trend continues, and the upcoming off-season should see the numbers rise.
The trend here is that MLB teams are locking up a lot of good, young players through their most valuable years. As a result, the free agent market has been depleted. Just take a look at the three guys the Pirates have locked up in recent years.
Andrew McCutchen – He would have been a free agent following the 2015 season had the Pirates not extended him. That would have made him a free agent entering his age 29 season. The Pirates bought out three years of control, which means his first free agent year will be his age 32 season. McCutchen will probably still get a huge deal when he’s a free agent. However, that deal will probably look bad toward the end of the contract as he gets older. With the extension, the Pirates got control of the three best free agent years you can get from McCutchen. There could still be some additional quality free agent years when he’s eligible, but that might not be worth the overall price that teams will have to pay.
Charlie Morton – He was set to be a free agent following the 2014 season. The Pirates signed him to an extension that bought out control of three of his free agent years. Instead of being a free agent at age 31, he will now be eligible for free agency at age 34. Like McCutchen, he could still get a multi-year deal. However, the Pirates got his most valuable years, without having to take on any of the years near his mid-30s (the age 33 season is an option year).
Starling Marte – This is another situation like McCutchen. The Pirates would have had Marte under team control through his age 29 season. They now have him under team control through his age 32 season. That makes him a free agent for his age 33 season, and gives the Pirates his best free agent years.
Beyond the Box Score did a study a few years ago, noting the aging curves for hitters. Most hitters peaked around ages 25-26, and really started to decline around age 32. They did point out that fast players have a higher peak and didn’t decline as quickly. A fast player like Andrew McCutchen or Starling Marte at ages 33-35 would be similar to other players at age 31. Likewise, FanGraphs did a study on pitcher aging curves, noting a significant decline around the age 32 season for most pitchers.
The Pirates originally would have had McCutchen through age 28, Morton through age 30, and Marte through age 29. Instead, they extended those three, getting team control of their most valuable free agent years. They also have options on the age 32-33 years for most of these guys, limiting the risk if those guys do see a decline.
This isn’t just the Pirates. This is every team around baseball. The result is that so many young players are giving up their best free agent years in extensions. As we saw with Robinson Cano, those players can still get paid, even after giving up their ages 29 and 30 free agent seasons under an extension. But Cano will eventually be an example of a horrible contract, as he probably isn’t immune to age-related decline.
These extensions have basically killed the value of free agency. If you want a good player, you’re going to have to pay big money for a lot of his least productive years, just to get the few productive years he has remaining. Sometimes, the best players don’t even reach free agency, as we’ve seen with the pre-free agency extensions given to Joey Votto and Clayton Kershaw. Even most of the mid-level free agents require that you sign a few of their least valuable years. There is still some value to be found in free agency, but the market has largely been depleted by all of the extensions we’ve been seeing in recent years.
All extension data courtesy MLBTR’s extension tracker.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.
**Here are our previews for the 2014 minor league season:
- 2014 Indianapolis Indians Season Preview
- 2014 Altoona Curve Season Preview
- 2014 Bradenton Marauders Season Preview
- 2014 West Virginia Power Season Preview
- Picking Two Pirates Breakout Candidates From Each Level