At the beginning of January, we kept extensions for core Cubs positional players on the mind. Looking at five such young players – Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber – I tried to determine which were the most likely to stick with the team beyond the length of control in their first big league contract.
In the end, long-term extensions might be tricky for several of that group, and, even if a theoretical framework existed for all five, the Cubs likely can’t extend all of their young players to expensive deals, so something’s gotta give.
Still, there are other types of contract “extensions” that are much more likely to occur, and they are increasing in popularity around the league. This type of contract extension doesn’t actually extend the period of team control by covering any free agent years, but does provide cost certainty through the years of arbitration.
First up is Josh Donaladson, the 2015 AL MVP. In 2015, Donaldson, 30, was first-time eligible for arbitration as a Super Two Player. That means he received an extra year of arbitration eligibility, spanning the final four – out of six – years of team control (instead of the usual three). With arbitration looming, the Blue Jays filed in at $11.35 million for 2016, while Donaldson’s side countered with $11.8 million. The two sides weren’t actually that far apart, so they decided to take a step further.
Together, they signed a two year deal for roughly $29 million – covering 2016 and 2017 (years two and three, out of four, of arbitration). In this way, the Blue Jays locked in some cost certainty for the next two years and Donaldson mitigated some risk. There was always a chance Donaldson could have beaten the overall value of the extension, over the next two years, but now he doesn’t have to worry about it. With 2018 still negotiable, both sides kept some breathing room and, seemingly, everybody wins.
Following in his path is Diamondbacks center fielder AJ Pollock., who was himself was a down-the-ballot MVP candidate in 2015 after posting a 6.6 WAR. Before signing his extension, Pollock, 28, was arbitration eligible in 2016, 2017 and 2018. For 2016, Pollock’s first year of eligibility, the Diamondbacks filed for $3.65 million, while Pollock’s side countered with $3.9 million. Once again, the sides were not too far off and decided to put together a two-year deal
Together, they agreed to a two-year, $10.25 million deal for 2016 and 2017 – also leaving 2018 up for arbitration. Just like Donaldson, Pollock was a fair bet to beat this overall total over the next two seasons on his own, but locking in $10.25 million in the early stages of a career is hard to pass up.
Lastly, we have Tigers outfielder JD Martinez. His story is slightly different than Pollock and Donaldson, but the lesson is the same. Martinez, 28, was arbitration eligible in 2016 and 2017 before signing a deal for his final two years of control. With arbitration looming, the Tigers offered $6 million for 2016, while Martinez countered at $8 million.
Eventually, both sides agreed to cover his final two years of control in one contract extension for $18.25 million. In 2015, Martinez made $3 million during his first go through arbitration. Had he landed somewhere in the projected $7 million range for 2016 (a raise of $4 million), and he’d need only another equal raise in 2017 to beat this extension. So, like the two players before him, it was certainly possible. Still, Martinez, and the rest, decided to take fate out of the equation and locked in some serious cash up front.
Obviously, we are a few years away from having to have these conversations about the Cubs’ young core, but these agreements present solid parallels to the Cubs situation. For example, each of the players above are among the most talented arbitration-level position players in the league. If these conversations are even going to be worth having in the future, it’s going to be because the Cubs core has exploded and reached their potential. If that doesn’t happen, the Cubs won’t bother guaranteeing money ahead of time, because they might save more through arbitration.
However, the opposite can be true, as well. Often, these types of short-term deals occur precisely because the two sides couldn’t get together on something even bigger, electing instead to settle for some cost certainty here and some guaranteed money there. If the Cubs have better long-term negotiations, these types of short-term deals might take a back seat to a true, full-bodied extension.
Ultimately, these are just templates for discussion, even if they are important ones to consider and keep in mind down the road. Locking up these players is as much about keeping both sides happy as it is about providing the Cubs with the flexibility and certainty to make other moves in the future.