Ben Nicholson-Smith is a staff writer for MLBTradeRumors.com. This is part of a series of guests posts he’s writing here on the site. You can check out his work regularly over at MLBTR.
Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth know all about the importance of contract years. Those three players and dozens of others played well in 2010 and went on to sign lucrative contracts in free agency this offseason.
Free agents enter their walk years with the expectation that a big season will lead to a big contract, but they aren’t the only ones who can cash in on a productive year. Let’s take Rickie Weeks and Jose Bautista, two players who signed extensions worth a combined $102.5 million last week. Neither player had performed at an elite level in the major leagues before 2010 and neither player was in a “contract” year, but both broke the bank after breakout seasons.
Bautista and Weeks did know that productive showings would lead to considerable raises. Both players started last season with the knowledge that the arbitration process would reward them for successful campaigns. But even players who could not have reasonably expected a new contract or a raise through arbitration turned productive 2010 seasons into contracts worth $30 million-plus.
Troy Tulowitzki was already under team control through 2014 before he re-worked his current contract into a ten-year, $157.5 million deal that should keep him in Denver for at least another decade. What changed? Tulo returned from a left wrist fracture – an injury that often saps players of their power – and hit like never before. He out-homered the Orioles (yes, the entire team) after September 1st thanks to a white-hot stretch from September 3rd-18th when he hit 14 homers in 15 games. The results: a .315/.381/.568 season line, multiple postseason awards and the eighth-biggest deal in the history of the game, even though Tulowitzki had no reason to expect a new contract.
For lots of pre-arbitration eligible players, a breakout season means a raise from the major league minimum to $500,000 or so. For Carlos Gonzalez, it meant an $80 million extension. Unlike his teammate Tulowitzki, who entered the 2010 season as an established star, Gonzalez had a true breakout season last year.
He led the National League in hits (197), batting average (.336) and total bases (351), while hitting 34 homers and stealing 26 bases. The results impressed Rockies ownership and, even though CarGo wouldn’t have been arbitration eligible until the 2011-12 offseason, he landed an $80 million deal.
Alexei Ramirez entered the 2010 season knowing that he wasn’t going to earn more than $2.75 million in 2011 (the shortstop’s contract stipulated that the White Sox could lock him in at $2.75 million instead of going to arbitration). Ramirez’s .282/.313/.431 line pales in comparison to Tulo’s 2010 numbers, but few shortstops hit as much as Ramirez, last year’s American League Silver Slugger winner. The White Sox rewarded him with a $32.5 million deal, though he was under contract for 2011 and wasn’t eligible for free agency until after 2013.
Position players weren’t the only ones to cash in. Bronson Arroyo entered the 2010 season with the understanding that a poor showing would cause the Reds to decline their club option. But Arroyo had no reason to expect that a strong season would set him up for a $35 million payday. If Arroyo pitched well, the Reds would simply exercise his $11.5 million option for 2011.
Arroyo pitched well enough to win 15 games for a third consecutive season and log 200-plus innings for a sixth consecutive season. Buoyed by a career-low BABIP, Arroyo kept his ERA under 4.00 (3.88) despite peripherals (4.60 xFIP, 4.61 FIP, 5.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 7.8 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 43.4 GB%) that suggest he’s due to regress. Though Arroyo could not have expected a multiyear contract heading into the season, he ended up signing a three-year, $35 million extension thanks to a durable season and GM Walt Jocketty’s enthusiasm for offseason extensions.
This year is not exceptional, either. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 offseason, Ricky Romero, Kurt Suzuki, Brett Anderson, Adam Lind, Denard Span and Justin Upton have also cashed in on big years before becoming arbitration eligible.
It would be impossible to try to predict which pre-arbitration players (Trevor Cahill? Clay Buchholz?) will turn strong seasons into guaranteed money or which established stars will re-work contracts after standout performances. But know this: owners are willing to spend and GMs don’t like losing star players, so regardless of service time or contract status, every year is a contract year.