Projecting pitchers too far into the future can be pretty dicey. Elbow problems lead to Tommy John surgery and a 15-month recovery period. Shoulder problems can end careers. Fastballs drop in velocity and effectiveness fades. As a result, teams would prefer to be pretty careful when investing money in pitching. The problem for teams, however, is that pitching is expensive. An average starter costs nearly $100 million on the free-agent market, and good pitching costs double that amount. Good, cheap pitchers are young, and while they might remain good, they will not remain cheap. Teams then choose to invest in this risky position by extending young, cheap pitching with the hope of avoiding the free-agent market. Sometimes it works, like with Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale. Other times, like with Cory Luebke, the team gets very little in return. This spring, there is a great crop of young pitchers teams should be looking to lock up long term, led by Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Sonny Gray.
A year ago at this time, I put together a list of potential extension candidates headed by Corey Kluber. Among the other players on the list were Drew Hutchison, Wily Peralta, Shelby Miller, Tom Koehler, and Dallas Keuchel, who I foolishly downplayed. Hutchison, Peralta, and Koehler had disappointing seasons while Miller was solid and Keuchel and Kluber were fantastic. That collection of players illustrates the risk both of locking up young talent and also failing to do so. Keuchel’s cost will soar during arbitration, making an extension expensive (and also unlikely), while extensions for Hutchison and Peralta would look like mistakes just one year later. Cleveland locked up Kluber, adding him to the list of pitchers extended over the past few springs. The numbers below were all current at the time of the relevant extension.
While last year’s class was not overly inspiring at the time and resulted in just the one extension for Corey Kluber, this year’s class of players one year away from arbitration is loaded.
Compare this list with the players who have signed contracts. Six of the players have higher a higher WAR than Chris Sale when he signed his extension and nine players have already accumulated more than five wins despite little experience in the big leagues.
While all of these players fit the profile of a player who might be signed to a contract extension, not all players are realistic candidates. Gerrit Cole’s agent is Scott Boras, and unless the latter changes his strategy dramatically, Cole is likely headed to free agency after the 2019 season. Mike Fiers is a bit older (31) than the rest of his class and both he and Alex Wood are in fights to remain in the rotation to start the season. Zack Wheeler still has not pitched since having Tommy John surgery, and betting on Jarred Cosart would take quite the leap of faith.
Perhaps the most ideal candidate for an extension on this list is Jacob deGrom. He is a year away from arbitration, but will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season. He is older than others on the list (27), but not too old to be considered for an extension. There’s also the relative modesty of his original signing bonus, and the fact that he’s stated publicly his willingness to consider an extension.
“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,” deGrom told the New York Post this week at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.
Billy Beane has downplayed the notion of an extension for Gray, and he might not make sense given where the A’s are financially and their continual roster turnover; however, securing a few extra years of Gray could prove to be a windfall for the organization as well a great potential trade asset. Dan Szymborski rated Gray as the 20th-best contract asset right now, a list that also included Archer, Bumgarner, and Sale. If the A’s are thinking about trading him within the next year, there’s not much motivation for an extension now, but if they want to retain his present value on the team and keep his trade value high, an extension could accomplish both goals.
Jake Odorizzi has been solid but not spectacular for the Rays, putting him in a bit of no-man’s land in terms of an extension. He’s a bit like Jose Quintana in that respect when Quintana signed his extension for the White Sox. Quintana’s contract was going to be a good value for the White Sox if he kept up his production up to that point, but it has turned into a fantastic contract due to Quintana’s continued improvement. Odorizzi might be a risk that the Rays choose to avoid, opting instead to go from year to year through arbitration as opposed to committing the $25 million to $40 million necessary to lock up Odorizzi or any of these other young pitchers.
Carlos Martinez, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, and Taijuan Walker are all young and incredibly talented, but questions surround these players. Wacha tired down the stretch last season and Martinez was shut down in September. Stroman missed most of last season due to injury, while Walker has a short track record and gave up an unhealthy amount of home runs last season. If these players do not receive extensions now, it might be too late by next year.
The four players above present the most interesting opportunities when it comes to committing long-term. They have shown flashes of ace potential and all have provided at a minimum a decent level of performance at the major league level. They have not quite contended for Cy Youngs like Gerrit Coleor Sonny Gray, but you don’t have to squint too much to see that level of performance in the near future. They all still have risk that their contracts would not pan out, but the potential for a reward is enormous. Projecting pitchers too far ahead is not likely to yield great accuracy, but if we do not see many extensions this spring, the winter after the 2019 season could see an incredible amount of pitching talent in the free-agent market.
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