The past two days have seen the continuation of a recent trend in Major League Baseball -- signing young infielders still years away from arbitration to long-term, low-money deals.
The idea is to provide those players with long-term security and salaries much higher than the league minimums they’d likely see in those remaining pre-arbitration years, while the team likely saves big on the back end of the deal by buying out arbitration seasons years in advance.
On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Phillies announced they signed the yet-to-debut Scott Kingery to a six-year deal that also includes three team options for 2024, 2025 and 2026.
Here’s the breakdown of the Scott Kingery contract:— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) March 25, 2018
$1.5 signing bonus
2019: $1.25 mil
2020: $1.5 mil
2021: $4.0 mil
2022: $6.0 mil
2023: $8.0 mil
2024-26 options are $13, $14, $15 with $1 mil buyout.
It’s a nearly unprecedented move. The Houston Astros signed first baseman Jon Singleton to a 5-year, $10 million contract prior to calling him up in 2014. Singleton has ended up flaming out as a prospect, but the Astros have still only paid him $2 million per year and can get out of the deal after this year for a $500,000 buyout.
In a similar move, the Tampa Bay Rays signed Evan Longoria to a nine-year deal less than a week after his big league debut. That one ended up working out better for the signing team, as one estimate in 2014 figured Longoria cost himself $100 million with that deal and the 7-year extension he signed that guaranteed his salary through 2023.
Today, Arizona’s Ketel Marte joined Kingery in signing a long-term deal that favors security over maximum earnings. Marte, who was part of the trade that sent Jean Segura to the Seattle Mariners, is signing a 5-year, $24 million deal that could end up turning into 7 years and $46 million with two additional team options.
Baseball-Reference has Marte at 1.162 years of service time and seems likely to qualify for arbitration as a Super Two player following the conclusion of the 2018 campaign. He hit .260/.345/.395 in 223 at-bats with the Diamondbacks last season as a 23-year-old and while he came up as a shortstop, now figures to be the team’s long-term answer at second base.
It’s a little different than the Kingery deal in that Marte has at least some body of work in the majors to consider and use in future projections, but it’s also in line with a 6-year, $26 million deal (with two additional team options for 2024 and 2025) Paul DeJong signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after hitting .250/.306/.614 and finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting last year. The Cardinals also signed second baseman Kolten Wong to 5-year, $25 million extension last spring, meaning they have their middle infield locked up for at least the next half decade for just $51 million.
As it so happens, the Brewers also have a young infielder with a little more than one year of service time that could make sense as the next candidate for a long-term extension.
Orlando Arcia hit .277/.324/.407 in 506 at-bats as a 22-year-old last season. That .731 OPS may be a little lower than Marte’s .740, but Arcia had the higher OPS+ (89 to 86) in twice the sample size and he was a year younger.
While Arcia won’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2020 season, a deal like this could serve the budget-conscious Brewers front office well. Not only are major contributors like Jimmy Nelson and Corey Knebel in the middle of their arbitration-eligible years, but next offseason sees Zach Davies, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Manny Pina join the ranks of arbitration-eligibles.
That amounts to a lot of significant raises for significant players on the team -- not just for next season, but the following winters (and frankly might help explain why the team was reluctant to give a multiyear offer to Alex Cobb). It would make a lot of sense for David Stearns to get a head start on Arcia and sign him to an extension buying out his arbitration years (with options for a year or two of free agency) a year early, adding some cost-certainty as he tries to fit everyone else into the team’s budget and locking Arcia in to lesser salaries instead of risking going year-to-year on a potential Gold Glove defender with pop.
If we’re spitballing an estimate, given the production and improvement Arcia has already shown in his first year-plus of big league action, something like a 5-year, $30 million offer with two team options adding another potential $20-25 million might make sense for Arcia. He’s produced better than Marte to this point in their big league careers, has shown more power potential, and is the better defender. Even if Arcia’s bat doesn’t improve much beyond this point, his defense could be well worth $10 million per year towards the end of the contract, especially in 2022 or 2023 dollars.
While the options tacked on to deals like this are typically well below market value, it’s still a guarantee worth tens of millions of dollars -- the kind of money that changes lives for anyone, but especially guys like Marte, Arcia, and other international signees who didn’t grow up with much in Latin America and weren’t at the top of their international free agent class. Marte signed for just $100,000, while Arcia signed for $95,000, according to Cot’s Contracts. Both had to make those bonuses work while they spent years in the minor leagues making peanuts. For them, even “just” $20-25 million over six or seven years is enough to set them and their families up for life.
It’s worth noting not everyone accepts the easy money. The Brewers have tried this in the past with Jonathan Villar and Jean Segura. Both decided to bet on themselves rather than lock in with Milwaukee but may have then pressed too hard to prove their worth, and struggled through poor seasons after rejecting the deals. Segura was at least able to rebound after moving on from Milwaukee and his gamble eventually paid off — he signed a 5-year, $70 million extension with the Mariners last summer.
For those who do take the smaller deals, it’s hard to blame them for taking the money while they can, even if the MLB Players union should probably start getting worried about these kinds of deals. Not only is the market for young, pre-arb players still being set low, but it’s a big reason why free agent classes are getting weaker and teams are losing interest in paying solid veterans.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference