Early-Season Contract Extensions Raise a Few Questions

PhillipsThree big contract extensions in 24 hours. How’d the Indians, Rangers, and Reds do? Let’s take a look.

Carlos Santana signs a five-year, $21 million deal with the Indians that includes a $12 million club option for a sixth year.

Seven years ago, almost to the day, the Indians locked up a slugging, switch-hitting catcher to a five-year, $15.5 million contract with a club option for a sixth season. Victor Martinez proceeded to crush the ball for the duration of that contract before getting dealt to Boston in 2009.

Adjust for the expected salary inflation and you have a nearly identical contract for a nearly identical player in Santana. Acquired in one of the biggest heists of the decade for a rental on aging third baseman Casey Blake four years ago, Santana has grown into one of the Indians’ best players and one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. He cranked 27 homers in 2011, his first full season in the majors, ranking among the league leaders in walk rate; only a flukishly low .239 batting average, held down by a .262 BABIP, put a damper on Santana’s otherwise excellent year. Santana is already 26 years old after a late start to his major league career, but Cleveland should nonetheless catch his prime years in the deal, without the heavy downside risk that comes with signing free agents in their 30s. Santana played 66 games at first last year, part of the Indians’ effort to platoon backup catcher Lou Marson in against lefties, spare their young star’s knees, and get Santana as many at-bats as possible.

The Indians aren’t necessarily getting a bargain. FanGraphs’ Mike Axisa looked at four other premier offensive catchers and their earnings over the same five-year stretch for which Santana got guaranteed money. He found that Santana will earn as much as top earners Joe Mauer and Mike Napoli, and considerably more than Brian McCann and Miguel Montero for that same period. It seems the Indians aren’t likely to squeeze huge value out of the deal … even after accounting for inflation, and even if Santana rakes as expected.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a deal being advantageous for both sides, and this one fits that bill. Teams are being more aggressive about locking up pre-arbitration players, with MLB Trade Rumors counting 11 such deals since the end of last season: Santana, Andrew McCutchen, Derek Holland, Jon Niese, Alcides Escobar, Cameron Maybin, Sergio Santos, Jonathan Lucroy, Cory Luebke, Salvador Perez, and Matt Moore. In all those cases, the signing team locks in cost certainty on potential stars. In the Indians’ case, they also hold an option on a great one-year, $12 million bargain for Santana’s would-be first post-free agency season. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s mashing catcher is now set for life. Win-win.

Ian Kinsler signs a five-year, $75 million deal with the Rangers that includes a club option for a sixth year.

Let’s start with a complaint: The deal doesn’t take effect until 2013, meaning he’ll be signed from age 31 through 35. It’s not even the age so much as the time frame that’s annoying, though. At some point in the past few years, doling out contract extensions that don’t kick in for another year or more became de rigueur. The most infamous example of this kind of deal is the five-year, $125 million pact the Phillies gave Ryan Howard: Not only have his skills started to erode, with Howard getting eaten up by lefties and never possessing any defensive value … he also started his new contract on the DL, rehabbing from a major Achilles injury that might cost him half of this season. (Joey Votto’s monstrous 10-year deal also doesn’t kick in until 2014, ostensibly making it a 12-year contract). The future can be a dark and scary place, even for a superstar player; every time Kinsler so much as sneezes this year, you hold your breath and hope this isn’t another Ryan Howard situation.

But make no mistake: Ian Kinsler is a superstar player. Over the past four seasons, only 10 position players have delivered more value to their teams than Kinsler; the list of players below him includes Mark Teixeira, Troy Tulowitzki, and Kinsler’s more decorated teammate, Josh Hamilton. You can find a few reasons why Kinsler hasn’t quite gotten the accolades that other elite players have:

• He’s not a high batting average guy, hitting .276 for his career and just .255 last season. His batting eye has improved with every passing year, though, to the point that Kinsler’s now one of the toughest batters in baseball to strike out. He was even unluckier than Santana last year on balls in play with a .243 BABIP, a number that’s even fishier given Kinsler’s excellent speed. If you had to bet on a huge batting average jump this year for anyone in baseball not named Adam Dunn, Kinsler might be the guy.

• He has a diverse skill set. You wouldn’t think this would make a player underrated. Elite prospects are heralded as five-tool guys who can do everything. But somehow being very good at everything but not exceptional in any one area has a tendency to leave players forgotten in, say, MVP or Hall of Fame voting. Kinsler fits that mold.

• He’s been injury-prone. Kinsler set a career high with 155 games played last season. But he played in just 103 games the year before, and has only one other season on his ledger in which he played in more than 130. The optimist would check his track record and see a 5(ish)-win player even in abbreviated seasons; a pessimist wonders if Kinsler’s likely to get healthier given he’s about to pass his 30th birthday.

It’s that last point that raises some concern. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron discussed the high attrition rates that seem to plague second baseman in general, let alone those who already have a history of injuries. The Book Blog’s Tom Tango argues that attrition rates are high for players at other positions, too, as players pass their 30th birthdays, and that it might not just be a second baseman thing. In any event, Cameron notes that the Rangers have a fantastic middle infield prospect named Jurickson Profar who could and should crack the majors at some point during Kinsler’s five-year deal. Slotting Profar (or current shortstop Elvis Andrus) in at second and moving Kinsler to a less-demanding position such as an outfield corner could mitigate some of the risk for injury and reduced performance that Kinsler will face.

Here’s the thing, though: Even after accounting for all those negatives, Kinsler isn’t actually making a ton of money by current standards. Tango has written numerous times about the going rate for one Win Above Replacement on the open market, currently around $5 million. Assuming an inflation rate around 5 percent per year (and that might be low given the proliferation of monster TV deals, the Votto contract, and the mind-boggling Dodgers sale) and an expected attrition rate for Kinsler of half a win per year, you’re banking on Kinsler to be something like a 4-WAR player (or slightly less) in year one of his contract, with gradual erosion to follow in the ensuing years. That’s a perfectly reachable standard for Kinsler: Players in that ZIP code last year included Erick Aybar, Nick Swisher, and Matt Joyce.

The Rangers have plenty of money, and they spent it on the guy who might quietly be their best player. Makes sense.

Brandon Phillips signs a six-year, $72.5 million deal with the Reds.

A year older than Kinsler, Phillips will have his deal start at the same time in his career as Kinsler’s, given the one-year lag before Texas starts cutting those new checks. Never one to draw many walks (Phillips’s career walk rate is just 6.3 percent) and lacking Kinsler’s 30-homer power, Phillips derives much of his value from speed and defensive range, skills that don’t figure to age all that well over the next six years.

In fact, if you use Baseball-Reference’s definition of Wins Above Replacement (which uses different metrics for base running and defense than does FanGraphs), Phillips shows up as just a two-win player from 2007 through 2010. In other words, roughly a league-average player. If and when Phillips’s diminished speed and reaction times start eating into his typically solid batting averages, he could turn into a below-average offensive player quicker than the Reds would like.

The Reds also play in baseball’s smallest television market, working off a relatively modest TV deal that has them locked in through 2016. Risking $72.5 million on a player with Phillips’s profile leaves the Reds vulnerable to an overpay that could affect their ability to do other deals when the time comes.

But as we discussed when Votto and Matt Cain signed their recent megadeals, teams are getting increasingly aggressive about locking up their own players before they can hit free agency, to the point where there won’t be much left for teams to bid on in free agency. Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli project as the biggest gets in the free-agent class of 2012-13. The Dodgers might give up an endless stack of imaginary Guggenheim Partners bucks for Hamels, leaving 29 other teams set up for potentially huge overpays on a pair of over-30 players who don’t quite earn the label of superstar. Had the Reds let Phillips test free agency, the very limited supply of top talents combined with screaming demand from teams itching to improve might’ve robbed them of their second baseman, and left no other great options to replenish the roster’s talent.

Reds owner Bob Castellini made no secret of his involvement in the Votto deal, pushing hard to lock up the 2010 NL MVP for as many dollars as it took, the same way Arte Moreno stepped in to make Albert Pujols an Angel and a $240 million man. Once the Reds took that step, (potentially) overpaying for Phillips made more sense. Rather than competing for baseball’s marginal-dollars-per-marginal-wins title, the Reds see a window in which Votto (signed through 2023), Phillips (signed through 2017), Mat Latos (under team control through 2015), Aroldis Chapman (signed through 2015), top catching prospect Devin Mesoraco (under team control through 2017), Jay Bruce (signed through at least 2016), Drew Stubbs (under team control through 2015) and others could help the team compete for its first World Series since the Nasty Boys brought one home 22 years ago.

This is, to be blunt, a Fuck It deal. Given the prevailing circumstances, that might not be a bad way to do business.

One potential contract extension to fear: Josh Hamilton. Yes, Hamilton earned every bit of his 2010 acclaim, packing 8.5 WAR into a season in which he only played 133 games and sailed off with the MVP trophy. But in this case, the attrition risk is even higher than it was with Kinsler. Hamilton has played 156, 89, 133, and 121 games in his four seasons with Texas. He also has a history of substance abuse that’s been tough to shake. And he doesn’t offer the advantage of playing a premium position.

Lots of assumptions here, starting with Hamilton’s star power, power profile (sluggers tend to make more than speed guys or players with multiple, more subtle skills), and MVP making him a potential nine-figure signing. The Rangers have progressed to the point that they’re now perennial contenders, and you won’t see, say, the Yankees let a player of Hamilton’s talents walk at this point in his career. But despite the Rangers’ greatly improved financial standing, they’re still not quite the Yankees, and Hamilton’s downside could be a lot worse than losing 10 points off his batting average and a few homers with each passing year. As thin as the market figures to be, I’d consider a Plan B in lieu of a 31-year-old Hamilton given his pending free agency — be it a blockbuster trade or some other approach.

One potential contract extension to cheer: Zack Greinke. Again, lots of assumptions, starting with Greinke costing somewhere around the $112.5 million it took the Giants to re-up Matt Cain. Greinke’s smack in the middle of his prime at age 28, with off-the-charts peripheral stats that suggest a Cy Young candidate. He led all qualified starters last season with 10.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, while also maintaining his trademark pinpoint control. Though he posted a fairly mediocre 3.83 ERA, Greinke’s underlying numbers added up to an xFIP of 2.56, also the best mark in the majors.

He might never again post a 9-WAR season like he did in 2009. But you can argue Greinke as one of the 10 best pitchers on Earth right now, with no real weaknesses other than being, let’s say, quirky. It’s sacrilege to tout a great pitcher as a better long-term investment than a great hitter. If the Brewers can get him on a five-year extension the way the Giants did with Cain (and not have to guarantee six or seven years), Greinke becomes a worthy exception.

Filed Under: Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Josh Hamilton, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri