JUPITER, Fla. — At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about the contract extension the St. Louis Cardinals signed with shortstop Paul DeJong and announced Monday. Locking up talented young players well before free agency is both accepted baseball economic strategy and a Cardinals specialty, one they have applied in recent years to young stars such as Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Stephen Piscotty and Allen Craig.
But a couple of things make the DeJong contract unique — and make it perhaps one worth studying for the rest of the industry.
For one, DeJong, a 24-year-old converted third baseman who finished second to Cody Bellinger for National League rookie of the year honors in 2017, didn’t make his big league debut until last May; thus, his six-year contract worth a guaranteed $26 million represents the biggest ever signed by a player with less than one full year of major league service time — $1 million more than the one signed last year by Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.
The other unique aspect of the DeJong deal, in relation to the earlier ones the Cardinals signed with their young stars, is the fact this one comes in the midst of what appears to be an industry-wide rethinking of the concept of free agency — a shift that has resulted in an unprecedented number of veteran players still available less than a month before Opening Day, as well as an uneasy labor atmosphere that shows no signs of improving.
Given the fact that every groundbreaking contract resets the precedent for other such deals, and given the larger context of this offseason’s strange free agent market, it is worth wondering whether the DeJong deal, instead of being just a unique case of one player and one team motivated to make a long-term commitment to each other, could be seen as some sort of template for a bridge between the growing chasm between what clubs and players are looking for.
Like all deals of this sort, DeJong’s contract with the Cardinals gives both sides a sense of security. DeJong will earn a life-changing amount of money no matter what happens in his career, and the Cardinals get cost certainty on an asset that could appreciate in value beyond what they are on the hook to pay.
The six years of the deal include all three of DeJong’s arbitration-eligible seasons, while the Cardinals hold two additional club options that cover his first two free agent seasons, when he will be 29 and 30 years old, and that reportedly could push the total value to $51.5 million.
One of the reasons for this winter’s free agent slowdown is the growing belief on the part of analytics-driven front offices that signing free agents to long-term deals well into their 30s is generally a losing bet — because players have typically either begun to decline by then, or will soon.
But the Cardinals, in locking up DeJong’s services through the age of 30, get the entirety of his prime — at what will likely be regarded as bargain prices if he performs as expected — without having to pay for his decline phase. And, of course, depending on DeJong’s performance and value at the end of this deal — and perhaps more importantly, the state of the free agent market at that point — he could still strike it rich again.
Not surprisingly, none of the principal parties in the DeJong deal wanted to read into the deal beyond what it signifies about the relationship between one team and one player.
“The situation between a player’s desires and a team’s desires is so personal, it can only be seen in individual terms,” said Burton Rocks, DeJong’s agent. “There was a strong desire here on both sides to make something happen. You can’t predict trends [in free agency].”
“Every case depends on both sides being motivated to find common ground,” Cardinals General Manager Mike Girsch told reporters. “In this case, we wanted Paul around, and he wanted to be around. I’m not sure if this is the tipping point for some change in the industry.”
“I don’t think [DeJong] was looking at the free agent market and worrying about where he was going to be in six years. That’s a really tough crystal ball,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “Now, if you’re looking at it from the 50,000-foot view, could we see more players being incentivized to do this? I don’t know the answer.”
But Mozeliak, as the head of a front office of a small-market, mid-revenue team, did not deny the lure of getting a player for the entirety of his prime, but none of his decline — when the alternative is finding a replacement through free agency.
“This type of deal typically gives a player that security and gives the team protection from [the question of] where is that cliff?” Mozeliak said. “Small-market teams have always been incentivized to secure their homegrown talent because the free agent market has never been a great place for small- or mid-market teams to survive.”