If a team loves a young, homegrown star and really wants to keep him, then it offers him a fair-market contract two full seasons before he can be a free agent. Teams often do it before spring training. It’s no baseball valentine. Teams know they can often get a good deal on a long-term contract by offering what amounts to lifetime security at a point when a player still fears he might have a crippling injury or slump and never hit the big jackpot.
That’s not a rule. There are many contrary examples. But it’s a pattern everyone in baseball knows. Right now, the Nationals are at that very juncture with two of their stars, Jordan Zimmermann (19-9 last season) and Silver Slugger shortstop Ian Desmond. Both are model baseball citizens, and Desmond is one of the two main clubhouse leaders, almost indispensable.
In such cases, smart teams in solid markets make a good-faith offer. If you wait too long and the player stays wonderful, his price rises, along with fan demands to keep him. On Wednesday, Clayton Kershaw, one year from free agency, got the biggest pitching contract ever: $215 million. Why did the Dodgers pay so much? In part because previous ownership was too unstable to offer a viable deal a year or more ago.
Each Nats player has a potential contract hang-up. Last April, the Rangers gave Elvis Andrus, then 23, $130 million for 10 years . Contracts are like real estate: Everyone looks for “comparables.” Desmond is the first shortstop to do a major deal since Andrus. The pertinent facts may be “$13 million a year” and “through age 33.” By those metrics, Desmond, 28, might expect about $78 million for six years.
Zimmermann, through his comments, seems more inclined to test free agency. He’s one year further along the arbitration path than Desmond; that sets him up to make more this season, perhaps $10 million vs. $7 million, and ask for somewhat more in a long deal, though they are of roughly equal baseball value. Yes, strange sport. Four years ago (an eon), Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez were two years from freedom and signed five-year deals for $80 million and $78 million. Zimmermann isn’t in their class yet. But, with salary inflation, that may be his neighborhood now, too.
The Nats traded for Doug Fister, a stat clone of Zimmermann who’s also under team control for two more years, for his present pitching value but also for insurance if they can’t extend Jordan and decide to trade him after this season. The Nats would probably need to offer more than $150 million to have a reasonable chance to sign both of their young standouts.
Why even consider such spending when it’s not mandatory? You either have to pay your own players or replace them. Oh, you can bet on your farm system. But the law of hot prospects is: Assume they are frauds.
Isn’t it better to lock up five seasons of your own well-understood player than spend far more to get someone else’s past-30 star?
As expensive as extensions might seem, consider what it might cost to replace Desmond and Zimmermann eventually. Yes, look at comparables. Zimmermann’s past three years (3.12 ERA) mirror Zack Greinke’s past three (3.12) before he got a six-year, $147 million deal a year ago. Ouch.
In Desmond’s case, the Andrus whopper was followed by middle infielder Robinson Cano’s $240 million for 10 years through age 41. Desmond doesn’t approach Cano. But isn’t he worth an investment that might be a quarter to a third of Cano? Tough calls.
When piles of money get this high, only owners make the final call.
“My toughest contract negotiation is always with [owner] Ted [Lerner],” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, chuckling recently.
Lerner should look at how scrupulously Rizzo has dished out his money in the past. The Nats have only done three contracts for more than $30 million — to Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman for a potential total of more than $300 million.
The Gonzalez contract has been a spectacular success. This winter big stiff Scott Feldman signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Astros. That’s the new price of pitching mediocrity. Gio, 28 and a star, is owed just $31.5 million for the next three years! (There goes my once-a-year exclamation mark.) If the Nats exercise team options in ’17 and ’18, Gonzalez would make $65 million for seven years. Seattle pays Hernandez, 27, $175 million for seven.
Zimmerman, 29, has been worth his $26 million (or more) for the past two years. For the next five years, he’s guaranteed $90 million. How good is that? If Zim had been a free agent this winter (and his extension prevented it), he’d have blown that number away. Impact bats were scarce. Shin-Soo Choo got $130 million for seven years from Texas through age 38. If you can chew gum, you got paid: Curtis Granderson, $60 million for four years from the Mets.
Werth is the shocker. He finished 13th for NL MVP. Jacoby Ellsbury finished 18th for AL MVP. Sure, they’re different. But Ellsbury got $153 million for seven years. If Werth were on the market for what the Nats still owe him — $83 million for four years — he’d be gobbled by lunch.
Once a team gets good, extension discussions are always in the air because your core players are actually worth keeping. After this season, about $30 million drops off the Nats’ 2015 payroll with expired deals to Rafael Soriano, Adam LaRoche and others. That means, a year from now, there should be enough money left to talk seriously with Stephen Strasburg, who’ll be at that two-years-to-freedom point.
Maybe he’ll extend. But Scott Boras’s clients almost always crave that free agent jackpot. That’s why the Nats shouldn’t hold back even one dollar now from Desmond or Zimmermann on the theory that it has “Stephen” written on it. Do each deal on its merits as it comes. Don’t outthink yourself.
Finally, what about Bryce Harper? With all this spending, the Nats have no chance to keep him for the long term, right?
Bam-Bam can’t be a free agent until ’19. By then, the current deals to Werth, Gonzalez, plus any five-year deals to Desmond and Zimmermann, would all have expired, taking perhaps $60 million a year off the books. And Ryan Zimmerman’s deal would only have one more year. What a coincidence! (There goes 2015.) Why, you’d almost think the Nats’ front office planned ahead.
Who says you can’t keep ’em all? Or almost all. For quite a while, too.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.