Extension fever: 5 takeaways from a wild offseason

With stars opting to secure future now, what's impact on next winter?

March 23rd, 2019

As we've noted on a seemingly daily basis this spring, the 2019-20 free-agent class is quickly becoming an endangered species. Chris Sale joined the fray on Friday, as the seven-time All-Star was closing in on an extension to stay with the Red Sox through 2024, and Justin Verlander is believed to be a close to inking a two-year deal in the $66 million range.

The extension craze has already impacted next year's free-agent market in a number of areas, as Sale joins Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Hicks, Miles Mikolas and Ryan Pressly as impending free agents to remove themselves from that list.

How else might the Sale and Verlander extensions change things around the Majors? Here are five takeaways from the Majors' latest mega-extensions:

Extensions are becoming the new free agency
Since the end of the World Series, clubs have handed out a total of $1,337,875,000 in contract extensions to 19 players -- 16 of them since the start of Spring Training. Those extensions vary from the small ($3.25 million for Jose Martinez) to the impressive ($68 million for Mikolas and $70 million for Hicks) to the gargantuan ($234 million for Arenado and $360 million for Mike Trout).

The Sale and Veralnder deals -- which are expected to come in with a total value of $150 million and $66 million, respectively -- would bring that total to more than $1.5 billion, which represents 98 contract years for 21 players. For those scoring at home, that's an average of about $15.9 million per year.

Some extensions went to players still years from free agency, replacing salary-arbitration years and, in some cases, a year or more of a player's potential free agency. For young stars such as Alex Bregman, Luis Severino, Aaron Nola and Blake Snell, these deals have given them (and their teams) certainty over the next few years, removing the potential for the ups and downs of arbitration.

For those players who were heading for free agency next winter, the impetus for signing an extension is entirely different. Given the deliberate pace of the past two free-agent markets, many players are taking the extension approach, saving them the agita of the free-agent process while guaranteeing them a lifetime of financial security.

Of course, it takes two to tango to make one of these extensions happen, so the club must be willing to hand one out just as the player has to have the desire to stay with the team. That won't be the case for every impending free agent, so some players will naturally continue to hit the open market.

High-end pitchers are still getting paid
For all the talk about a sagging market, that certainly hasn't been true for front-line starting pitchers. After Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the next three biggest contracts this offseason went to starting pitchers: Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million), Nathan Eovaldi (four years, $68 million) and Yusei Kikuchi (four years, $56 million).

Of the 13 players to get at least $30 million in guaranteed money this offseason, six were starting pitchers. Corbin, Eovaldi and Kikuchi are still in their late 20s, though even 36-year-old J.A. Happ (two years, $34 million), 31-year-old Lance Lynn (three years, $30 million) and 35-year-old Charlie Morton (two years, $30 million) cashed in this offseason.

Dallas Keuchel appears to be the outlier in this area, but for 2019-20 free agents -- including Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler -- the prospect of hitting the open market should be less scary than it might be for position players.

Could Wheeler be next offseason's Eovaldi or Corbin?
Prior to 2018, Eovaldi had a 38-46 record with a 4.21 ERA -- and two Tommy John surgeries -- on his resume. Corbin was 45-47 with a 4.12 ERA and a Tommy John procedure of his own through 2017, pitching 139 career games (121 starts) to Eovaldi's 134 games/127 starts.

Corbin produced a better 2018 season, pitching to a 3.15 ERA over 200 innings, good for a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young voting. For his efforts, he received $140 million from the Nationals, while Eovaldi -- who had a 3.81 ERA in only 111 regular-season innings for the Rays and Red Sox -- parlayed a stellar October into a $68 million deal, a number few saw coming before last season.

Wheeler (who has also had Tommy John surgery) enters his walk year with a 33-30 record in 95 career starts, having missed two full seasons following his surgery. But the 28-year-old right-hander had a huge second half last season (9-1, 1.68 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break), giving him ample momentum heading into 2019.

With Sale off the market, Cole is widely viewed as the top starter available next winter, followed by Bumgarner and Verlander, though there's serious buzz within the industry that the latter may sign an extension of his own to remain in Houston.

Two years ago, it was preposterous to think Corbin would get more money than Keuchel or that Eovaldi would land the second-biggest pitching deal of the offseason, yet both happened. A big season by Wheeler could thrust him into those conversations next winter.

Betts and Bogaerts appear headed for free agency
Boston's decision to lock up Sale came as no surprise, especially as other members of the would-be '19-20 free-agent class began to ink extensions of their own. Is their willingness to extend Sale a sign that Mookie Betts and/or Xander Bogaerts might be next? Don't count on it.

Betts appears destined to test the free-agent market, especially now that Trout has shattered the salary ceiling with his 10-year, $360 million extension. For the Red Sox to sign him, the club would likely need to dole out more than the $330 million the Phillies gave Bryce Harper -- and for fewer than the 13 years Harper signed for.

Bogaerts is represented by Scott Boras, who typically likes to take his clients to free agency, especially when they're only one season away. Despite the rash of extensions taking place in recent weeks, it would be somewhat surprising for Bogaerts to join the party.

One interesting note: Sale's deal will include some deferred money that could help the Red Sox keep their luxury-tax number down in future years, giving them more flexibility to keep their stars.

2019 could be a big season for mid-level free-agent starters
There's little doubt that Cole and Bumgarner stand to make some serious money if they reach free agency, but as we've seen with starters such as Wade Miley, Clay Buchholz, Gio Gonzalez, Drew Pomeranz and Jeremy Hellickson, not all starters land eight-figure deals.

That said, with Sale off the market, the top end of the pitching market is thinning out. Just as Eovaldi boosted his value significantly with a huge October, starters such as Matt Harvey, Michael Pineda, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Wood could see their value skyrocket if they're able to post solid seasons.