In extending Keith, Tigers put emphasis on young core

January 30th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Nick Castellanos was sitting in the Tiger Club at Comerica Park before the 2018 season, basking in a positive fan reception at TigerFest, when he waxed romantically about wanting to be a career Detroiter.

“That's Plan A, and I never leave, and I play 23 years in the big leagues here, and I'm an unbelievable right fielder and I'm in conversations with Al Kaline,” Castellanos said at the time. “That's the dream. That's the goal. That's what I love. But we all know in life, we don't always get Plan A. We get Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, Plan E, Plan J. And you just have to make the best of whatever plan you get dealt.”

Plan A obviously didn’t work out. The Tigers were still early in their rebuild, and Castellanos was in the last two years of club control ahead of free agency. Six years later, Colt Keith might have the chance to play out what was once Castellanos’ dream. At the very least, he has the contract stability to start along that path. Just as important, Detroit has put the emphasis on its homegrown core to keep young players around.

Sunday’s announcement that the Tigers had signed Keith to a six-year, $28,642,500 contract -- a deal that could grow to nine years and $82 million with club options and escalators -- was a jolt of energy ahead of Spring Training. Detroit committed to a highly ranked prospect -- No. 2 in the system and No. 22 in baseball according to MLB Pipeline -- before he’d played a game in the big leagues, something the team had never done to this extent.

It's the kind of deal Detroit had been hinting at all offseason.

“We are always open-minded to extending young players who have demonstrated that they can be a part of this,” president of baseball operations Scott Harris said at season’s end. “I just hope that we can get to a place where we can find the players that we really want to extend and get it done and then announce it to you guys and talk about how excited we are.”

At the time, the anticipation was about Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, who have established themselves as Major Leaguers. But the thought process was apparently on the 22-year-old Keith, who could be under contract through his age-30 season.

It’s a new frontier for the Tigers. Former president/CEO Dave Dombrowski signed Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, Rick Porcello and Jacob Turner to long-term Major League contracts out of the MLB Draft, but that was mainly a way to spread out their above-slot signing bonuses before that tactic was disallowed.

This is different. Keith’s deal essentially sets his base salary through what would’ve been his arbitration years, while options allow the Tigers to keep him past the normal threshold for free agency. It’s a move that provides cost certainty in the short and medium-term and flexibility long-term, while still allowing Keith to potentially test the open market during his prime years.

For teams inclined to build from within their system, signing core players to extensions is a key move. Atlanta has arguably become the model for how to contend long-term by identifying core players and signing them early. Reigning National League MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. signed an extension in 2019 after a stellar rookie season that could keep him in Atlanta through '28. Ozzie Albies signed an extension in '19 as well following his first full season in '18, with club options that could run through 2027. Sean Murphy, Spencer Strider, Matt Olson, Michael Harris II and Austin Riley have all signed long-term deals as well. 

Other clubs have committed to players before reaching the big leagues. Just last month, the Brewers signed Jackson Chourio, the No. 2 prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline, to an eight-year, $82 million contract with club options for 2032 and '33 that could push the value to $142.5 million over 10 years -- a record for a player with no Major League experience. The White Sox signed outfielder Luis Robert Jr. to a six-year, $50 million contract with two club options ahead of his debut in 2020.

Of course, there’s risk. Jon Singleton, who signed a five-year, $10 million deal with the Astros just before his MLB debut in 2014, played just 114 MLB games under the deal and was released midway through the 2018 season. Scott Kingery signed a six-year, $24 million deal with the Phillies before his debut, but after an OK start (.698 OPS in '18 and '19), he played 52 games from '20 to '22, didn't play in the Majors in '23 and had his '24 player option declined. But for teams, players and agents -- Keith is represented by Matt Paul of Munger English -- a ton of research precedes such a deal, both to identify the right situation and project how salaries could progress in future seasons.

One deal doesn’t mean the Tigers are headed toward a Braves-like bevy of extensions. But it does suggest Harris is serious about retaining young talent, something he identified as a priority when he joined the club.