MLB Contracts: Five Young Players in Line for Big Paydays

By Mike Cardillo

Baseball super-agent Scott Boras spent a portion of this week meeting with the Washington Nationals, presumably to talk about his two high-profile young stars, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Teams locking up young stars to big contracts, essentially buying out their arbitration years, has been a growing trend (ie. Elvis Andrus, Evan Longoria, etc.) across baseball. Boras, meanwhile, has been reluctant to take his clients down this route.

Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore speculated that Boras may have been hinting at megadeals for Harper and Strasburg – perhaps 12-year deals worth over $300 million to keep them in Washington. That’s crazy money – especially on the heels of the nine-year pact the Angels gave Albert Pujols.

But locking up younger players like Harper, who haven’t even hit their prime, that’s not all that crazy, is it? It’s an intriguing thought. Intriguing enough to start thinking of some players who’d merit such lengthy and lofty deals while they’re still under team control.

For the sake of this argument, we’re going to omit Clayton Kershaw since everybody expects the Dodgers lefty will hit the open market after the 2014 season. He’ll be 27 when he begins the new contract, so expect even more than what the Mariners paid Felix Hernandez (7/$175 million) and the Tigers handed over to Justin Verlander (7/$180 million). LA gave Zach Greinke $24.5 million per year for five years, so figure Kershaw to want more than that. A potential bidding war between the Dodgers, Yankees and maybe even the Rangers figures to push Kershaw’s upcoming deal past the $200 million mark.

Candidate: Bryce Harper (20 years old)
Current deal: 5/$9.9 million, expires 2015.
Upside: Harper could develop into one of the all-time best players in baseball history — that’s the narrative anyway. Although injuries have limited him this season, he’s still posted an OPS over .900. All the “can’t miss” talk about Harper appears to be accurate. There is talk he wants to spend his entire career wearing one team’s uniform, which is appealing to the Nationals — a team with minimal history of its own.
Downside: Seemingly little, unless Harper spends all his money buying tank tops.
Reasonable offer: Nine years for $28 million per season. It wouldn’t be as much as A-Rod’s current deal, but would surpass Pujols. It would be attractive for both sides, since it would give Harper one more chance to land a mega-deal before he’s 30.  You have to account for the Boras-factor. The Nationals will overpay if they want to sign him before he hits free agency. You know there’s a plan already hatched in the Bronx to try to get Harper in pinstripes. It might even be the final line in George Steinbrenner’s will.

Candidate: Mike Trout (22)
Current deal: 1/$510,000; arbitration eligible in 2015.
Upside: When he finishes this season, Trout will have two full years in the bigs and likely two second-place MVP finishes. At the moment he’s the game’s best all-around player.
Downside: Not much.
Reasonable offer: Buy-out his arbitator years with five years (plus an option) for a guarantee of $110 million.  This is more in line with the extension Troy Tulowitzki signed with the Rockies back in 2008, which eventually escalated to $20 million per year by the end of the deal. Trout’s extension/free agency will actually be more fascinating than Harper’s. One, he’ll likely want a deal in the range of what Harper receives. Their two deals figure to be intertwined. On top of that, his teammates Josh Hamilton and Pujols  will make $25.5 and $24 million respectively in the 2015 season. The Angels will have their work cut out for them. It’s probably not going to be current GM Jerry Dipoto making the call, either.

Candidate: Matt Harvey (24)
Current deal: 1/$498,750
Upside: Signing Harvey, who’d averaged over 96-mph on his fastball this season, would be a goodwill gesture by the Wilpons toward biter Mets’ fans who’ve grown tired of the cost-cutting the last five years. At the start of the season Harvey was the biggest star in New York, which is no small feat for a guy playing at Citi Field to accomplish.
Downside: Since the Mets’ can’t catch a break, Harvey was diagnosed with a partially torn ligament in his elbow on Monday. He vows to be back by Opening day 2014, avoiding Tommy John surgery.
Reasonable offer: Pre-injury: Eight years, $22 million per season. Post-injury Five years, $18 million per season. Harvey talked about earning a $200 million deal earlier this year. With the injury, it’s doubtful the Mets will rework his current deal right away. They could try to buy out his arbitrator years, but would be dealing with Boras to do so. Bear in mind there are stats out there that over a third of current MLB pitchers have had elbow surgery, so Harvey’s career is far from in jeopardy, but until he’s back out there healthy his future contract status is up in the air. We’ll talk about this a little more with the next candidate, as it bodes well for Harvey..

Candidate: Stephen Strasburg (25)
Current deal: $3.9 million, arbitration eligible 2014-16
Upside: Strasburg was shut down last season after 159+ innings. He’s right around that total this year and his numbers are almost the same, except for his record. His strikeouts are down by about 30, but he’s allowed 15 fewer hits pitching to a 2.96 ERA.
Downside: You could wonder how much better he’ll get than where he is right now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Reasonable offer: Six years for $24.5 million. We started off here talking 12-year contracts. To give one of that length to a pitcher is foolish when you factor in age and injury possibilities. Strasburg has come off UCL surgery, the same injury that hit Harvey and has not been any worse off. Strasburg will be an interesting case for baseball and Boras in the winter. Will he take the arbitration salaries the next three seasons and then hit the open market, or cash in for a long-term extension? My guess is he’s a free agent and the bidding will start at whatever number Kershaw agrees on next winter.

Candidate: Manny Machado (21)
Current deal: $495,00
Upside: For the first month or two of the season, Machado was right up there in the discussion with Harper and Trout for best young player in baseball.
Downside: His pre-All Star game line was .310/.337/.650 and its dropped to .264/.304/.405. It can be expected for a young player in his first full season in the majors who isn’t even playing his natural position of shortstop.
Reasonable offer: Six years, $13 million per. This would be a win-win for both parties. Machado gets a big contract before he’s on the open market. The Orioles get a franchise cornerstone to build around. Of all the players here, Machado would profile the most as a player who gets a big extension in the winter.

Special case:

Candidate: Yasiel Puig (22).
Current deal: $42 million through 2018.
Upside: Seemingly unlimited.
Downside: “He doesn’t play the game the right way.”
Reasonable offer: No idea. If Puig continues to play like he did when he got called up earlier this year, somebody will probably whisper into his ear that he should be making more than $7.8 million, which he’ll get in each of the final three years of his contract. The Dodgers have money. Puig looks like a superstar in the making. How long until he wants “superstar” money is something to watch.

Other youngish players who are candidates for long-term extensions: Carlos Martinez (Cardinals); Wil Myers (Rays); Jose Fernandez (Marlins); Jean Seguara (Milwaukee).

Related: Yasiel Puig: Five Things You Might Not Know About the Dodgers Star Rookie
Realted: Matt Harvey Wore a Gaze of Infinite Sadness in the Dugout Monday