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What MLB's recent trend of early-career extensions means for the Diamondbacks

Jesse Friedman Avatar
August 28, 2022

In the past 12 days, two of baseball’s brightest stars signed lucrative long-term extensions — and neither has played a full year in the majors.

On Aug. 16, Braves 21-year-old center fielder Michael Harris signed an eight-year, $72 million contract that tacks two years onto his rookie deal and includes additional club options for 2031 and 2032. The deal could keep Harris in Atlanta for a decade. 

Harris is slashing .289/.336/.511 with 15 stolen bases in his rookie season. He trails only his teammate Steven Strider in the rookie of the year race, and he is arguably the favorite for the NL Gold Glove Award for center field.

On Friday, it was 21-year-old Mariners center fielder and AL rookie of the year favorite Julio Rodriguez, who has crawled his way to an impressive .266/.325/.472 line after posting a .544 OPS in his first month.

Rodriguez’s extension is one of the largest — and most complicated — in MLB history. It can last eight, 13, 16 or 18 years, and it comes with a $210 million guarantee and a maximum value of $470 million. His final earnings will depend on how he fares in MVP voting, as well as a plethora of player and team options.

If you think it’s bonkers to extend a player for a decade or more after seeing him on a major-league field for less than six months, you are not alone. But if you make a habit of it, it starts to make sense.

Baseball Prospectus writer Craig Goldstein likened the idea to investment strategies. Teams extend a few players, knowing that if several of them pan out and a couple of them don’t, the benefits will likely outweigh the drawbacks. It is exactly the same idea as having a diverse investment portfolio.

Numerous teams have developed this strategy over the past few years, and the trend doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. Ownership groups across the league are shying away from $400-plus million deals for players on the wrong side of 30. No one wants to be the next team to give Jordan Zimmerman $110 million.

Although it has caught fire more recently, the early-career contract extension can be traced to 2012, when the San Francisco Giants agreed to such a deal with a familiar face: Madison Bumgarner.

The 22-year-old was technically entering his fourth year on the major-league roster — this deal was not as aggressive as what the Mariners and Braves just did — but he had only pitched one full season. At its time, the five-year, $35 million deal represented the largest guarantee ever to a player with one-plus year of service time. The Giants’ senior vice president and general manager at the time, Brian Sabean, knew exactly what he was doing.

“Preserving our core pitching for the long term remains a top priority for the Giants and today’s extension certainly helps further that goal,” Sabean told reporters. “Madison has already proven that he is one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game today and we are confident that he will continue to succeed for many years to come.”

It is safe to say that Bumgarner did. He was selected to four straight All-Star teams from 2013-16, and he helped the Giants win two more World Series titles in 2012 and 2014. In retrospect, Bumgarner likely missed out on tens of millions of dollars by signing the deal.

That brings us to now, as the Diamondbacks are, ironically, throttled by a Bumgarner contract of their own that is proving to be significantly overvalued. As crazy as it sounds, maybe they need to pass on a few three-time World Series champions in free agency so they have money to invest in a new wave of exciting prospects, some of whom are not yet old enough to drink. For small- to mid-market teams like the Diamondbacks, signing early-career extensions with young players may be the only realistic hope of retaining them long-term. 

The most obvious candidate is 22-year-old Triple-A outfielder Corbin Carroll, who is viewed by some scouts as the best prospect in baseball. Carroll is slashing .287/.408/.535 since being promoted to Triple-A Reno in early July. He is widely expected to make his major league debut in September.

The D-backs will likely wait to see how well Carroll’s game translates to the big leagues before considering a long-term investment, but it is worth noting that some teams have acted sooner. The Phillies’ Scott Kingery, the Mariners’ Evan White and White Sox outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez all signed extensions before breaking into the majors. Nonetheless, following the Braves’ and Mariners’ blueprint, the ideal time for a Carroll extension could be as early as mid-2023.

It is difficult to pinpoint how big of a deal Carroll would command in comparison to Harris and Rodriguez; his value probably lies somewhere in between. Carroll should be every bit as good of a baserunner and defender as Harris, but his bat has a higher ceiling due to his advanced approach. Compared to Rodriguez, Carroll has a better chance to stick in center field long-term, but Rodriguez has monstrous raw power that Carroll’s size will never permit.

It won’t be $470 million, but extending a top-five prospect in baseball won’t be cheap. The largest contract in Diamondbacks history is still the Zack Greinke deal, which had a total value of $206.5 million. The upper reaches of a Carroll extension could exceed that. If that’s what it takes to retain a young star through his prime years — something the Diamondbacks have always struggled to do — the team should probably do it.

Not far behind Carroll — both in terms of timeline and pedigree — is 20-year-old shortstop prospect Jordan Lawlar, who has continued to look like a young Carlos Correa throughout his minor-league ascent. If Lawlar’s success carries into the majors, he could be another long-term extension candidate before long. Currently in Double-A, Lawlar could see the big leagues as soon as late next year.

Like Carroll, Lawlar is a step below Rodriguez on the prospect ladder, but probably higher than Harris. If he continues to produce at an elite level in Double-A and Triple-A, it may not be long before Lawlar climbs into the top five in prospect rankings just like Carroll has. If that happens, Lawlar’s price tag could be in the same vicinity.

Of course, the D-backs already have an up-and-coming rookie on the current roster in 22-year-old outfielder Alek Thomas. Thomas was never as well-regarded a prospect as Lawlar or Carroll, but he has already shown the ability to play elite center field defense and is in the mix with Harris for the gold glove.

Those two have fairly similar track records in terms of prospect pedigree, but Harris’ bat has translated more quickly. Nearing the end of a slow month offensively, Thomas is slashing .243/.294/.369 overall in his rookie year. If he turns things around offensively next year, the D-backs could do well to give him a Harris-sized extension.

The Diamondbacks don’t have much history dishing out early-career contract extensions, but the best and arguably only example is Paul Goldschmidt, who signed a five-year, $32 million deal shortly before the 2013 season. The deal guaranteed one more year beyond Goldschmidt’s rookie deal (2018) and also included a team option for 2019. It was remarkably similar to the contract Bumgarner signed with the Giants the year prior.

At the time, Goldschmidt was a very good player but not a great one. He was coming off a 2012 season that saw him slash .286/.359/.490 in his age-24 season. Goldschmidt finished second in MVP voting the following year, slashing .302/.401/.551 with 36 homers and 125 RBI. The extension went down as arguably the most team-friendly contract in Diamondbacks history. 

Since joining the organization in 2016, general manager Mike Hazen hasn’t had a player of Goldschmidt’s caliber come up through the farm system. That makes it challenging to gauge Hazen’s philosophy on early-career extensions. Nonetheless, he has extended several players that were acquired externally, and those deals warrant a quick review.

The clearest examples are both with Ketel Marte. After his first full season with the Diamondbacks — and his third year spending significant time on a major-league roster — Marte signed a five-year, $24 million deal that bought out his arbitration years and included a pair of team options for 2023 and 2024. 

Shortly before the start of the 2022 season, the D-backs extended Marte again, picking up his 2023 and 2024 options at slightly higher salaries and guaranteeing three additional years. The deal also included a club option for 2028.

Outside of the deals with Marte, Hazen has only given extensions to players who were close to free agency. In 2018, he extended Eduardo Escobar, who was little more than a week away from becoming a free agent. Just before the start of the 2022 season, Hazen extended Merrill Kelly, who was due to become a free agent at the end of this year. Nick Ahmed and David Peralta signed similar extensions.

With Madison Bumgarner’s contract due to come off the books in just over two years, Ketel Marte is the only Diamondback with guaranteed salary in 2025 and beyond. Hazen’s Diamondbacks have plenty of money to spend moving forward. It is hard to imagine a better way to spend it than locking up what could be the core of the next great Diamondbacks team.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

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