During what has been unquestionably the slowest moving offseason in recent memory, I am very happy to bring you some good news. Action is going to pick up soon. It has to, right? I don't know if free agents are going to start signing soon, but I do know this: Friday, Jan. 12, is the deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to file salary figures for 2018.
Why do you, the loyal baseball enthusiast, care about the deadline to file salary figures? Because it is around this time of year that teams start getting serious about locking up their young players long-term. Friday is not a hard deadline -- teams and players can still work out a contract of any size after filing salary figures -- but both sides like to get a deal wrapped up sooner rather than later.
In the coming days and weeks, more than a few of baseball's best young players will put pen to paper and agree to a long-term extension with their current team. They trade their maximum earning potential through arbitration and free agency for a guaranteed payday and financial security. I don't blame them one bit. Success can be fleeting in this game. Nothing wrong with making sure you're set for life early in your career.
So, with extension season about to heat up, let's look at the top extension candidates going into the 2018 season. For the purposes of this post, we're only going to examine arbitration-eligible players. Players in their pre-arbitration years, such as Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, are extension candidates for another day.
Here are the top 10 extension candidates heading into the 2018. All 2018 salary projections are from MLB Trade Rumors.
It would seem unwise for the rebuilding White Sox to lock up Jose Abreu, a soon-to-be 31-year-old already limited to first base, but the club highly values his leadership and the example he sets for their younger players. That's maybe the single biggest reason Abreu has not yet been traded. The ChiSox want him around to mentor young building block players like Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson. With free agency two years away, the club could decide to act now, commit to Abreu long-term, and use him as the veteran center piece of their rebuild. There's something to be said for stability.
Extension Benchmark: There isn't a good one. Abreu is starting from a much higher base salary because he originally signed with the White Sox as a free agent after defecting from Cuba. He didn't go through the draft, which would've kept his early career salaries down. The free agent market has not been kind to first baseman lately. A four-year deal worth $20 million annually could be enough to do the trick.
Although his offensive numbers took a step back last season, Mookie Betts remains an MVP caliber producer who was the runner-up for the 2016 award and finished sixth in the voting in 2017. Betts is still only 25, so he's just about to enter what figures to be the very best years of his career, and it stands to reason the Red Sox are going to want him around as long as possible. He is franchise-type player, for sure. Players like Mookie, who combine power with speed, defense, and a ton of contact, are very rare.
Extension Benchmark: The Red Sox would try to use Wil Myers as a reference point in contract talks -- Myers inked a six-year deal worth $83 million at the same service time level as Betts a few years ago -- but that probably won't work. Mookie is a $100 million player. Both Kyle Seager (seven years, $100 million) and Freddie Freeman (eight years, $135 million) signed extensions at this service time level. I could see Betts and his agent pushing for seven years and $150 million.
I can't imagine extension negotiations between the Cubs and Kris Bryant would be easy. He's going into arbitration with nearly unprecedented credentials. A Rookie of the Year, an MVP, two All-Star Game selections, a World Series title, 94 homers in 457 games ... Bryant has quite the resume. Further complicating things is the fact Bryant is a Super Two, meaning he will be eligible for arbitration four times instead of the usual three. That's a result of the timing of his call-up in 2015. His earning potential is greater than the average player at this point of his career.
Extension Benchmark: There is only one comparable extension out there, and it is five years old. In March 2013 the Giants signed Buster Posey, then in his first year of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two, to an eight-year extension worth $159 million. Like Bryant, Posey had Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies on his mantle, plus two World Series rings. The problem for the Cubs? There is five years worth of inflation to consider. It would not be unrealistic for Bryant and his representatives to seek more than $200 million.
You know, three or four years ago I would've guessed the Mets would have locked up at least one of their young starters by now. It hasn't happened though. Jacob deGrom is the obvious extension candidate given all the injury problems Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Noah Syndergaard have had. He threw a career high 201 1/3 innings with a 3.53 ERA (119 ERA+) last season, which was actually his worst MLB season. deGrom qualifies as a true ace. The Mets want to keep him and build their rotation around him going forward.
Extension Benchmark: deGrom is in his second season of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two, and that is a weird service time level for an extension, especially for pitchers. The largest contract ever given to a pitcher at this service time level? Jason Hammel's two-year, $7.75 million deal with the Rockies back in 2011. With a $4.05 million salary in 2017 and a $9.2 million projected salary in 2018, deGrom is likely looking at $15 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020 before becoming a free agent. Would six years and $85 million do the trick? Keep in mind deGrom was a bit of a late-bloomer; he'll turn 30 in June.
The Yankees have built an impressive young position player core, and shortstop Didi Gregorius is the closest to free agency among those core players. He's developed into a fine two-way player and a clubhouse leader. There would be one small problem with extending Gregorius, however. The luxury tax. Signing him long-term would raise his luxury tax number -- it would be the average annual value of his contract -- and make it more difficult for the Yankees to get under the $197 million threshold this year, which is a stated goal.
Extension Benchmark: The Mariners and Jean Segura did the Yankees and Gregorius a solid last year. They set the market. Segura signed a five-year deal worth $70 million, at the same service time level as Gregorius. The two sides could quibble with that amount -- Gregorius hasn't been to an All-Star Game or led the league in hits like Segura, but he did have a higher career WAR at the time of the extension -- but that's the framework. Five years and $70 million.
The Cardinals just traded four players, included highly-regarded pitching prospect Sandy Alcantara, to the Marlins to acquire Marcell Ozuna, so it stands to reason they would be interested in keeping him around long-term. And why not? Ozuna is a only 27 and he is a top shelf two-way talent with 30-homer power. These guys aren't easy to find. The Cardinals are trying to build their next offensive core with Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter getting up there in years, and Ozuna is as good a player to build around as anyone.
Extension Benchmark: The Wil Myers contract could work. Six years and $83 million. Ozuna is a two-time All-Star who received MVP votes last year, whereas Myers had one All-Star Game selection and a Rookie of the Year award at the time of his extension signing. General inflation and excellence could push an Ozuna extension closer to $100 million.
Hey, two players who were traded for each other make our top 10! That would be Gregorius and Robbie Ray, though it was a three-team trade and the two were not directly traded for one another. But I digress. Anyway, Ray emerged as a true front-line starter in 2017 -- he went to the All-Star Game and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting after throwing 162 innings with 218 strikeouts and a 2.89 ERA -- and with Zack Greinke and a potential Paul Goldschmidt extension tying up so much future payroll, locking up Ray now may be the Diamondbacks' only chance to keep the southpaw long-term.
Extension Benchmark: At the same service time level the Cardinals gave Carlos Martinez a five-year extension worth $51 million last year. Martinez had better career numbers at the time of his extension than Ray does now, but it wouldn't be an unreasonable ask by Ray's camp.
Signing Bryce Harper long-term might be a pipe dream at this point. You know Scott Boras wants to get Harper out on the open market and break some contract records next offseason. Retaining Anthony Rendon, who was the team's best player last year, might be a more realistic goal for the Nationals before Spring Training. Rendon has never been an All-Star, weirdly enough, but he has two top-six finishes in the MVP voting to his credit, including 2017. One small problem: Rendon is represented by Boras too. Boras might want to cash in big with Rendon after setting the market with Harper.
Extension Benchmark: Rendon is a bit of a special case because he signed a guaranteed major league contract after being the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft. (That's not allowed anymore.) That contract gave Rendon higher than usual early career salaries, so instead of making close to the league minimum as a rookie, he pulled down nearly $2 million. There have been some monster contract extensions at Rendon's service time level, such as Giancarlo Stanton's (13 years, $325 million), Joey Votto's (10 years, $220 million), and Troy Tulowitzki's (10 years, $157.5 million). I don't think Rendon could get that much, but I wouldn't put it past Boras.
The Astros have tried to sign George Springer long-term in the past. , before he even made his MLB debut. Since then Springer has been an All-Star, received MVP votes, and been named World Series MVP en route to winning a championship. He wasn't ready to sign long-term back in 2013, especially at that rate. Now that he has a few years in the show, Springer could be willing to commit to Houston long-term.
Extension Benchmark: Springer is in his second year of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two, which puts him in that same weird place as deGrom. The largest contract given to a player at this service time level since 2008 is Dee Gordon's five-year, $50 million contract. I imagine Springer and his representatives would look to double Gordon's guaranteed money. He's one of the few true five-tool players in the sport.
The Blue Jays are at a bit of a crossroads. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are gone, and Josh Donaldson is a year away from free agency. As much as they'd like to make a run at the postseason in 2018, they have to keep one eye on the future, and locking up Marcus Stroman long-term would certainly be a great win-now and win-later move. He's the staff ace. He finished eighth in the Cy Young voting last season and has put together back-to-back 200-inning seasons after missing most of 2015 with a knee injury. The Blue Jays are transitioning away from their old offensive core. Keeping Stroman means they won't have to do the same with the rotation.
Extension Benchmark: Stroman is also a second year arbitration-eligible player as a Super Two, like deGrom and Springer, putting him in that extension gray area. Because he is several years younger than deGrom and doesn't have a history of arm injuries, I don't think it would be unreasonable for Stroman to seek a $100 million payday. Figure arbitration salaries of $7.2 million, $14 million, and $20 million in his three remaining arbitration seasons before free agency, then $20-plus million per season on the open market. Six years and $100 million seems doable.
Honorable Mention: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox; Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox; Sonny Gray, Yankees; Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks; Lance McCullers Jr., Astros; James Paxton, Mariners; Tanner Roark, Nationals; Jonathan Schoop, Orioles; Eugenio Suarez, Reds; Taijuan Walker, Diamondbacks; Alex Wood, Dodgers