Friday, February 1, 2013

Extending Youth

Welcome to the extension portion of the Hot Stove season. The majority of top tier stars have signed their new contracts, big name trades have been completed and teams are looking to fill a hole or two with a diamond in the rough minor league invite. It is also time when general managers sit down and try to hammer out an extension or two to lock up their top young talent. In recent years the emphasis on prospects and signing youth to team friendly deals has lead to many signings. Odds are you are hoping your team locks up your budding superstar. Careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

The problem with the modern trend of signing young players to long contracts is that you deal with more uncertainties in the makeup of the player, how they handle the increase in wealth and fame, their ability to become leaders and most importantly their ability to maximize their potential. Yet when it hits and the player and the team click the contract more than pays for itself. Albert Pujols signed a massive 7 year contract for $100 million back in 2004 when he was 24. That deal was a major steal for the Cardinals as they got arguably the best offensive player of the decade for a fraction of what he would have earned on the open market. Since that time the number of big value contracts buying out arbitration years, pre-arbitration years, and a few free agent years has steadily increased. Players trade future raises for cost certainty and teams gamble that the player will continue to produce. While a contract extension sounds good today, be careful what tomorrow might bring.

Tomorrow has come for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Justin Upton. Though just 25 and with 3/$38.5 million remaining on his contact, Arizona GM Kevin Towers decided to ship him to Atlanta as the cornerstone of a 7 player swap. We may never find out exactly what led to the souring of their relationship, but Upton's extension was accomplished by Josh Byrnes, not Towers. If memory serves me correctly, Upton was made a trade candidate as a condition to Towers taking the job.

Labeled a 5-tool talent, the former first overall pick (2007) has already been an all-star and finished 4th in MVP voting in 2011. However, he has been inconsistent from season to season and affordable or not, Arizona was ready to move on. Upton dealt with constant trade rumors, coaching changes, slumps and injuries and still put up numbers 29 other GMs would be happy to have in their lineup, especially when the producer was still short of his prime. Unfortunately, it appears that struggles and inconsistency are more the norm than the 7 spectacular years that Pujols provided the Cardinals.

Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann, and Chase Headley are just a handful of players many consider long term extension candidates. They represent a spectacular list of underpaid rising stars and I would not be against seeing any sign lucrative deals. However, such a signing does not guarantee future success. Posey and Zimmermann have already missed significant time due to injury. Trout and Harper, both 2012 Rookies of the Year, are young and extremely talented. That said there is minimal cost risk to waiting another season or two to see if they are as good as advertised or if they are going to come crashing (relatively) back to Earth. Headley was a pleasant surprise for San Diego last season, but can he reproduce it, or something close to it? Kershaw has been dominant for several years, but it is not a stretch to imagine the Dodgers looking at their rivals in the Bay and what happened to Tim Lincecum last season as giving them a reason to hesitate.

The unifying and unpredictable factor here is youth. The better extensions buy up a free agent year or three. This usually allows a player to get another big contract or a team to better absorb the cost. Who will be worthy of such a contract and who will become next Dontrelle Willis are questions every team must determine. While another season may cost your team a few million more, but, as the Upton trade shows, today's rising GOAT for a team might only end up a goat after all.

As always any thoughts, questions, or opinions are welcome