On Monday, news broke that the Royals had signed Danny Duffy, 28, to a five-year extension worth $65 million dollars. Coming off by far the best year of his career (Duffy put up 3.8 WARP and a cFIP of 91), the Royals locked him up to what seems to be a fairly team-friendly deal. Duffy—who would have been a free agent after the 2017 season—decided to cash in on his performance now, instead of “betting on himself” and potentially maximizing his earnings in the future.
There is a lot of calculus that goes into these types of decisions, and in many ways Duffy is the ideal extension candidate. Though his 2016 was convincingly good, he really only has one year of above-average performance to rely on for his value. Any regression or injury this season would have been a big deterrent for anyone considering giving Duffy a big deal going forward. There is also the fact that Duffy has made “only” $7 million up to this point in his career, and the $65 million dollars he is now guaranteed insures financial security for him and his family for at least a generation, and probably longer. He also probably simply likes Kansas City, and wants to know that he won’t have to uproot from there anytime soon. He could have tried to maximize his gains, but for him, it probably just wasn’t worth the risk.
This brings us to the Cubs, who currently have a large number of young players in the arbitration or pre-arbitration years of their deals, and who therefore, from time-to-time, will be written about as extension candidates, especially now during extension season. For this piece, I narrowed in on the six most likely extension candidates for the next few years, and found that, as usual, circumstances ripe for extensions are harder to come by than we might initially think.
Because his contract runs out soon (usually a good indication that extension talks are possible), Arrieta is by far the Cubs most talked-about extension candidate. But, as Jared Wyllys wrote recently, it’s hard to see how the two sides could come together on a deal that makes sense for both. Arrieta, a late bloomer entering his age-31 season, will have made about $31 million dollars in his career after this year, and has never had the chance for a big free agent payday. The Cubs, meanwhile, would be extending a power pitcher into his 30s, coming off a very good but non-elite season. Arrieta, having already made relatively good money, seems willing to bet on himself and take the risk of going into 2017 year without a guaranteed deal. And, at this point, it seems unlikely the Cubs would want to invest the $100+ million dollars an extension would likely cost. Even though Arrieta and Cubs seem to get along well, and even though it would be hard to see Arrieta depart, it seems unlikely that the two sides will come together on a deal before the season.
The reigning NL MVP doesn’t even hit arbitration until 2018, and has only made 1.1 million dollars in salary so far, so it would seem somewhat rational for Bryant to accelerate his payday by signing an extension. But weighing against that are several factors, the first of which is that Bryant’s value seems very unlikely to significantly diminish over the next five years. If he plays at a similar level for most of that time, he’ll be in line for a huge free agency deal at age 29. Secondly, Bryant received a $6.7 million dollar signing bonus when he was drafted, and has the ability, physique, and eyes to make a lot of money doing promotions in the meantime. He certainly has enough income to take the small risk of waiting for a free agency payday.
An extension still might be within the realm of possibility, but it would likely look something like the six-year $144 million dollar extension that Mike Trout signed with the Angels in 2014. Even this, though, might be less likely for Bryant, a Scott Boras client, as it would push his free agency back to age 30 or 31, at which time his value would likely be at lease somewhat reduced. Trout was able to sign an extension at age 23 which still slated him to be a free agent at age 29; Bryant has already turned 25. For these reasons, an extension would be surprising for Bryant in the near future, unless he just really wants to commit to the Cubs long-term.
Russell has only earned $1 million dollars in his career, and, at age 22, could potentially sign an extension for a year or two that grants him free agency in his 20s. If he wanted to get a quick raise, he could probably afford to do it, and the Cubs would likely be excited to make an offer. But, for Russell, it seems likely that doing this would actually cost him money—not necessarily in free agency, but in another future extension that he could sign in a year or two.
This is because Russell is still a developing, improving, young player, and he seems very likely to continue to get better over the next few years. One doesn’t have to look further than the seven-year, $41 million dollar extension Anthony Rizzo signed at age 23. Rizzo guaranteed himself a (very) comfortable financial future when he signed this deal, but by signing it before he became a bonafide star, he handed the Cubs probably one of the most team-friendly deals in all of MLB. Russell will have many chances to pursue an extension if he so wishes over the next few years; there’s little reason for him to do it so early.
Contreras seems like the kind of player, who, at age 24, would potentially have an interest in signing an extension with the Cubs. Despite his excellent performance this year, he likely won’t be making millions until his age 26 or 27 season at the earliest, and he won’t become a free agent until his age 30 season—an age at which catchers’ performances and values tend to decline. So, it might make sense for him to pursue a raise and a guaranteed payday sometime soon.
The flip side of this, though, is twofold. First, Contreras still likely has development to do, and he only has half a year of (very) good MLB performance on his record. Much like Russell, then, signing an extension soon might be too early to fully get paid for his eventual value. Secondly, the Cubs know that they already likely control Contreras for much of his prime, and until he further proves himself and his likely longevity, the front office doesn’t have much of an incentive to lock in Contreras’s early 30s. This extension could happen eventually (it did, for example, in Yadier Molina’s age 30 season), but it is still likely a long way off.
Hendricks, in my view, is the most realistic short-term extension candidate on the Cubs. The 27-year-old has only made $1 million dollars so far in his career, despite two and a half season of consistently very good t0 stellar performance. Unfortunately for Hendricks, he won’t become a free agent naturally until before his age-31 season, when pitchers are often seen as assets that are exiting their prime and declining in value. So, while he is in his prime and coming off what is likely to be the best season of his career (results-wise, at least), it might make sense for Hendricks to minimize risk and seek guaranteed money.
In Hendricks’ case, this might make sense for the Cubs as well. As with Contreras, they do control him for most of his traditional prime, but Hendricks’ unique pitching ability makes him an asset that is likely to maintain his value relatively well into his 30s. Pitchers who succeed in their 30s tend to increasingly rely on command as they age; Hendricks has already shown that he can do this. His stuff might decline, of course, but it was never overpowering in the first place. The Cubs have very few pitchers (or even high-level pitching prospects) under control for more than a few years into the future, so if Hendricks wanted to commit to Chicago through his early 30s, it would be something to strongly consider. Hendricks’ consistency might, of course, make him an attractive free agency candidate even at age 31, but it might not be worth the risk. Still, neither side has any reason to be particularly urgent about an extension at this time, and it would be surprising to see one before the end of this offseason.
As the popular young core of the Cubs ages a little bit and gets closer and closer to free agency, the conversation about extensions will likely get louder and louder. Some certainly may be signed eventually, and there will be reason to celebrate, but it is also worth remembering that it is relatively rare that circumstances come together for the perfect fit.
Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports