While star players such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Craig Kimbrel sit at home waiting for a 2019 (and beyond) contract, this happened earlier this week:
The Philadelphia Phillies and starter Aaron Nola are in agreement on a four-year, $45 million deal that includes a club option for a fifth season, league sources tell ESPN.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 13, 2019
Nola was to be in his first arbitration year in 2019, so this contract buys out all his arb years and at least one and possibly two of his first years of free agency. Nola turns 26 in June, so this contract could comprise his age 26-30 seasons, likely the best years of his career. He had an outstanding 2018, going 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA, 0.975 WHIP, 10.5 bWAR and a third-place finish in N.L. Cy Young voting.
Here’s why Nola did this, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Nola wasn’t interested in a multiyear deal last winter, when the Phillies broached the topic with agent Joe Longo. He brushed it off again in July, during the All-Star break. When Longo boarded a plane Tuesday, he figured he would be representing Nola in an arbitration hearing.
“I think he’s a player who talked it over with his parents and told me, ‘I want you to focus on this,’ ” Longo said. “It was within the last two days that it started to come together.”
Nola and Longo rejected the suggestion that baseball’s economic landscape was a factor. Other than once bringing up the five-year, $51 million contract signed in 2017 by St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez as an example of a pre-free-agency extension, Longo couldn’t recall talking to Nola about an economic climate in which the players agreed to a luxury-tax threshold that the owners have treated like a soft cap as a way of keeping salaries in check.
While that article claims “baseball’s economic landscape” wasn’t a factor here, two other players also signed team-friendly extensions within the last few days, both with the Minnesota Twins.
Source confirms the Twins’ two extensions: 5 years/$25.75M plus two club portions for Jorge Polanco, and 5 years/$35M plus a club option for Max Kepler.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) February 14, 2019
Kepler turned 26 this week and Polanco will turn 26 in July and... are you seeing a trend here? Both players have been expected to have breakout seasons soon. Even in a down year last year, Kepler posted 2.8 bWAR, and Polanco had a 1.5 bWAR season even playing in just 77 games. Like the Nola deals, these contracts buy out all the players’ arb years plus the first year or two of free agency. Neither Kepler nor Polanco would have been eligible for arbitration until next year. As you can see by those numbers, both those deals are quite team-friendly.
There’s more on Nola’s thinking in this Ken Rosenthal article from The Athletic, which concludes:
Each player is different. Each decision is different. Nola resisted the Phillies’ overtures on an extension last offseason and at the All-Star break, according to major-league sources. He waited until he believed the money was right, and with $45 million guaranteed, he is set for life.
That said, you won’t hear the Phillies and other clubs complain. Why pay a free agent such as [Dallas] Keuchel $90 million when younger, better pitchers such as Nola are willing to sign for half the price?
Are these players concerned, perhaps, about a labor stoppage after 2021? All three of those contracts would go beyond that year, though obviously if there’s a labor stoppage they wouldn’t get paid. But they all will get significant amounts of money through 2021.
Further, I wonder if this contract “trend” could be offered to Cubs players in similar situations. The Cubs might have been wise to offer a long-term extension to Javier Baez beginning this year, similarly buying out his arb years and the first year or two of free agency. Baez will make $5.2 million this year, but if he has another year in 2019 like he did in 2018, that figure could double in 2020.
Or, perhaps the Cubs could take pre-arb players like Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ and make them extension offers along these lines.
If teams like the Phillies and Twins are thinking this way, you can be sure that other teams seeking “financial flexibility” are looking over those deals and wondering if they can do the same.
I’ll give the last word here to former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta.