Alex Bregman and Mike Trout the latest to show signing long-term contract extensions is a player’s best bet to get paid in today’s baseball economy
There appears to be a major transformation going on in Major League Baseball this offseason, and it has nothing to do with pitch clocks or defensive switches.
Free agency, long the ultimate goal of most ballplayers, is falling out of style. Instead, the game’s best players realize that the market awaiting big free agents in the past is no longer there and are opting to sign long-term extensions with their team before their contract expires.
The latest to choose this route is the Houston Astros’ All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman. Bregman, who turns 25 on March 30, isn’t eligible for free agency for another four seasons, but agreed on Tuesday to sign a six-year, $100 million extension with the Astros.
Earlier in the day, it was the Astros AL West rival Los Angeles Angels who inked their star, center fielder Mike Trout, to a 12-year, $430 million extension, the largest contract in North American professional sports.
Trout was due to become a free agent after the 2020 season, but his new deal with the Angels all but ensures he will never hit the free market.
In today’s baseball economy, more money seems to be available to players willing to stick with their current teams rather than test their luck on the open market. Already this offseason the two largest annual salaries ever given to a position player have been given out in extensions.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado signed for $32.5 million a season to stay with the Colorado Rockies in February, a figure only eclipsed by Trout’s $35.8 million deal on Tuesday.
The New York Yankees have also been active in locking down their star players, signing center fielder Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino to extensions this offseason.
Three starting pitchers, the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas, the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco and the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, also signed long-term with their current teams.
At the same time, the market for even the biggest free agents has dried up. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both signed for at least $300 million this offseason, but both had to wait into February before signing their free agent deals.
Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain jobless with Opening Day just nine days away.
Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, has taken notice. Earlier this month Clark accused ballclubs of being unwilling to field a contender by signing big-name free agents.
“The value for players that can help teams win doesn’t seem to be what it should be,” Clark said. “It appears that there are a number of teams who are working toward and interested in being the last team that’s standing, and there are a number of teams that don’t appear to be quite interested in that.”
A number of players are also wondering whether the money will be there when they become free agents. Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, doesn’t become a free agent for another three years but is already looking at signing an extension with the Chicago Cubs to avoid having to go through what Harper and Machado did.
“Of course there’s some hesitation that goes along with [free agency],” Bryant said. He also admits players are willing to go on strike if current market conditions persist. “If there is going to be a lockout or strike, it’s going to be because we want something better.”
The league and Players Association are well aware a strike is a possibility when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. Last week the two sides announced they’re already opening CBA negotiations, well in advance of the current deal’s 2021 expiration.
Until they work out a solution to the slow free agency market, however, players will continue to realize their best bet is to remain where they are. The age of free agency is winding down; the age of contract extensions is just getting started.