Change-UpApril 11, 2007
Lock 'Em Up
By Patrick Sullivan
The San Diego Padres announced yesterday that they had signed starting pitcher and former two-sport Princeton star Chris Young to a 4-year, $14.5 million contract that could go up to five years and $23 million should the Pads decide to exercise a club option.

My first reaction had me scratching my head as to why Young, who is emerging as something of an elite starter, would take such a heavily discounted deal in such a spend-happy environment on starting pitching. But upon further review, the deal makes sense for both sides. Young has essentially locked in his arbitration figures up through 2010, when he would have been eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. He now gets the security to buy himself and his family a nice place in one of the most pleasant places to live in the world and he has guaranteed himself a large chunk of change - something playing year to year would not have afforded him. As Rich Lederer said to me last night, it's not the last $10 million you make, it's the first.

In return for this security, the Padres have a club option to lock Young up for what otherwise would have been his first free agent season for what will in all likelihood turn out to be a significantly discounted price. And in the interim, the Padres get Young's considerable output (he was 6th in the NL in ERA last season) at a mere fraction of the cost of what division rivals will pay hurlers of Young's quality like Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt.

For teams in non-premium markets - heck for all teams - these deals make sense. The player gives up some portion of his unrestricted free agent seasons in exchange for financial security. The club gives up the temptation to optimize return on investment and nickel-and-dime a quality player in exchange for locking him up at what still amounts to a below market rate, all the while harboring goodwill for when the next rounds of negotiations set to kick off at the contract's expiration. All around, pre-arbitration contracts tend to be equitable.

And finally, these contracts are good for baseball in that they are the only real antidote for combating the inequality that a non-salary cap league fosters. If small market teams would hand out more deals like this, the Yankees and Red Sox would lose some of their edge and be forced to build more from within. Teams could lock their best up through their primes, and then extend them again if it is in the budget and worthwhile, or let the Yanks or Sox or Dodgers or Cubs have at 'em through their mid-to-late 30's.

This is by no means a novel concept, but just an under-utilized one. Billy Beane and John Hart understood this concept through the '90s, while Beane continues to employ it. So too do GM's like Mark Shapiro, Terry Ryan, Theo Epstein, Omar Minaya, John Schuerholz, Walt Jocketty and of course, Kevin Towers. Mind you there have been some bad pre-arb lock-ups too, but what follows is a list of young players offering up some serious bang for their buck.
Name               POS    Annualized Salary    2006 OPS+/ERA+  
Albert Pujols      1B      $14.29 Million           180
Johan Santana      SP      $10 Million              151
Joe Mauer          C       $8.25 Million            144  
Grady Sizemore     CF      $4.39 Million            135
Victor Martinez    C       $4.57 Million            124
Dan Haren          SP      $3.16 Million            108
David Dejesus      CF      $2.70 Million            103
Jose Reyes         SS      $5.81 Million            118
David Wright       3B      $9.17 Million            136
Chase Utley        2B      $12.14 Million           127
Brian McCann       C       $4.47 Million            146
Jason Bay          LF      $4.56 Million            136
Brandon Webb       SP      $4.88 Million            154
Jeff Francis       SP      $3.31 Million            116           
Jake Peavy         SP      $3.63 Million            103
Adrian Gonzalez    1B      $2.38 Million            125
And here is a list of who I believe to be the best candidates to lock up right now. If their respective clubs are not thinking about how to extend these guys, they should be.
Name               POS    2006 OPS+/ERA+
Nick Markakis      RF          106 (.896 2nd Half OPS)
Jonathan Papelbon  RP          500
Bobby Jenks        RP          113
Jeremy Sowers      SP          125
Curtis Granderson  CF          99 
Joel Zumaya        RP          232
Mark Teahen        3B/OF       114
Jered Weaver       SP          171
Nick Swisher       OF          126
Felix Hernandez    SP          96
Ryan Howard        1B          170
Hanley Ramirez     SS          116
Ryan Zimmerman     3B          111
Prince Fielder     1B          111
Adam Wainwright    SP          141 (as RP)
Stephen Drew       SS          115
Garret Atkins      3B          138 
So there you have it, GM's. Get to work on these guys and you will have some bargain output for years to come.

In the comments section, I would love to know who readers think I missed, and also those players I listed that you feel teams are better suited to wait out and continue to harvest production at the near-minimum.

Salary info courtesy of the invaluable site, Hardball Dollars.


The Brewers took this route with Bill Hall in the offseason. Granted he's slumping at the plate and butchering centerfield right now, but it should be a good deal long term. I sure wish they could have kept him in the infield though.

On the heels of the Young signing, I like the timeliness of this article as well as the the list of actual signees and prospective signees. Good job.

I agree with the principles here. I think it can be a win-win-win for players, teams, and fans. However, make me GM and I would favor locking up hitters more than pitchers, especially in those early years. More projectable and a lower injury risk. With respect to pitchers, buying out a couple of arb years plus one free agent year and a club option for a fourth season (second free agent year) makes sense to me although the dollars need to be right for both sides.

The Angel Berroa deal didn't turn out very well. Clubs have to be selective in deciding who they are willing to invest in and who they would prefer to contract with on a year-to-year basis.

The cost-conscious Twins have done this in recent years. With the right players, it's a win-win situation.

I think the Dodgers should go this route with Russell Martin and Jonathan Broxton.

Matt Cain already did sign with the Giants.

Along with the Rockies' Jeff Francis and the D-backs Brandon Webb, this means four out of five teams in the NL West have locked in their best young starters this way.

An interesting question for the Indians: should they spend the inevitable 13-14M per year on Jake Westbrook (FA after this season) or just go with Sowers. But then again, you never can have too much pitching.

If I was a pitcher I would be happy to take one of these deals, since with pitchers you never know.

If I was a hitter, especially one with broad based talents, and I could get by for a few years on 500k or a couple mill, then I would not sell out my free agent years.

Thanks Brandi. I will make the Cain edit.

Didn't the D-Rays do this with both Crawford and Balldelli?

I'd hold off on signing Teahen for at least one more season. He did have a good 2006, but his BABIP was a little over 20 points higher than in 2005 (.331 vs. .309), and he really hadn't flashed that kind of power since his AA Midland stop in 2004.

I do like him as a player, but I'd want to make sure I knew what I was getting before I signed him to a long term deal (or at least make sure that long term deal was priced well). After all, he had less than 400 ABs last year.

One important consideration with Young is that he turns 28 in May, and his value now is probably at its highest. He's old relative to his pro experience as a result of playing basketball, so taking some guaranteed money is a wise hedge against post-peak decline or injury, although I've read that pitchers show a less marked trend in their early thirties.

Has a Boras client ever signed one of these deals? I noticed Stephen Drew on your list of should-be-signed guys and I assume there are others. Something tells me Boras would not want to give up any post-arb years.

I don't know if it would end up making financial sense for these two, but as a Yankees fan I have to bring up Wang and Cano, who both have clearly shown they can excel at the ML level. As a FA on the open market last winter Wang would have signed for well over $10M as a 26 yr old Cy Young Candidate.

The Chris Young deal was without question a great one.

Two words: PAT BURRELL.

Some of them, I don't think are so great. People assume that because someone signed a pre free agency deal that it must be good. But I don't think the Chase Utley deal was really any kind of bargain. Not only did you buy out his arbitration years pretty expensively, his free agent years aren't cheap either. And Boras would never sacrifice a year of free agency, so the deals where they cancel out a year of free agency won't happen for some players. If the Cubs had cut such a deal with Prior after 2003 it would've been a big mistake and he'd be making $9 million by now. So it does have its downsides and not every deal is good.

For the Jose Reyes/Chris Young/Brandon Webb deals, there is no downside. Utley, yeah, I don't know about that. It's not like he 22, or a great defender. Utley is due to make $15 million in his free agent years in the contract. That's not a hometown discount in my opinion.

I don't think I'd give Ryan Howard a huge 8 year deal either. He's not 22, and I have some doubts he's as good as he was last year, but more than that, as the Padres and Blue Jays have demonstrated, 1b isn't a position you should be spending $17 million a year on unless it's Pujols. Many teams have a blocked outfielder so it's relatively easy to acquire cheaply inexpensive production from 1b. For this reason I think any team that signs Mark Teixiera for $19 million a year or whatever the forecast is would be foolish.

How about Carl Crawford for the "Good Deals" list? He had an OPS+ of 120 last year, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He has led the league in Triples the last three years, has averaged 54 stolen bases the last 4 years, and is upping the power (and controversially moving into that hot three-spot in the D-Rays lineup) by hitting 18 HR last year. He has an annualized salary of $5.03 million a year.