You don’t have to look hard at the D-backs roster to find examples of how contract extensions for young players can pay enormous dividends. Paul Goldschmidt‘s pact is one of the most valuable in the majors, and Josh Collmenter also blossomed after signing a very team-friendly deal. The good thing about not offering a young player an extension is the flexibility; if the bottom falls out as it arguably did for Daniel Hudson, you can offer the player whatever you like or nothing at all.
The bad thing? You can end up paying through the nose. By a lot. You can make year-to-year choices, but it’s harder to “win” unless the player excels in a meaningful way that is historically undervalued in arbitration. One such way: defense. For that reason, it’s hard to recommend courting Ender Inciarte with an extension, although it would be great for the D-backs if he wore one of their uniforms for at least six more years.
Another big factor is counting statistics. Numbers like RBI and home runs get played up in arbitration, and so if there’s a better-than-average chance that a particular player will miss a lot of time, going year to year might be the better course. As Jeff has explained, signing A.J. Pollock can still make sense — so long as the potential that he misses time is baked into the final numbers. That’s the inefficiency you try to exploit: an extension guesses future performance, and arbitration takes very little into account (by rule) other than past performance.
Pollock is right in that sweet spot: he’s probably shown enough for the D-backs to know that they want him around through his club control seasons, but not enough for him to have taken home a big arbitration award already or to feel like lifelong financial security is guaranteed. I’d argue that Chris Owings is in a similar spot right now; the D-backs can be confident that he’s a major league starter with a bat that’s about average for a middle infielder. Unlike with Pollock, however, it’s unlikely that the team would approach Owings about an extension until and unless the infield picture becomes less fuzzy. Given the importance of counting statistics to the arbitration process, it would be silly to pay Owings as a starter if he’s going to play less than full time.
Overall, however, I think taking more chances is likely to pay off. Back during the season, I wondered if Chase Anderson‘s changeups are so good that to “optimize” his change, he needed to throw it more often. Even with the understanding that it would start to get less effective on a pitch-by-pitch basis, throwing them more frequently still makes sense because his other pitches are so mediocre or bad.
Are the D-backs’ early-career extensions just like that? The Goldy and Collmenter contracts are so freaking good that a different early-career extension could be not as good and still be quite good. There might be room to “optimize” the team’s extension practices, and I’d suggest that Jake Lamb and Archie Bradley are the best candidates.
Stack the Odds like a Casino, and the House Wins
Let’s try a hypothetical. The D-backs suddenly find that they have quintuplets all ready to make the leap to the bigs; they’re all named Rake Man. Some people think each Man is unlikely to be an above-average MLB hitter despite some gaudy numbers in the minors; but because each one’s production is built a lot on batting average and some good-not-great power, there’s a wide variance for each Rake Man in terms of likely outcomes in the majors. Each one could conceivably be a half-win player, a three-win player, or anything in between. That’s loads of uncertainty.
So let’s make the hypo a little more straightforward. You’re the GM of the Shadow-backs, and you trust your scouts when they tell you: there’s a 60% chance that each Rake Man is a half-win player, a 20% chance for each to turn into a two-win player, and a 20% chance for each Rake Man to blossom into a three-win player. You run the numbers. For the first three seasons and three arbitration seasons, you think a half-win version of Rake Man will cost you $8M (league minimum for three, then: 1, 2, 3.5), a two-win version will cost you $22M (arb: 3.5, 7, 10), and a three-win version will cost you $30M (arb: 5, 10, 15).
If you believed those numbers to be accurate, then the Rake Man exercise is just a math problem. 60% chance of costing $8M, 20% of $22M, 20% of 30%. That’s an average outcome of $15.2M for each particular Rake Man.
The reality is more complicated, of course. Even in this hypo, chances are good that any particular Rake Man would get written off completely after consecutive seasons of being worth just half a win. But let’s incorporate that: there’s a 60% chance each Rake Man is worthless, but it will cost $1M to find that out. That brings the average outcome for each particular Rake Man down to $11M.
That’s a long-winded way of saying: when it comes to extensions for young players, a dollar figure that leaves the team holding the bag the majority of the time can still be financially to its advantage. Let’s say you have each of the five Rake Mans sign a $10M extension. You overpaid three of them (most of them!) by $9M. But you got a $22M version for $10M, saving $12M. And you got a $30M version for $10M. You might actually get zero three-win Rake Mans, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good investment, unless you happen to need to be risk-averse; a team might not be a casino, but the same principles apply.
Extending Jake Lamb
Is Jake Lamb like Rake Man? We can quibble on the right number for Lamb, and on whether to try to extend him right now at all — but those are separate debates. I think an offer does make sense right now, and that’s what the hypothetical was designed to illustrate. But I’m under no illusions that Lamb’s future is at all certain.
It was just one year ago that Jake Lamb was the specific jumping off point for JD Sussman in his piece about all California League hitters and each one’s likely success rate. Lamb was called up in August and is the presumptive starter at third base right now, but it’s worth remembering that at this point last year, he was only a guy who had played two professional seasons out of college. But his minor league statistics are incredible. He started 2013 with a 5-game stint in the Rookie level Arizona League. If we exclude that (he slashed .294/.381/.412 there), we can say that Lamb has hit at least .303, gotten on base at at least a .390 clip (!) and slugged at least .539 at every stop in the minors. That’s just stupid, and although he was old for Rookie ball, he wasn’t old for his last two stops in the minors.
From Jeff’s piece on Lamb in August, prompted by the call up:
So just what is Jake Lamb? At the plate, he has a relatively quiet swing that should produce plenty of contact, but like Parks noted, I’m skeptical about the raw power. As a full time regular, I’d expect him more as a 15-18 home run guy than as a 25 homer threat who carries a solid average in the .270-.285 range with a slightly higher than average strikeout rate. Why the projected drop in numbers? He’s benefited from some pretty unbelievable BABIP’s throughout his minor league career, suggesting that the numbers aren’t the truest reflection of his talent. This is obviously where the scouts and fans start to diverge on Lamb, although the truth should be evident in relatively short order.
I encourage you to go back and read Jeff’s piece if you’re interested about Lamb, but I agree with the basic premise of this paragraph: Lamb’s BABIPs are insane (.371 or above at every minor league stop; MLB average is right around .300), and he’s either been extremely lucky for a three-year stretch, or there’s some skill there. Experience has taught us that with the exception of some speedy players (who may beat some extra grounders), there’s more luck than skill to BABIP in the majors. And in his 133 plate appearances this season, Lamb’s was .291, very close to league average.
In late September, I took a turn diving into this mystery. With spray charts and some interesting splits there seemed to be evidence of an all-fields hitter with no obvious hole to his game. His line drive rate in the minors last year was excellent, but not ridiculous. From that piece:
So are Lamb’s minor league stats an illusion, or not? In terms of figuring that out, there’s no substitute for a full season (or more) with the big club. But I will say this: Lamb’s very good walk rates in the minors point to him being selective, and his fairly low fly ball rate (35.8%) shows that he’s not trading a bunch of lazy fly balls to get a few extra home runs. Another great feature of mlbfarm.com is getting statistics for just a player’s appearances versus players on an MLB.com top 20 prospect list. He did very well against top prospects: .321/.411/.581. In other words, he arguably did slightly better against the best competition in the minors, lending weight to the idea that his gaudy minor league statistics aren’t fueled by an obscene BABIP or by feasting on inferior competition.
Lamb’s minor league BABIPs aren’t enough to guarantee major league success, but they are enough to guarantee him a major league chance, I think. I fully expect Lamb to get a full season tryout, probably spilling over into the first half of 2016 even if he doesn’t impress. In some small way, the D-backs are committed to Lamb, even with Brandon Drury on the not-too-distant horizon.
To me, that smells like a Rake Man situation. I don’t care what you actually think about Lamb, so long as you admit he has a chance of being a solid MLB starter, or even a slightly above average one. Lamb does not have a high probability of success. But let’s leave that debate aside, and move back to the extension one.
I shamefully worked the Rake Man hypo around what I thought of Lamb, so there are no numbers to re-run. Personally, I think a $12M, 6-year extension would be tough for Lamb to turn down; that’s lifelong financial security, and I’d hazard that odds are he won’t ever earn that, without the extension. But from the club side, I think at least that offer makes sense. To me, there’s something like a 60% chance he won’t be worth that. But I think there’s a 40% chance he’ll be worth quite a bit more than that. It’s a gamble, but it’s a smart gamble.
And it doesn’t even require a loss of flexibility; the figure is so low that even a team like the D-backs can write it off as a sunk loss after a couple of years. That’s exactly the point. And you never know — given Lamb’s minors success, even if all he does is create runs at a 25% below average rate and play a competent third base, some other team might be willing to take on the chance. It’s not that extending Lamb is a guaranteed win. It’s that we can guarantee that the team can win, without ever really losing.
Extending Archie Bradley
Still with me? I would understand where you were coming from if you said extending Bradley — who isn’t even on the 40-man roster — is a bridge too far. But I think an offer to Bradley this winter (probably not until mid or late March) makes a ton of sense, for a lot of the same reasons as with Lamb.
Bradley probably has an even wider range of outcomes than Lamb. His absolute floor looks like “helpful reliever,” worth at least the kind of money that Oliver Perez is getting. His ceiling is still “ace,” as unlikely as that may be. And while there’s a greater risk of catastrophic injury with a pitcher, if Bradley has one, it’s going to eat into the team’s years of club control either way — unless it happens to be in the relatively small window between now and when he actually gets called up (hence waiting until March to minimize that risk).
The other main difference between he and Lamb: Bradley’s clock isn’t running yet. Extensions for players who don’t even have major league service time are almost unheard of, but not completely unheard of — thanks to the Houston Astros.
The Astros invented a new thing — the “sign-and-promote” — with Jonathan Singleton this past season. Essentially, the Astros did with Singleton exactly what I’m suggesting for Lamb (which is not a coincidence), except that with Singleton, the extension was timed such that the club arguably got an extra year of club control at the league minimum. The Astros seemed poised to wait for a few extra weeks this June to make Singleton much less likely to be a Super Two player, with four years of arbitration. When Singleton signed his $10M, 7-year deal, they seemed to bake the whole “we won’t let you be a Super Two” thing into the numbers.
Service time almost definitely isn’t a consideration for Lamb, but it almost definitely is for Bradley, whose agent publicly agitated for a callup in early 2014. He seemed to think that the D-backs were playing with the service time clock. And I’ll admit, because the season seemed to be of the information-gathering variety by late April, I was on board with a callup, too.
You can bet that Bradley’s agent will be agitating again this year, even if it’s not public this time. But because the D-backs front office is smart, they won’t have Bradley with the team at the outset of 2015. At the very least, they’ll wait a few weeks to make sure they get control of Bradley’s 2021 season; even more likely, they’ll wait things out until late June to bypass the Super Two thing.
All of these service time considerations become completely irrelevant if the team and player come to an arrangement on an extension. That’s one reason in favor of it; with a seven-year deal already signed, Bradley will get called up when he’s ready, not when the service clock says he’s ready. And there’s really no chance of the club keeping Bradley in the minors for all of 2015, anyway; if he continues to fail to make adjustments, it will still be time sometime this summer to see what he’s actually capable of.
Bradley’s offer would be higher than Lamb’s. You’d grant him the equivalent of four MLB-minimum seasons, even if you paid him a bit higher on the front end. Then, something like $3M, $6M, $9M for his arbitration seasons ($9M will seem like less in 2021). That’s a $20M offer, which might break down to 1/1/1/1/3/5/8 in yearly salaries. The team would do well to add an option year or two on there, but even if they can’t, this offer would still make sense for them; they can always try to extend Bradley in a few years if he blossoms in the bigs.
Being this proactive could save the D-backs tons of money if Bradley works out, and as with the Lamb offer, there’s no big loss here. $8M would be a lot for a good reliever, even six years from now, but it’s hardly ridiculous, and that’s just the one year. If Bradley becomes a solid number two, his arbitration seasons may end up costing quite a bit more than $18M — they could end up costing between $30M and $35M. That’s a lot to gain, potentially. Maybe Bradley will be a #4, and he will earn his contract almost exactly. Maybe he’ll have a Brandon Morrow track record, and pitch like a good #3, but be injured a lot — and he’ll earn his contract almost exactly. Maybe he’ll disappear, and be worth nothing — but I don’t think the chances of that are as high as the chances of his extension costing less than what he’d make going year to year.
These suggested offers — $12M/6 for Lamb, $20M/7 for Bradley — are a lot of money. Maybe not a lot in the big picture of D-backs payrolls, but it’s a life-changing amount of money for probably everyone reading this (and writing this!), and despite the earning potential of both players, it’s a life-changing amount of money for both of them, too. Eric Hinske is the cautionary tale, and talking to Hinske was enough for Evan Longoria to take a deal similar to the one suggested for Bradley — Longoria was a stud even when he arrived in the majors, and inflation doesn’t make up the difference between he and Lamb. Longoria signed a six-year, $14.5M deal with three truly lovely options (the first of which had a hefty buyout, raising the guarantee to $17.5M, but it was also highly reasonable for an otherwise free agent year, at $7.5M). I think it’s tough for young players to turn down this kind of money. It’s time for the D-backs to find out if Lamb or Bradley will take it.
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