In 2008, the Red Sox recognized what they had in Dustin Pedroia. One year after he’d claimed Rookie of the Year honors and helped lead his team to a championship, he’d established himself as a team centerpiece in what was already an All-Star campaign by August.
The Red Sox saw a player around whom they wanted to build. Then-assistant GM Jed Hoyer met with Pedroia over breakfast that August to explore comparable long-term deals that might help to frame discussions.
“It was actually one of my favorite meetings with Dustin. He’s got the perfect amount of cockiness and self-confidence,” Hoyer recalled last week at the GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Some of the comparables I threw at him, he took offense to. We actually had a really animated breakfast.
“If you go back and look, almost the day we started that negotiation, he just took off. The prices just kept going up and up and up. He won the MVP. We were really fortunate that he wanted to sign a deal with us at that point. He had a lot of leverage: Rookie of the Year, World Series, MVP. But he loved the Red Sox and wanted to take a deal. He made himself a ton of money in that deal from when we started talking in Toronto to the end of the year. It was a huge jump.”
Shortly after Pedroia was named the AL Most Valuable Player in his second full season, he and the Red Sox announced a six-year, $40.5 million deal (which included a team option for a seventh year) that ensured the second baseman’s place as a building block through at least his age 29 season.
That sort of deal now seems like it took place a lifetime ago. After eight years of immense revenue growth in the game, player salaries are skyrocketing in a way that has extended to the sort of long-term deals now being conferred upon players like Pedroia.
“Obviously now, given the landscape, a guy winning Rookie of the Year and MVP and getting $40 million over six [years], it does seem like it’s a different time,” said Hoyer. “Inflation is a real thing.”
In a few days, Mookie Betts and the Red Sox will learn whether their young star, in an age 23 season that marked his second full year in the big leagues, won American League MVP honors – at the same age and big league service time as Pedroia did before him.
Yet whereas Betts’ credentials are starting to look intriguingly similar to those of Pedroia at a similar career stage, it’s safe to say that if the Red Sox want to make their young star a long-term centerpiece, the price will be very different than it was after Pedroia’s MVP campaign.
This offseason might be a pivotal one for the Sox if they want to lock up Betts long term. Betts was one of the biggest bargains in baseball this year, making $566,000. He is not yet arbitration-eligible, meaning that even if he wins the MVP, the Red Sox could bring him back on a salary of their choosing – with a salary of less than $1 million perfectly within reason.
In a year, if he remains healthy and productive, Betts will be in line for a considerable bump, perhaps to something in the vicinity of $10 million. At that point, the conversation about a long-term deal changes, creeping closer to the point where Giancarlo Stanton was deemed worthy of a 12-year, $325 million deal (Stanton was a second-time arbitration-eligible player with four-plus years of service time when reaching that deal).
What might a Betts deal look like right now? As a starting point, the Red Sox would probably be looking at about $100 million more than they committed to Pedroia eight years ago, with a couple of executives at the GM meetings spitballing a guarantee that might be in the vicinity of $150 million for seven or eight years of one of the game’s most impressive young stars. Yet if history is any guide, such a commitment would be far more likely to inspire satisfaction than regret.
The landscape for long-term deals for young players changed in early-2013, when the Giants rewarded Buster Posey – a player with just under three years of big league service time, who had a Rookie of the Year, an MVP Award, and two championships on his résumé – with a nine-year, $167 million deal ($18.6 million average annual value).
In the absence of a long-term deal, Posey would have been eligible for free agency this winter. Instead, with the first four years of the deal in the books (which saw Posey make three All-Star teams and win another championship), he remains under Giants team control for another five years. San Francisco has had no regrets about their deal for their catcher.
“There’s never necessarily a magic time to do it. When you hve an opportunity on a player you believe in, there’s never a bad time to start the conversation,” said Giants GM Bobby Evans. “We’re very glad to have him as a centerpiece to our club. You talk about the player, his leadership in the clubhouse, his leadership on the field, the way he quarterbacks the game, the way he’s excelled defensively, offensively, he’s still hitting in the middle of a lineup. It’s just a great combination of strengths for us and a great representative of the organization in every way. It’s hard to imagine Giants baseball without him.”
Since the Giants’ long-term deal for Posey, there have been nine additional deals of at least five years for players who had between two and four years of service time (years away from their free-agent eligibility, which arrives after a player has six years of service time). Yet even as teams are now guaranteeing more than $100 million for players who are years away from free agency, the teams remain convinced of the wisdom of early-career extensions.
|Player||Year||Service Time||Arb eligible||Awards||Years||$ (M)||FA Years|
|Buster Posey||2013||2+||Yes||ROY, MVP||9||167||5|
|Mike Trout||2014||2+*||No*||ROY, MVP||6||144||3|
Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, for instance, was adamant when asked whether a nine-figure contract for a player such as Kyle Seager (whom Dipoto’s predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, locked up on a seven-year, $100 million deal in the first offseason when Seager would have been eligible for arbitration) could be a bargain.
“Without a doubt. Without a doubt,” said Dipoto, who was the Angels GM when the Halos extended Mike Trout on a six-year, $144 million deal. “You’re seeing [extensions] when they’re [players with one-plus or two-plus years of service time], before they’re eligible for arbitration the first time. Generally speaking, if you wait until they’re going into the arbitration system, it loses the long-term benefit to the player because now he’s on the verge of making money through the system.
“Teams wouldn’t do it if they didn’t find value in it. Players wouldn’t sign it if it didn’t provide them with something important. It’s a really good thing for baseball and it’s a really good thing for baseball fans . . . It’s awesome to come to the ballpark everyday if you’re a Mariners fan and see Kyle Seager at third base, have that connection, and when you buy your kid a Kyle Seager jersey, to know he’s still going to be there.”