In professional sports, smart, forward-thinking organizations have the ability to project ahead, anticipate the future, yet still focus on the present. For Major League Baseball general managers, deciding on which arbitration-eligible players to extend before free agency arrives is a yearly right of passage.
This practice, sometimes referred to as "buying out" arbitration years, was made famous by former Indians and Rangers general manager John Hart. In the early 90s, Hart took over the fledgling Cleveland Indians, a team without a great business model. Prior to the opening of Jacobs Field, Cleveland had little hope for big attendance, revenue to sign outside free agents or the ability to keep homegrown stars.
Hart, upon taking over, was blessed with an abundance of homegrown stars. From Jim Thome to Manny Ramirez to Charles Nagy, the nucleus of a dominant team was being formed.
Instead of dreading the yearly arbitration process and fighting against ascending talents for every penny, Hart began the practice of securing their services with deals to buy out arbitration years. While the team took some risk if those players were injured or didn't live up to expectations, millions of dollars were saved when they became stars.
The Hart model is one that has been copied throughout the years, most notably by the Tampa Bay Rays.
This offseason, six players stand out as candidates for long-term deals. With risk, comes reward for each organization represented.
Without further ado, the arbitration-eligible players who should be signed long-term.
*All projected arbitration salaries for 2014 are via MLB Trade Rumors. Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, unless otherwise noted.
If Scott Boras has his way, Eric Hosmer, one of his most promising young clients, will dismiss any contract overtures from the Kansas Royals from now through the 2017 season. Then, when free agency arrives for the now 24-year-old first baseman, the bidding war can begin.
Despite the reluctance of Boras to buy out free-agent years, the Royals should do everything they can to alleviate the strain of Hosmer's future earnings on their bottom line. As a Super Two player, defined here by MLB Trade Rumors, Hosmer is eligible for an extra year of arbitration. Basically, he can earn more than the league minimum and argue his case for a higher salary.
According to Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, that number could be around $4.1 million for 2014. With three more arbitration years to come (2015-17) before free agency arrives, Hosmer will likely cost a fortune soon, especially if he continues to ascend like he did in 2013.
By posting a 118 OPS+ and a 3.6 WAR at age 23, Hosmer was a big contributor last season. Yet, it's what he did specifically in the second half (.852 OPS) that will be the talk of the upcoming season.
That number, projected over a full season, would have been one of the 30-best OPS marks for a 23-year-old first baseman in history.
If Hosmer carries that over into 2014 and beyond, his price tag will rise with it. Offering him a long-term deal now can save Kansas City millions before he hits free agency.
Over the last two seasons, doubling as Pedro Alvarez's first full campaigns in the big leagues, he's posted a .307 on-base percentage while striking out 366 times. Yet his flaws, while glaring, can't overshadow his biggest strength: raw power.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Alvarez to earn $4 million in arbitration for 2014. If he continues to launch home runs at the pace he did in 2013, considering where the league is heading, that number will rise significant before his free agency arrives in 2017.
In 2013, only 13 players hit 30-plus home runs. Alvarez was one of them, launching 36 for the playoff-bound Pirates. Over the last two years, only four hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Dunn) have more home runs than the 66 Alvarez has hit.
Those four hitters, varying from the great Cabrera to the flawed Dunn, made a combined $47.3 million, per Baseball-Reference, in 2013. Needless to say, Alvarez's power will land him major money during his arbitration years.
If the Pirates want to build a sustainable contender around Andrew McCutchen and an excellent pitching staff, they'll need Alvarez in tow at a fair rate. Offering him a deal now protects him from a down year and the team from his inevitable salary jump.
The Atlanta Braves are between a rock and a hard place. Without the luxury of a $150 million payroll, they need young, controllable players to survive and thrive in the NL East. Over the last few years, from Freddie Freeman to Mike Minor to Jason Heyward to Craig Kimbrel to Andrelton Simmons, they've graduated young stars to the big leagues by the boatload.
For now, it's a blessing. Soon, it will be a curse.
We can make a case for extending any of the young players, thus avoiding arbitration. For now, we'll focus on the player poised to land an offer in excess of $100 million when he hits the 2016 free-agent class.
Jason Heyward, the 24-year-old right fielder, has been in Atlanta since Opening Day 2010. During that time, he's failed to graduate to the level of superstar, but the path still lies in front of him.
Over the course of baseball history, only 11 outfielders have reached the following criteria before their age-24 season: 500 games, 70 home runs and .350 on-base percentage. As you can guess, Heyward is one of them. The others: Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Heyward to earn $4.5 million in arbitration for 2014. If his agent enters the room with statistics similar to that, that estimate could be low. By 2015, Heyward could be worth in excess of $12 million.
If the Braves are smart, they'll try to sign Heyward up for at least the next two years right now, possibly even offering him enough to stay away from free agency in 2016.
Admittedly, this one is the biggest long shot on the board. With one year until a big payday in free agency, the Reds are unlikely to persuade Homer Bailey to forgo arbitration this winter and the open market after 2014.
Yet, if they could rework a potential Bailey extension into their long-term plans, the homegrown starter can team with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to give Cincinnati a trio of stars for the foreseeable future.
Yes, folks, Bailey is a star. While he's not on the superstar level of Votto, Bailey has ascended to the upper echelon of starting pitchers.
Consider this: In 2013, Bailey's xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) of 3.34 was 18th best among starting pitchers. Some names with marks worse than that: Doug Fister, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke.
Furthermore, at age 27, Bailey is just entering the best years of his career. If he builds off 2013, the sky is the limit.
Over the last decade, only six other pitchers have had an age-27 season like Bailey's 2013 (209 IP, 8.57 K/9). Anyone that can keep company with CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum and Dan Haren is headed for a bright future.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Bailey to earn $9.3 million for 2014. If the Reds have any shot of keeping him beyond that, they won't let him hit the open market next winter.
As Brandon Belt enters arbitration for the first time, the San Francisco Giants should consider making it their last dalliance with the 25-year-old first baseman.
After a breakout 2013 (142 OPS+), Belt is poised to emerge into a perennial star for the Giants. Much like Eric Hosmer, Belt is a Super Two player. In other words, arbitration is scheduled every winter for the next four years. After that, Belt will hit the open market.
Last year, Belt had the sixth-highest fWAR (4.0) among all first baseman in baseball. His bWAR (4.4) was even higher, ranking fifth. That stellar OPS+ mark was the sixth best among first baseman across the sport. Regardless of your future projections for Belt, he enters 2014 firmly entrenched as one of the top 10 first baseman in baseball.
If he ascends higher, his price tag, projected by MLB Trade Rumors as $2.4 million in 2014, will rise quickly.
Instead of taking a year-to-year approach with a potential star, the Giants should offer a five-year deal in excess of $35 million to their first baseman. If his potential is realized, they'll have a steal through his age-30 season.
Through the first 286.1 innings of Andrew Cashner's career, the 27-year-old Padres righty has posted a 3.55 ERA, profiled as both a reliever and starter, pitched to an above-average ERA+ 102 and had a season (2012) in which he posted a 10.1 K/9 rate.
While all those numbers range from solid to extraordinary, it's the tantalizing potential of Cashner's fastball that should move Padres general manager Josh Byrnes to gamble on a long-term deal with the hard-throwing righty.
According to Fangraphs, Cashner has thrown his fastball at an average velocity of 95.7 mph since entering the majors in 2010. To put that number in perspective, not one starting pitcher averaged that mark across the 2013 season.
The closest — Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez — all throw the ball hard, but none quite as hard as Cashner.
If Cashner can command that fastball, work on secondary pitchers and benefit from the expansive dimensions of Petco Park, a star will emerge. When that happens, he'll become too expensive for the small-market Padres.
By awarding him an extension now, San Diego can own a lottery ticket for a pittance.
Your turn to play GM: Which arbitration-eligible players should be signed long-term?
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