One Player Every MLB Team Needs to Extend
This winter scores of MLB teams will take pains to keeps their top performers in house. If they’re smart, the following players will be among those receiving new deals.
Over the past few years the contract extension has become the en vogue weapon of baseball’s underclass.
It’s a term that makes Scott Boras’ skin crawl and the method by which shrewd GMs combat the excesses of free agency.
It’s term that, more than ever, baseball fans understand and embrace.
It's a term these players and their agents will grow plenty familiar with in the coming months.
New York Yankees: Robinson Cano
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With C.C. Sabathia’s contract extension signed and sealed, Yankees GM Brian Cashman can turn his attention to the heart of the New York lineup.
Both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson become free agents after the 2013 season, meaning the Yankees will have to spend big money soon to keep either (or both) in pinstripes.
Cano’s the priority because he’s the more consistent performer and because he’s two years younger. He’s had a WAR above 4.0 in five of his seven big league seasons and at 29 should hit his peak sometime soon. The Yankees can afford to overpay for him and they will, ensuring some stability in the middle infield as Derek Jeter eventually transitions elsewhere.*
*Come on, you know it's got to happen eventually. Right? Ok, let's just agree not to have this argument here.
Tampa Bay Rays: Desmond Jennings
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Rays GM Andrew Friedman isn’t afraid to invest early in his top talent if it means keeping them in Tampa through their prime years.
In 2008 he gave Evan Longoria a six-year extension just six days after the third baseman’s major league debut. Now Friedman has the chance to lock up outfield sensation Desmond Jennings a few months after he tore through the second half of the 2011 season.
Friedman isn’t compelled to act on the speedster now, and may opt for the wait-and-see approach. But if Jennings’ power continues to develop they way it did last season, Friedman would be wise to at least gauge the young man’s interest.
Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury
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The Red Sox didn’t secure Jacoby Ellsbury last offseason and they’re paying more and more for that mistake with each passing day.
Ellsbury, already a well above-average player, broke out in a big way last year. He posted career highs in nearly every major offensive category, including an OPS over 100 points higher than his career average.
The Red Sox must now hope that the Scott Boras client breaks with his agent’s precedent and considers a new deal before his contract expires in 2013. The thought of a Boras client fresh off a big year taking an extension would seem laughable except that Angels pitcher Jered Weaver did just that last season.
The Sox have to hope Ellsbury is of a similar mind, or risk paying an even higher price for their star center fielder in free agency.
Toronto Blue Jays: Brett Lawrie
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It’s early in Brett Lawrie’s career to start talking extensions, but the rookie third baseman’s performance in the second half of 2011 has to have GM Alex Anthopoulos entertaining the notion.
Lawrie hit .293 with a .953 OPS in 43 games last year and his minor league track record suggests its no fluke. The British Columbia native hit .296 over two-and-a-half seasons on the farm and looks every bit the third baseman of the future in Toronto.
That Lawrie’s a native of Canada only increases his appeal and further incentivizes decisive action on a long-term deal.
Lawrie alongside Yunel Escobar on the left-side of the infield gives the Jays enviable future prospects and may soon enough have the titans of the AL East taking notice.
Baltimore Orioles: Adam Jones
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Take your pick between Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, the Orioles clearly want both in Baltimore for the long haul.
Neither has met their sky-high expectations, but both show developing power and play up the middle on the defense. Those traits hold value and they give the Orioles cause to keep them in-house.
Jones’ contract is up sooner so he’s the more urgent case.
Even with an atrocious strikeout-to-walk rate, Jones is one of the few center fielders in baseball with 20-HR power. That’s reason enough for the Orioles to extend him into his prime for the right price.
Detroit Tigers: N/A
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With Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez already in their back pocket, the Tigers don’t have any pressing contract issues on their docket.
After a second-half surge, they could consider an offer to right fielder Delmon Young, but his low OBP and poor defense make him a risky investment. Not surprisingly, Detroit’s already bandied him about in trade talks with Atlanta.
Jhonny Peralta’s a free agent after 2013 and his studly 2011 campaign could merit him a new contract. Problem is he’s 30 next year, and it would be hard to justify a long-term deal for a veteran player without a true defensive position.
Then there’s Jacob Turner, the young gun who hasn’t done enough at the big league level to force the Tigers hand. There’s no rush on Detroit’s end to lock him up before they get a better sense of his prospects.
Cleveland Indians: Shin-Soo Choo
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Yep, I’m suggesting the Indians extend the contract of a player who limped through his worst full big league season last year.
So don’t think of it that way, Cleveland. Think of extending the Shin-Soo Choo that posted back-to-back seasons with a WAR above 6.0 in 2009 and 2010. And think of doing it for a price that reflects last season’s disappointing output.
Last offseason the Indians talked about securing Choo, but ran into the Scott Boras roadblock. The super-agent wasn’t about to let a top client negotiate while his star was still rising.
Now that Choo’s come back down to earth, the leverage shifts back to the suited guys in the luxury box. Now’s the time for the Indians to get long-term value on the Korean sensation before he hits free agency in 2014.
A healthy Choo can be one of the 10 best outfielders in baseball. Cleveland should note that potential, while reminding him and his agent that he wasn’t nearly that player in 2011.
Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale
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No one on the Chicago White Sox jumps off the payroll sheet as an obvious extension candidate.
Carlos Queintin’s contract expires after next season, but the White Sox should be wary of a 29-year-old with slipping power numbers and a chequered defensive resume. Elsewhere on the roster, Gordon Beckham continues to regress, Dayan Viciedo’s already under contract and Phillip Humber’s too old for the Sox to worry about anything beyond his arbitration years.
That leads us to the relief corps, where 22-year-old Chris Sale has all the trappings of a bullpen stalwart. Now Sale’s not even arbitration eligible until 2014, but if the White Sox act early they could secure the strikeout maestro before he commands big money at the arbital tribunal (10.6 K/9 for his career).
It’s not a risk they have to take just yet, but they should.
Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon
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The Royals priorities could run in any number of directions this offseason. They could lock up veteran closer Joakim Soria. They could make an early grab for rookie first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Or they could drive their stake in the middle of the road and reward late bloomer Alex Gordon for his breakout 2011 campaign.
The next-best-thing turned bust turned reclamation project finally validated his second overall draft selection last year by hitting .303 with 23 home runs and bringing home his first gold glove.
He’ll be 28 years old next year and a free agent after the 2014 season. With an extension Kansas City could have him in left field through his prime, bring the lineup much needed stability as a young team grows into a contender. With Gordon due a big raise in arbitration this offseason, an extension might even save Kansas City a bit of coin.
Minnesota Twins: N/A
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If there was a cautionary tale for contract extensions it would star former GM Bill Smith and the Minnesota Twins of the late aughts.
Minnesota signed homegrown MVP winners Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to lucrative contract extensions only to see injuries ravage their return on investment. Though there’s still hope for the Mauer deal, Morneau’s money looks like a wasted effort and small-market teams like the Twins can ill-afford such mistakes.
Given that background, I’ll recommend the Twins cool it on the contract extensions for now. Most of their top players are under contract through 2013, and when you’re coming off a 63-win season that isn’t exactly a good thing.
Texas Rangers: Josh Hamilton
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The defending AL champs haven’t equivocated—they want Josh Hamilton in Arlington for good.
When healthy, Hamilton’s one of the best hitters in baseball. Even when he’s sidelined, everyone’s favorite comeback story is a fan favorite and a poster boy for Texas’ climb to the top of the AL.
He’s as indispensable to their lineup as he is to their mojo, and it’s hard to imagine the Rangers letting him waltz into free agency after the 2012 season.
Los Angeles Angels: Howie Kendrick
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For a player who hit .360 over 1618 minor league at-bats, the learning curve for Howie Kendrick at the major league level was surprisingly sharp.
At this point Angels fans have to admit that the 27-year-old Kendrick won’t develop into a future batting champ and won’t ever draw enough walks to satisfy the Moneyball types.
But he is an above-average defensive second baseman with 15+ HR power and a lifetime .292 batting average. That’s a rare combination, and Kendrick can give this team good value over the next three-to-five years.
With Jered Weaver locked in at a great rate for the foreseeable future, Kendrick’s the most extension-worthy regular from the Angels crop of homegrown talent.
Oakland A’s: Jemile Weeks
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With Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson taken care of and Gio Gonzalez potential trade bait, the A’s could turn to breakout second baseman Jemile Weeks for their next long-term investment.
The younger Weeks doesn’t have the power of older brother Rickie and he seems to suffer from the same defensive deficiencies, but he’s a better than average hitter who should mature into a good OBP option at the top of the lineup.
I don’t think he’s a game-changer, but he’s an exciting younger player who can help attract fans to the Coliseum as ownership lobbies for new digs.
Seattle Mariners: Dustin Ackley
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Agent Scott Boras isn’t likely to let star client Dustin Ackley sign a contract extension to bypass his arbitration year, but if they did...
Ackley looks like a long-term fixture in a Seattle lineup that needs good news. He won’t wow with his defense, but when you’re offensive ceiling puts you somewhere near Chase Utley those concerns are secondary.
Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels
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With almost all of their core players locked in long-term—perhaps to a fault in the case of Ryan Howard—Phillies fans know Cole Hamels is the last championship cog still waiting on a deal.
It won’t come cheap.
There are few baseball assets more valuable than a left-handed starter with a stellar track record. Hamels posted a career-high strikeout-to-walk ratio and his first ever sub-3.00 ERA last year.
Reborn through a cutter he added to his repertoire in 2010, Hamels looks ready to stake his reputation as one of the NL’s best. It’s now GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s responsibility to keep him alongside Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the Phillies rotation for the next few years.
He will, with an assist from Philadelphia’s booming, sell-out-fueled coffers.
Atlanta Braves: Michael Bourn
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With more than enough pitching in place to keep them competitive for the next decade, Braves GM Frank Wren needs to focus on building a worthy lineup this offseason.
Start at the top, where speedy center fielder Michael Bourn enters his final year of arbitration. Bourn eclipsed 4.5 WAR each of the past two seasons and gives Atlanta great production at a position sullied in recent years by the likes of Nate McLouth and Mark Kotsay.
Not since Andruw Jones left for L.A. have the Braves had such value at one of the game’s most perennially thin positions. They’d do well to compensate Bourn before he hits the open market.
Washington Nationals: Michael Morse
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As the Nationals continue to stockpile assets in the minor leagues, breakout slugger Michael Morse gives the front office much needed flexibility.
He can play first base or corner outfield, allowing the Nationals to pursue a player like Prince Fielder in free agency or look for short-term solution in left field before Bryce Harper hits the big time.
No matter where he plays, it’s clear that Morse—who posted a .303/.360/.550 slash in his first full season as a starer—is due a big pay raise from the $1.05 million he earned last year. Whether he gets that money in arbitration or through a structured, multi-year commitment is up to Nats GM Mike Rizzo.
Taking the 29-year-old’s advanced age into consideration, Rizzo should give Morse a three-to-four-year deal that keeps him with the rebuilding club through his prime years. Alongside Ryan Zimmerman he gives the Nats offense enough go to make them sleeper contenders in the NL East.
New York Mets: Ike Davis
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The sooner the Mets front office forgets about what could have been on the left side of the infield the better. Jose Reyes already has a foot out the door, and David Wright’s equivocation about negotiating a contract extension suggests he may follow suit.
Turning toward the less immediate future, the Mets have a chance to keep promising young first baseman Ike Davis in Flushing through his arbitration years and they ought to act on it.
Davis’ recent health woes make it a risky proposition, but they also give the Mets great chance for value moving forward. When he played in 2011, Davis showed emerging power to complement a polished big-league swing.
With that in mind, the Mets could set an early piece of their rebuilding puzzle as they wait for the Jason Bay and Johan Santana contracts to mercifully expire.
Miami Marlins: Mike Stanton
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Bursting through the post-steroid malaise, Mike Stanton hit 56 home runs in his first 875 major league at-bats. To put that total in perspective, he’s one of just seven big leaguers in the past decade to hit more than 50 bombs in his first two major league campaigns.
The other six—Ryan Braun, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria, Dan Uggla and Josh Hamilton—all went on to All-Star careers and there’s no reason to think Stanton won’t match them. When you’ve averaged a home run per 13.4 at bats through your minor league career as Stanton has, your likely to keep hitting ‘em.
Translation: Mike Stanton does things your right fielder wish he could.
Even with Stanton two years from arbitration, the Marlins can prove their serious about organizational redemption by inking the homegrown star to a long-term commitment. Considering the record total Ryan Howard—another NL East slugger with prodigious early career home runs totals—fetched in arbitration, Miami might even save some cash in the long run by signing him now.
Milwaukee Brewers: Zack Greinke
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Though the punditry labeled the 2011 Brewers one-year wonders, there’s reason to believe Milwaukee can contend for another NL Central crown next season.
Even if Prince Fielder leaves via free agency, the 2012 Brewers return every top performer from a pitching staff that ranked sixth in the NL in runs allowed. With Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks leading the offense, Milwaukee seems as well positioned as anybody in a tumultuous division.
Longer term, the key to keeping a stingy staff together is co-ace and 2013 free agent candidate Zack Greinke.
Hiding under 2011’s league-average ERA+, is an elite pitcher with improving peripherals. Greinke struck out a career and league-high 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings last year, contributing to a stellar 4.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
If a .323 BABIP and 8.6 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio hadn’t inflated the more traditional metrics, Greinke’s contract demands might look more daunting. As it stands, Milwaukee could get a top-flight pitcher for a price befitting their small-market means.
With little help coming from the farm system, the Brewers need to retain as much big league pitching as possible. If they do, the Brewers have enough on offense to remain competitive.
If they don’t, Ryan Braun’s peak years evaporate in a talentless haze and Milwaukee drifts quickly to the division cellar.
St. Louis Cardinals: Yadier Molina
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Always a superior defensive player, Yadier Molina’s developing offensive game makes him one of the best catchers in the National League. Over the past three years, only Brian McCann has a higher combined WAR among NL backstops.
And though the Albert Pujols pursuit deservedly takes precedence this offseason, the Cardinals shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Molina will enter free agency after the 2012 season.
At 29 it stands to reason that Molina has three-to-four good seasons left and a modest contract extension should keep him in St. Louis. The Cardinals are in the mode of keeping their veteran core in tact, and Molina’s a big part of that core.
Expect St. Louis to extend an offer before he hits a thin catching market.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto
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Certainly the Reds want to sign former MVP Joey Votto, but can they?
The only player to finish among the NL’s top three in WAR each of the last two seasons won’t come cheap, and early reports indicate he isn’t itching to negotiate for a long-term deal.
Don’t pay the three-year “extension” he signed in the winter of 2010 much mind. That deal only runs through what would have been Votto’s remaining arbitration years, when he already would have been under Cincinnati’s control.
Now comes the real work, getting one of baseball’s best hitters to make a long-term commitment to the Reds. Considering the kind of money Votto could make in the open market come 2014, it won’t be easy.
If Votto continues to balk at the prospect of a real extension, the Reds will have to start considering trade scenarios. It’s the only way they can get real value for one of the best players to come through Cincy’s system since Barry Larkin.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen
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It’s no surprise the Pittsburgh Pirates have been talking extension with All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen for months now.
As a bevy big arms march through Pittsburgh’s farm system, McCutchen’s the only known quantity on the other side of the ball. That in mind, McCutchen may be the single most indispensable player in the Pirates’ overdue rebuilding effort.
How good is McCutchen? Last year he and Peter Bourjos became just the 26th and 27th center fielders in baseball history to post a 5.0+ WAR at age 24, joining a list that includes Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb.
McCutchen probably won’t reach those dizzying heights, but he compares favorably to Diamonbacks outfielder Justin Upton and has face-of-the-franchise potential.
Chicago Cubs: Starlin Castro
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With Theo Epstein’s hire as the wind behind their sails, the Cubs can use a rare bit of positive momentum to cement Starlin Castro as their shortstop of the future.
At 21 he’s already proven his chops as a big league hitter, and emerging power puts him on track to become the league’s premier player at the league’s premier position. While they get out from under Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano’s bloated deals, a new contract for the hitting savant will lend the rebuilding work much-needed legitimacy.
A Starlin Castro contract extension would demonstrate Epstein’s good intentions without necessitating an imprudent free agent splash. Call it a nice middle ground and a nod toward Chicago’s suddenly sunny outlook.
Houston Astros: N/A
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When you win 56 games you don’t give your guys any monetary pats on the back.
One guy worth watching is starting pitcher Bud Norris. The strikeout specialist finally lowered his walk rate in 2011 and saw his ERA dip below 4.00 for the first time.
Someday soon he might earn an extended pay day, but that day isn’t today.
Houston made their big offseason move by canning GM Ed Wade. Now it’s time to finally rebuild the house.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Miguel Montero
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Some day soon Arizona will have to get serious about keeping baby aces Ian Kennedy and Danial Hudson in the desert long term. But this offseason catcher Miguel Montero is the priority.
Montero, coming off a career year, will hit the open market after the 2012 season. By then he’ll be just 29 and primed for a big contract.
Montero had the best WAR among NL catchers last season and ranked fourth in the same category in 2009. You may not know the name, but Montero has the game. For Arizona to take another crack at the NL West next year they’ll need him healthy and happy.
San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum
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While all the talk in San Francisco this offseason revolves around offense, Giants GM Brian Sabean also needs to think hard about the future of his stellar starting staff.
Matt Cain’s slated for free agency after the 2012 season while two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum hits the market the year after.
And while it’s tempting to prioritize the contract that expires first, Tim Lincecum is too important to this franchise to wait until the midnight hour.
Lincecum’s lukewarm attitude toward extension talk in the past only increases the urgency. If we’re to believe all the talk about his stress-free arm mechanics, Lincecum has another five years as the one of the league’s elite pitchers and another five years as an above-average arm.
The Giants couldn’t ask for any more. As long as Lincecum remains in San Francisco this franchise can contend. Sabean needs to make sure he does just that for a long, long time.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw
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With the Matt Kemp contract extension signed, the Los Angeles Dodgers now turn their attention to the franchise’s golden arm.
So what’s to like about Clayton Kershaw?
He’s 23. He’s the reigning NL Cy Young winner. He’s had an ERA under 3.00 in each of his three full major league seasons. He’s left-handed.
Kershaw’s arbitration eligible in 2012 and his salary should begin to skyrocket. It’s in the Dodgers’ best interest to buy out those arbitration years if they can tack on a couple of his free-agent-eligible seasons to the end of that deal.
WIth Kershaw and Kemp in place, the Dodgers are a couple of complementary pieces away from contention. Suddenly a franchise in complete disarray six months ago looks remarkably stable, at least on the field.
Colorado Rockies: N/A
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No one’s been more adept at negotiating favorable contract extensions over the past couple of seasons than Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd. For small-market friendly prices he has franchise cornerstones Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in purple through 2017.
All that said, there isn’t anyone left on the Rockies to extend.
Youngsters Dexter Fowler and Jhoulys Chacin haven’t yet proven their worth, at least not to the point that Colorado would consider a deal in their pre-arbitration years. Ubaldo Jimenez no longer dresses in Denver, and the young arms Colorado got in the deal aren’t experienced enough to talk contract.
The rest of Colorado’s roster consists of bit players and veterans. Hard to imagine O’Dowd running a Tulo-style deal by the Seth Smiths and Ian Stewarts of the baseball world.
San Diego Padres: Mat Latos
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Things are year-to-year right now in San Diego, with no player on the roster under contract beyond 2013. Makes sense with a rebuilding team, letting the chips fall before making any commitments.
But at some point new GM Josh Byrnes has to identify the core group of players he wants to keep long terms. As a cash-poor club, San Diego has to make some bold propositions before their top players reach free agency. Otherwise, they’ll stay trapped in a cycle of one-year windows and devastating bouts of self-destruction.
If I were Byrnes I’d start the stabilizing by signing 23-year-old right-hander Mat Latos. Even with a down year in 2011, Latos shows the kind of swing-and-miss stuff that makes for good long-term prospects. Over 430 innings he’s posted a 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio and with improvements to his control could become one of the NL’s elite arms.
If San Diego rolls the dice on Latos now, they can lay a blueprint for sustained success in the future.