On Wednesday, news broke that the St. Louis Cardinals had signed third baseman Matt Carpenter to a two-year extension. Carpenter, firmly a part of the Mount Rushmore of St. Louis Cardinals this decade, remaining in St. Louis through 2021 warranted a post, but truthfully, nobody seemed to have a strong opinion on the matter. It was a paint-by-numbers signing which more likely than not will work out well for the Cardinals, while the potential downside is quite a bit steeper than the upside (the odds that Matt Carpenter falls off a cliff or is injured in his mid-thirties are higher than of him being an absolute bargain as a poor defensive third baseman or possibly a designated hitter at $19.5 million per year). It is what it is. I’ve already exhausted my takes on the matter.
The lack of interesting Matt Carpenter opinion makes sense considering that Carpenter is kind of boring. And I mean that mostly as a compliment–he is an established very good-to-great MLB player who was still a firmly above-average player in the worst of his full seasons in St. Louis. He was approaching free agency, so the Cardinals paid him effectively $20.5 million for 2021 (the Cardinals are giving Carpenter a raise on his 2020 salary had they simply picked up his option at $18.5 million).
But on Thursday, a completely different kind of contract extension was signed, and it quickly pushed the Carpenter one out of the spotlight. Ozzie Albies, a 22 year-old second baseman for the Atlanta Braves, agreed to an extension which bought out his two remaining years making the league’s minimum salary, three years of salary arbitration, and at least two, and possibly (probably) four, years of free agency. Albies will get a slight bump in salary for 2019 and 2020 ($1 million per season), make $15 million total for what would have been three years of arbitration, and be due $7 million per season for each of the next four seasons after that.
This contract sucks.
Ozzie Albies has superstar potential, but he is already an established star. He had 244 plate appearances at 20 and was highly productive. In his age-21 season of 2018, he was a league-average hitter (which makes him an above-average hitter for a second baseman) and provided superb base running and defense at a premium position, accounting for 3.8 Wins Above Replacement by both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference measurement. By FanGraphs, he was baseball’s sixth-best second baseman last season; by Baseball Reference, he was the seventh-best. His future projection was even better–ZiPS had him tied with Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs as the second-best second baseman in all of Major League Baseball for 2019, trailing only former MVP and current Houston Astro Jose Altuve.
Assuming the Braves picked up his team options in 2026 and 2027 ($7 million is already bench player money in 2019, and these will be his age-29 and age-30 seasons), Albies will make $45 million for nine seasons. Albies was likely going to make the $35 million he is guaranteed during his three arbitration years alone, and then, if he lives up to expectations (forget about exceeding expectations), he would likely clear nine figures over the four free agency seasons he agreed to forego.
I am furious on the behalf of Ozzie Albies in ways that I have never been before. I fully understand why young baseball players sign pre-free agency, particularly pre-arbitration, contract extensions. They are, in all likelihood, foregoing millions of dollars, but they are also signing up for financial security. Take the extension that Paul DeJong signed with the Cardinals following his 2017 breakthrough–given that he has maintained and perhaps elevated his performance since then, he would probably like to redo the six-year, $26 million contract which includes $12.5 million team options for 2024 and 2025. But at the time, DeJong was a 24 year-old who entered MLB with minimal expectations–he wasn’t a particularly acclaimed prospect and had only recently moved to shortstop, a rare transition for somebody to make at the professional level. Even so, DeJong was probably going to make $26 million over his career by playing year-to-year, but it was also possible he’d fall flat in 2018, head back to Memphis, and wind up making less than a million dollars for his professional baseball career. Instead, DeJong signed a contract which assured he could live the rest of his life as a one-percenter.
Ozzie Albies is also going to be rich with this contract, even if he’s not as rich as he could have been. Compared to the thousands of minor league players who are being technicality-ed out of making minimum wage, there is a reasonable argument that focusing on Albies is poor allocation of our emotional energy. But the two are unrelated. It’s not as though the Braves are going to take the money they saved on Albies (and Ronald Acuna Jr., whose contract is also uncomfortably team friendly, but in a more typical way) and pay their minor league players a living wage. They aren’t even likely to take those savings and use it on signing other free agents, as the recent run of (mostly team-friendly) contract extensions has assured relatively uninspiring free agent classes in the coming years.
It is assumed that players and teams both assume risk when these extensions are signed–the former that they could make more money by waiting, the latter that they could find themselves with an albatross of a contract for a player whose performance drops. After all, while players signed as free agents are perhaps somewhat past their peak, they’ve had six-plus years to establish reasonable expectations for their performance, and a younger player is more likely to be an abberation.
Rarely are players discussed as pre-free agency contract extensions bust. But one of the rare examples of one that is happened for the St. Louis Cardinals–their extension of Allen Craig.
The Cardinals extended Craig, a 28 year-old late bloomer who had not yet reached arbitration, in the form of a five-year, $31 million contract which included a team option for a sixth year. At the time, it seemed like a mutually beneficial contract–Craig was very productive as a bench player in 2011, and then as a regular starting first baseman in 2012, but he wasn’t going to reach free agency until the age of 32. A lot can happen in those years, but $31 million is life-changing money that he could lock in right away.
For the first year of it, the contract extension looked solid for the Cardinals–Allen Craig was similarly productive in 2013, and while he hit for less power, calling this a sign of potential future decay is a largely retrospective pastime. But as it turns out, Allen Craig was about to fall victim to a cataclysmic decline. In 505 plate appearances in 2014, Allen Craig (not much of a fielder nor base runner on his best day) had a wRC+ of 68. In 88 plate appearances in 2015, Allen Craig had a wRC+ of 22 wRC+. Even though he was owed $20 million for the next two years, Allen Craig took zero MLB plate appearances in that time. Unsurprisingly, his 2018 was declined, and he spent that season as a decent AAA outfielder for the San Diego Padres. The day after Ozzie Albies signed his lightning-rod extension, Allen Craig announced his retirement and that he had accepted a position within the Padres front office.
Allen Craig is the example of an extension going wrong for the team. And by late July 2014, the Cardinals were realizing this. Well, the front office was–Mike Matheny was still trotting him out into the starting lineup most days. Through July 30, Craig’s walk rate had decreased, his strikeout rate had increased, his power (both of the home run and isolated power variety) had decreased, and his batting average on balls in play had gone from a preposterously high .368 to a .281 mark that would be much more expected given Craig’s (lack of) speed.
The Cardinals traded Allen Craig just hours before the 2014 trade deadline, along with swingman Joe Kelly, to the Boston Red Sox, in exchange for John Lackey, a slightly post-peak but still quite effective starting pitcher who, thanks to some bizarre phrasing in his contract, could play in 2015 for the MLB minimum. The Red Sox were in a run of odd-year-magic and thus were very much out of playoff contention by July 2014, so Lackey was less useful to the team than he was to the Cardinals. And they saw potential in Joe Kelly, who continued to be spotty as a starting pitcher before being converted to relief, where he was quite a bit more effective.
It is impossible to know exactly how much of Boston’s desire to execute that trade was based on Kelly and how much was based on Craig, but it is generally accepted that the former was the featured piece. But through May 2014, Allen Craig had been an above-average hitter that season. Less than two months later, he was gone. Craig was more than just an empty contract, but there was certainly concern that something along the lines of what would happen to him over the next year and a half would happen. At the very least, Allen Craig’s contract was not so prohibitive that the Red Sox were unwilling to add it onto their books.
So was the Allen Craig contract actually bad for the Cardinals? Sure, but it wasn’t destructive to the franchise in any meaningful way. Had the Cardinals gone year-to-year with him, he would have reached his first year of arbitration for the 2014 season, and he would have been paid some material amount of money–Mark Trumbo, a decent proxy for Craig at the time who was also in Arb 1, got $4.8 million. Given how poorly Allen Craig played in 2014, it would have been realistic for the Cardinals to have non-tendered him rather than giving him a raise (despite Craig’s struggles, it is very rare for players salaries to decrease from Arb 1 to Arb 2). Surely some team would have signed Craig, possibly to a guaranteed money Major League deal, for 2015. But it is unlikely that Allen Craig would not have cracked $10 million in career earnings had he not signed an extension with the Cardinals. And the amount extra he added to his bank account is life-changing money. This is why players sign these extensions.
There is an extra layer of exploitative grossness to these extensions–those who sign them tend to have a more pressing need for financial security than those who do not. Ozzie Albies signed with the Braves for a signing bonus of $350,000, and throughout his baseball life, had made a little over one million dollars (MLB minimum for 2018 and part of 2017, minor league salaries which are suppressed but which aren’t nothing). He was an injury away from very much needing to do something else for a living. Now he won’t have to worry about that. Ronald Acuna Jr., who signed for $100,000, had similar motivations. Meanwhile, the likes of Bryce Harper (who agreed to a nearly $10 million contract at 17) and Manny Machado (who signed a contract with a $5.25 million bonus at the age of 18, as the third overall pick in the 2010 draft) have the financial security to wait until arbitration and later, to wait until free agency. The rich get richer. Late draft picks, and especially those from humble beginnings (disproportionately, those from Latin America), are forced to settle for less.
And teams do this because they can. The Cardinals lost with the Allen Craig extension, but they won with the extensions of Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, and probably Carlos Martinez. Teams can apply the smart process over several examples and eventually, as the sample increases, almost certainly come out ahead. But players don’t get that luxury. Players only get one life and they can’t afford the risk of going year-by-year. The system exists and benefits owners because owners know this.