It's no surprise that, in the last few years, teams are attempting to sign their young stars to long-term contracts earlier and earlier in their careers. After all, the earlier a team approaches a player about an extension, the logic goes, the more leverage that team has. And after 30-plus years, teams have finally figured out how to leverage the remaining vestige of the reserve clause: Those six team-controlled years.
That reasoning reached its logical extreme last September, when the Astros offered outfield prospect George Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract after a dominant performance at Triple-A but before his major league debut. The Pirates recently made a similar overture to their own outfield prospect, Gregory Polanco, offering him a seven-year, $25 million contract with three club options. However, both players declined.
This is interesting in all sorts of ways. The most immediate is that the Astros and Pirates were both clearly trying to extend their ownership of the prospect, as well as establish cost certainty. Each team had the intention of calling him up to the major leagues in immediate wake of an agreement. But after both players declined, they remained in the minors, as each team still had to concern itself with the player's future arbitration and free-agent eligibility.
Had Springer, who hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases in Double-A and Triple-A last year, been called up last September and remained in the major leagues thereafter, he would have been due to become a free agent after the 2019 season. However, by waiting until April 16 of this season to call up Springer, the Astros let enough of the current season elapse to delay Springer's free agency until after the 2020 season. With players eligible for free agency after six full seasons, and a full season being defined as 172 days of major league service time, the Astros made sure Springer would be unable to compile more than 166 days of service time this year, thus delaying his free agency.
As for Polanco, the Pirates' concern is likely his potential arbitration eligibility as a Super Two player, one eligible for arbitration after two years of service time, rather than the usual three, and thus eligible four times before free agency. Super Two accounting is a bit trickier, as eligibility is determined by taking the top 22 percent, by service time, of players with between two and three years of major league service. As a result, a player's Super Two status isn't determined until after his second full season in the majors. However, the cutoff typically falls in early June, which is why the Pirates, with their rightfielders hitting .226/.290/.316 this season, wanted to find a way to get Polanco (hitting .397/.449/.621 in Triple-A) to the majors right now without having to worry about his arbitration eligibility.
It's also interesting that both players declined the offers, given that they are being offered tens of millions of dollars to expedite the moment toward which they have been working their whole life and were offered both a contract in excess of the one Evan Longoria signed after making his major league debut in 2008. Longoria's 2008 extension, signed just a week after his April 12 debut, was a six-year deal worth $17.5 million with three club options. That contract, under which Longoria is still playing, stands as the Platonic ideal of a player extension from the team perspective and, given the fact that neither Springer nor Polanco bit at their recent offers, could stand as the most team-friendly long-term contract in baseball history for the foreseeable future.
That contract was also the flashpoint for extension boom. That January, the Rockies had signed Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year, $31 million extension two years in advance of his arbitration eligibility. A month after the Longoria deal, the Brewers signed Ryan Braun to an eight-year, $45 million extension in May of his second major league season, a deal that paid off long before Braun's recent injury and doping issues. In December 2011, the Rays attempted to replicate the success of the Longoria deal by signing Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million contract with three club options in December 2011, after he had thrown just 19 1/3 innings in the major leagues. The Diamondbacks hit paydirt last March when they signed Paul Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million extension two years in advance of his arbitration eligibility, then watched as he had an MVP-caliber season worth the entire amount of his contract ($31.9 million per FanGraphs Dollars).
Since then, extensions for players with less than two years of service time have come fast and furious: Anthony Rizzo, Jose Altuve, Martin Perez, Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons, Jose Quintana, Starling Marte, Yan Gomes, Chris Archer, Jedd Gyorko, and Sean Doolittle have all signed contracts of at least four years in length in the last 12 months despite none having accrued two full years of service time at the time of signing. So far, however, no team has succeeded in signing a player to a long-term extension in advance of his major league debut (not counting initial signings of foreign players or newly drafted players). What remains to be seen is whether or not Springer or Polanco will file a grievance against their teams for intentionally delaying their major league debuts in order to suppress their earning potential, and whether or not either would win such a grievance if filed. With the news of the offer to Polanco, however, it seems clear that teams will continue to make these offers to their top prospects until either such deals become a reality or such service-time-leveraging practices are banned.