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Stars like Cain, Hamels getting riches without hitting free agency

Left versus right could have been a debate about more than political preference this November. There were nearly two ace starting pitchers, one lefthanded and one righthanded, available on the open market with startlingly similar credentials:

Pitcher A is a 28-year-old National League lifer with three All-Star appearances, a 3.34 career ERA (126 ERA+), a 1.14 WHIP and an average of 212 innings pitched over the past five seasons.

Pitcher B is a 28-year-old National League lifer with three All-Star appearances, a 3.27 career ERA (124 ERA+), a 1.17 WHIP and an average of 220 innings pitched over the past five seasons.

Pitcher A, of course, is lefthander Cole Hamels of the Phillies; Pitcher B is righthander Matt Cain of the Giants. Their choice of throwing hands might have been their greatest discrepancy.

Alas, the great debate never materialized, thanks to lucrative extensions signed during the season. Before the season Cain signed an eight-year deal with a team option for a ninth season that's worth at least $139.75 million, while back in July Hamels signed a seven-year contract for $153 million with a team option for an eighth year. (The difference in contract value, of course, shows that Hamels' lefthandness -- not to mention his 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio that blew away Cain's 2.4 -- was indeed more coveted.)

But they never reached the open market, where fans could dream on their team signing a new ace, pre-empting weeks of head-to-head media scrutiny and front office deliberations. Baseball has always had the best offseason in sports for its flurry of activity -- but fewer superstars will change teams this winter.

Get used to it. The offseason may be starting earlier and lasting longer but it's not getting better.

An increasing number of would-be free agents are getting locked up before they hit the open market, a self-fulfilling trend that's likely to continue in the years ahead.

While those players that do hit free agency are clear beneficiaries of the reduced supply -- most notably Zack Greinke, the Angels righthander who, in the absence of Hamels and Cain, is now the unquestioned best pitcher available -- clubs will have increasing difficulty affordably filling needs via this route of player acquisition. That puts even more onus on amateur scouting and minor league development to make sure the draft is an efficient feeder. It also encourages trading as a more appealing avenue to bolster a roster.

In addition to Cain and Hamels, here are other players who could have been a free agent this winter: Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, Padres closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Quentin, Angels infielders Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong, Blue Jays interim closer Casey Janssen and Reds set-up man Sean Marshall.

The number of stars who could have been free agents -- but now won't be -- only would have grown in coming years. The pool of available players before the 2014 season could have included Reds first baseman Joey Votto, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler and Royals leftfielder Alex Gordon, but each signed a long-term contract in 2012, two seasons ahead of time.

Presumably the market will eventually correct itself, but right now clubs are finding it advantageous to sign their own players to long-term contracts at all stages of a player's career, but especially at two junctures.

One is just before arbitration begins, with the player signing a contract for all his arb-eligible years and usually his first year or two of free agency. It's a trade-off of cost and personnel certainty for the club, and it's a matter of financial security and geographic familiarity for the player. And both sides avoid the often-contentious arbitration process.

As compiled by mlb.com back in April, here's a list of players who have signed pre-arb extensions in the past year: Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, Rangers starter Derek Holland, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez, Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, Padres starter Cory Luebke and centerfielder Cameron Maybin, Blue Jays reliever Sergio Santos (who signed his deal while still with the White Sox), Rays starter Matt Moore, Mets starter Jon Niese and Indians catcher Carlos Santana.

The second juncture comes when a star is a year or two away from free agency, and a club decides it is best to lock him up before someone else tempts him with a huge offer.

Of the 25 richest contracts in history, as compiled by Cot's Contracts, 15 were signed without the player being a free agent. The list of active stars who have never been free agents includes Ryan Howard, Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Andre Ethier, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Brandon Phillips and Molina.

An influx of television money -- both nationally and, for many franchises, also regionally -- is driving clubs' confidence to spend on their own. After all, the fear is that a player who becomes a free agent will likely have many suitors who also have new riches. As future free-agent markets get depleted thanks to an increasing number of extensions, the cost of the available players will rise and that player already on a team's roster starts looking like a better and better long-term option.

There's also a follow-the-leader mentality once a market is established. Once one ballclub sets the price for a player of similar skillset and similar service times, others often follow suit. For instance, look at these three outfielders, who signed contracts as emerging stars: the Diamondbacks signed Justin Upton to a six-year, $51.25-million contract in March 2010; the Reds locked up Jay Bruce for six years and $51 million in Dec. 2010; and the Pirates extended Andrew McCutchen for six years and $51.5 million in March 2012.

Another example, using pre-arb lefthanded starters: Ricky Romero of Toronto, Holland, Niese and Bumgarner all signed five-year contracts worth between $25 million and $35 million.

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, in discussing his club's extensions of Kinsler and Holland during an interview in May, stressed that the decision to sign someone long-term is primarily about the individual player -- his skillset and desire to stay -- though Daniels acknowledged that projections of the free-agent marketplace play a role too.

For now, that marketplace is thinner than usual -- and not likely to change anytime soon.

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