On Thursday afternoon, the Rays’ Blake Snell became the latest in a long line of players to sign a contract extension this spring, putting pen to paper on a five-year, $50 million agreement. Per MLB Trade Rumors’ tracker, he’s the 19th player to ink a new one since the end of last season, the 16th to do so after spring training camps opened, the seventh this week, and the first of two today; before this article was even finished, news broke that the Cardinals were finalizing a five-year extension with the recently acquired Paul Goldschmidt. Snell isn’t even the first Tampa player to do this; two days ago, rookie infielder Brandon Lowe agreed to a six-year, $24 million pact.
This wave of contracts isn’t unusual—extensions are often negotiated and executed in spring training—though it is mildly surprising that the Rays and Snell found common ground following a dispute earlier this month over Snell’s 2019 salary. Despite the lefty earning AL Cy Young honors after winning 21 games with a 1.89 ERA, Tampa renewed his contract at a mere $573,700—a roughly $15,000 raise, and one with which Snell was decidedly unhappy. The Rays “have the ability to more adequately compensate me,” he wrote in a statement released afterward. “It’s disappointing,” he told the Tampa Bay Times, also noting that he was eager, once he reached arbitration, to get what was his.
Such dramatics will now be avoided. No pitcher as far away from free agency as Snell was—he still had this season and all three arbitration-eligible years to go—should ever turn down guaranteed cash. As Steve Miller once sang, “take the money and run.”
But like all the other players who have signed these new deals, Snell is also doing everything he can to steer clear of free agency, once the land of limitless financial opportunity. Snell surrendered what would have been his first year of free agency; Alex Bregman, who signed a six-year, $100 million contract on Wednesday, sacrificed two. Nolan Arenado, who would’ve been the crown jewel of next year’s class, threw that opportunity away by signing a seven-year, $234 million extension with Colorado (albeit one with opt-outs). Goldschmidt, a perennial MVP candidate set to take Arenado’s place as next winter’s darling, also opted for security instead of the open market. Mike Trout, the best player alive and one of the greatest of all time, punted on ever seeing free agency in his prime by handing over the next 10 years of his life to the Angels for more money than any major leaguer has ever made. Still, somehow, that remained below his true value. On and on it goes.
These extensions, then, are the recognition of how thoroughly teams are in charge. They have all the power and financial leverage while the players have no recourse. By taking away the promise of free agency, the owners and front offices have pushed the players onto this narrow path: Take these extensions, or put your entire future at risk.
It’s a minefield that, understandably, no player wants to venture into. It’s also one of the owners’ design. Start as a draft pick, where your signing bonus is artificially limited by MLB’s hard slotting system and where you’re not allowed to pick your own team. Become a minor leaguer, making below-poverty-level wages as a non-union employee grinding through several levels of organized ball. If you emerge as a top prospect, congrats: Your reward is to stay in the minors until your service time has been gamed enough to delay arbitration and free agency. Play for the major league minimum (or perhaps a little more, if your team’s owner is feeling generous) for three years—years that will invariably be the best of your career, and for which you will likely never be fairly compensated. Enter arbitration, where your employer will argue to your face that you’re not worth the money you want. Finally, after six years, you reach free agency, where owners will simply refuse to make you offers. That may be because their team isn’t trying or because their front office’s proprietary algorithm—one fed with your every swing or pitch, day after day—says you’re a bad investment.
Why would any player want to go through this? At every turn, you will make less than you deserve, and when you finally get access to the so-called free market, you’ll find that it’s just as closed and rigged. If Snell wanted proof of that, all he had to do was look at fellow Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, still unsigned with a week to go until Opening Day. Even a below-market extension like the one Snell signed—and make no mistake, $50 million for a pitcher of his caliber is a massive bargain—must look mighty appealing in the face of three years of arbitration and then a potentially frosty reception in free agency.
(It’s worth noting that these deals are always wins for the team. The risk is minimal, even for a team as cheap as the Rays. The reward is getting tons production for half the price. Don’t think that’s possible? Per FanGraphs’ valuations, Snell was worth $40 million last season alone. As a result, evaluating the financial merits of these deals is all but irrelevant.)
This is all the new normal: Great players sign for contract extensions that give up free-agent years; younger players are subject to the service time manipulation that keeps talent like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Pete Alonso in the minors; the All-Star players still looking for new homes in late March, and the veterans and mid-tier free agents signing minor league contracts as spring training comes to a close. This is the way teams now choose to operate: squeezing the players tighter and tighter, keeping more and more of the money. This isn’t collusion by its legal or dictionary definition, but it might as well be. What else would you call a system designed by owners to reduce and limit the earning potential of labor—one that presents them with few if any options but the ones that front offices prefer the most, and puts all the risk on the players?
Until and unless a new collective bargaining agreement changes the way players are paid early in their careers and/or makes free agency a more open process, this is the way things will be going forward. Players will continue to sign these below-market extensions. The ripple effect will be an increasingly stratified game, one where salaries continue to decline even as revenues skyrocket and free agency dwindles away. Ever since the reserve clause was struck down in 1975, baseball’s owners have dreamed of the day when they could do away with a player’s freedom to move and earn a fortune. Nowadays, it’s looking like they’re closer than ever to that goal.