Early commitment a worthwhile risk if it pays off
Rays, Royals among those willing to sign young players long-term
Matt Sosnick had never heard a client ask so many questions about a potential contract.
Sosnick represents Rays pitcher Matt Moore, and the two of them were vacationing in Victoria, British Columbia, this winter with Sosnick's wife and Moore's girlfriend when Tampa Bay called with an unprecedented offer. The Rays wanted to sign the 22-year-old left-hander, who had made all of five Major League appearances, to a long-term extension.
Moore wanted to know everything he could learn. He sat with his agent in a hotel lobby and looked at the proposal from every angle. Over the next couple of weeks, Moore considered all of the implications.
Eventually, Moore made up his mind. The agreement became official on Dec. 9: Five years and $14 million guaranteed, with three club options, potentially bringing the total value to $39.75 million. Never had a pitcher with so little experience signed this type of extension.
"Matt came at it from a very, very intellectual standpoint, and we gave him all the information," said Sosnick, who along with his partner, Paul Cobbe, represents dozens of current and former big leaguers, including the Reds' Jay Bruce, the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Orioles' Dontrelle Willis.
Moore's deliberation underscored the rarity of his situation.
Ever since John Hart built a powerhouse Indians team in the 1990s by signing talented young players to long-term contracts before they reached eligibility for salary arbitration, many teams have placed an emphasis on the practice. But while almost all extensions have gone to players with at least a year of Major League service, and often more, the Rays established a new frontier by acting sooner.
Evan Longoria came first, in 2008, followed by Moore. The Royals got into the act this offseason by locking up 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez after 39 big league games. It's a maneuver that heightens the risks and rewards -- for both sides -- inherent in a typical contract extension, so the two recent signings don't necessarily represent the beginning of a trend.
"It takes a very, very unique player and a very unique situation for that to work out," Sosnick said.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that players stay under team control for their first six big league seasons, becoming arbitration-eligible before each of the final three. The 22 percent of players with the most service time after their second season qualify as Super Two players and move into arbitration a year early, driving up their price.
Back in his days as general manager of the Indians, Hart avoided uncomfortable arbitration hearings and generated cost certainty when he signed stars like Jim Thome to long-term extensions, which often included a team option for at least the first year of potential free agency.
"I tend to think the spirit of what we did was in making the commitment to the players and then getting something in return, which is some options and/or some years of free agency, or least a year," said Hart, now a senior advisor of baseball operations for the Rangers and a studio analyst for MLB Network.
Hart sees that spirit carrying on with Tampa Bay, thanks to executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. In the 2011 book "The Extra 2%," author Jonah Keri compared the approach of Friedman, with his background in private equity, to an investor who understands that fledgling companies often provide the best opportunities.
"Likewise, the best time to invest in a player is often before he's played a single Major League game," Keri wrote.
The Rays almost did just that. At the April 2008 news conference announcing Longoria's nine-year deal, which included three team options, Friedman revealed that it could have been finalized with the eventual American League Rookie of the Year still at Triple-A. But Willy Aybar went to the disabled list and Longoria signed the extension after six MLB games.
Longoria has performed like one of the best players in baseball since signing the contract, which means big savings for the Rays, but Longoria hasn't regretted it.
"I looked at that as an opportunity to get nine years in the big leagues," Longoria said. "And secure myself and my family for the rest of my life if I didn't play another day of baseball. When you're a 21-year-old kid looking at a contract, it's hard to turn that down. It's hard to say no."
Security also was a primary concern for Moore, who shut down the Rangers in Game 1 of the AL Division Series last September. And if he pitches well, a big free-agent reward still awaits after his age-29 season.
"Basically, worst-case scenario is taken care of, some of those doubts, the peace of mind," Moore said. "It's huge for me; and being 22, it's nice to have."
The case of Kansas City's Perez helps Moore's reasoning.
On Feb. 27, the Royals signed Perez -- who debuted on Aug. 10 and hit .331 the remainder of the season -- to a five-year contract for $7 million, with three club options making the deal worth as much as $26.75 million. Less than three weeks later, Perez underwent left knee surgery, which is expected to sideline him for about three months.
So while Hart believes many agents would forbid or strongly discourage a client with little or no Major League service from signing long-term, Sosnick won't.
"If [Moore] goes out and has a career-ending injury tomorrow, I know he's got $14 million coming to him and he's set for life," Sosnick said. "The agents who refuse to entertain a deal like that, are they going to pay the player $14 million if he has an injury?"
From the team's perspective, the incentive for a deal like Moore's is obvious. The more a player produces and the closer he draws to free agency, the more expensive he becomes. Tim Lincecum, for example, has avoided arbitration with the Giants by signing two-year deals worth $23 million and $40.5 million.
That's a risk a club in Tampa Bay's position can't afford.
"I've always said necessity is the mother of invention, and I think in the case of Tampa, it was very similar to what we had in Cleveland," Hart said. "They had a market where they couldn't compete with some of the bigger heavy hitters and they just trusted their process."
For that reason, Hart believes lower-revenue teams are the most likely to continue offering long-term deals to players with little service time. But those teams still must deal with reluctant agents and players who might not want to tie themselves down so early. Plus, few players combine the talent and character to command that type of deal in the first place.
"Committing to a long-term contract is a big step for both the player and the club, and it has to be the right fit for both sides," Friedman said recently. "For us, this is a commitment we make to both a player and a person -- work ethic, competitive drive and character are extremely important. We'll continue to be aggressive in exploring ways to keep our young core together as we go forward."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.