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The potential downside of the Carlos Martinez extension

The Carlos Martinez extension could be very, very good. But like any contract, the Cardinals are assuming some risk.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: John might or might not be fired now.-CE

As first reported on Wednesday night by Jon Heyman, the St. Louis Cardinals have signed Carlos Martinez, their best starting pitcher since he joined the rotation in 2015, to a five-year contract extension worth a guaranteed $51 million. Martinez will be locked into St. Louis through the 2021 season; in addition, the club will have two option years for 2022 and 2023, worth $17 million and $18 million, respectively.

Even after the obligatory "contract extensions signed by players before they reach free agency are suppressed and should not be interpreted as reflecting the player's market value" disclaimer, consensus among most fans and analysts is that this contract is a bargain for the Cardinals.

Even if one were to assume that (and this is a fairly conservative estimate) Martinez would spend his next three arbitration seasons making $4 million, $6 million, and $8 million, the Cardinals would essentially be paying $16.5 million per season, a tick above what they are annually paying for Mike Leake, for two years of what should be prime Carlos Martinez. And then there are the team options, at worst neutral for the Cardinals (since they could just, you know, decline them) and at best an opportunity for the Cardinals to get another two years of high-caliber starting pitching for the price of average starting pitching (or, as will probably be the case by the early 2020s, the price of below-average starting pitching).

The logic behind players signing pre-free agency deals makes complete sense on a personal level. On Thursday, Martinez went from a decently well-off 25 year-old man to an extremely wealthy one with a few strokes of the pen. And even if he could make, say, double his career earnings by waiting until free agency, the first $51 million in his bank account (PRO TIP: if you ever make $51 million, don't actually put it all in a bank account) means far more than the next $51 million, and so forth. And $51 million means more to Martinez, or any individual player, than it does to a multi-billion dollar Major League Baseball franchise.

But if Carlos Martinez were certainly, absolutely, without even a little bit of doubt, going to pitch well enough to turn his contract extension into a bargain, he wouldn't have signed it, no matter how much he wants to be a lifelong Cardinal. And while, and let me be extremely clear so that nobody sends me hate mail (eh, go ahead and send me hate mail, but about something else), I do support the Carlos Martinez extension from a Cardinals perspective, it could backfire. In order to probably save money on Martinez's services later, the Cardinals are assuming risk now.

Many have noted that Carlos Martinez still has room to grow as a pitcher—there is a visible difference between the young fireballer who made his first appearance at Busch Stadium in 2013 and the much more complete pitcher whose win total since 2015 has been outpaced by only eight pitchers in all of Major League Baseball. And surely, this figures into the contract’s calculus. But the Cardinals are not depending on Martinez to improve. Carlos Martinez has been worth $54.2 million in the last two seasons alone, by FanGraphs’s measurement—the best of Carlos Martinez already being behind him and the Cardinals coming out ahead on this contract are not mutually exclusive.

The problem is if Carlos Martinez’s production regresses, either due to inefficiency or injury. Admittedly, Baseball Reference similarity scores are not a great metric for measuring what will happen, but they do offer a look at what could happen—if a player reaches a level of performance through his age-24 season which is comparable to that of Carlos Martinez, it shows what the future can reasonably hold for somebody as esteemed as Martinez.

Here are the ten players ranked as most similar to Carlos Martinez through age 24, while measuring his Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement accumulation during ages 25 through 29.

  1. Sammy Ellis (1966-1969, 0.5 WAR)
  2. Joey Jay (1961-1965, 11.5 WAR)
  3. Ray Corbin (1974-1975, -2.3 WAR)
  4. Larry Demery (N/A, DNP beyond age 24)
  5. Scott Garrelts (1987-1991, 5.9 WAR)
  6. Eduardo Rodriguez (1977-1979, 1.9 WAR)
  7. Bob Stanley (1980-1984, 12.3 WAR)
  8. John Smiley (1990-1994, 9.2 WAR)
  9. Paul Hartzell (1979-1980, 0.0 WAR)
  10. Bobby Bolin (1964-1968, 14.5 WAR)

None of these players may have the allure they once had to a modern audience strictly from name recognition, but if Carlos Martinez is as productive over the next half-decade as Jay, Stanley, or Bolin, the Cardinals should be thrilled. But several names on the list inspire far less confidence.

In recent years, the Cardinals have delved into pre-free agency extensions, most recently (prior to this week) with second baseman Kolten Wong. And despite a shaky 2016 which included a demotion to the AAA Memphis Redbirds, it would be far too early to reach a conclusion on the extension’s wisdom. The same cannot be said for Allen Craig.

Following his breakthrough 2012 season, Allen Craig signed a five-year, $31 million extension; as is the case with the Martinez extension, the Cardinals bought out three arbitration seasons and two seasons of free agency. And coming off of a season in which the first-year starter received MVP votes and finished 8th in the National League in OPS+, $6.2 million per season, even considering the suppressed salaries which would come during arbitration, seemed like a bargain. After 2013, in which Craig once again received MVP votes while performing well above-average at the plate, the contract seemed even more favorable.

And then, in 2014, he had a 79 OPS+ in St. Louis. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox and was even worse. In 2015, he once again posted a 21 OPS+, as he had post-trade in 2014. And in 2016, Allen Craig did not play Major League Baseball. And while the Cardinals did manage to salvage much of the potential disaster of the extension by flipping Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for John Lackey, it would be impossible to deny that the extension was a mistake.

Carlos Martinez is perhaps (/is probably) the most exciting and dynamic member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Fans are right to be excited for him. And even after weighing all of the potential for the contract to turn out poorly for the Cardinals, I believe it is nevertheless a shrewd move which may open the door for tons of upside at a manageable cost. But Carlos Martinez did not sign an extension with the Cardinals as an act of sheer benevolence.

Hopefully, for all parties, Carlos Martinez will outperform his contract—the Cardinals will be happy with their spending and enjoy the best years of a potentially great career, and Martinez will have the chance to cash in even more once he reaches free agency, still in his early thirties. But if the possibility of the contract not working out did not exist, the contract would never have been accepted.