The pre-free agency contract extension has become increasingly fashionable over the last decade or so in Major League Baseball. Rather than investing the bare minimum in their players—three years at which players can be retained for a league minimum salary, plus three years of salary arbitration in which players can be retained for one-year contracts which inevitably run at lower totals than said player could command on the open free agent market—teams take a calculated risk by guaranteeing their players more money up-front in exchange for a discount on later years of arbitration or free agency.
Last off-season, the St. Louis Cardinals signed two players to textbook examples of this type of extension. The Cardinals extended Carlos Martinez, set to begin the first year of his arbitration cycle, through 2021 (buying out three years of arbitration plus two years of free agency), with team options for 2022 and 2023. Additionally, the Cardinals signed Stephen Piscotty to a six-year, $33.5 million extension with an additional club option for 2023, which likewise will keep the right fielder in St. Louis beyond when he would normally have hit free agency.
Most of these extensions eventually favor the team, but this does not mean that players are wrong to sign them. Before the 2014 season, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, signed a six-year, $144.5 million extension which kept the superstar in southern California through the first three years of his theoretical free agency. And while it is easy to say in retrospect that Trout could have just waited until free agency, which would have hit after this season (FanGraphs estimates that Trout, in his first six seasons, has been worth over $400 million and counting), Trout signed this extension at a point when his career earnings, salaries and signing bonus combined, totaled around $2 million.
For a player like Mike Trout, a decently regarded high school prospect but not one who could command a signing bonus large enough upon which to comfortably retire, taking the safe money is more sensible than it would be for Bryce Harper, who received over $16 million in guaranteed money the second he signed with the Washington Nationals after the draft. Harper, who is all but a mortal lock to test free agency, can afford to take such a gamble. If something were to happen to prevent Harper from playing baseball again, he can easily retire on his career earnings. Had something happened to Trout before his extension, he’d be off to meteorological school.
Tommy Pham, the most valuable player for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals by virtually any metric, was a far less ballyhooed prospect than Bryce Harper. Or Mike Trout. Or Carlos Martinez or Stephen Piscotty, for that matter. Pham was a 16th round draft pick in 2006, selected by the Cardinals only after they had already selected Travis Mitchell, Jon Edwards, and Lance Zawadzki in the prior three rounds. Pham ranked 22nd among prospects in the Cardinals organization in 2006 per Baseball America...and was not ranked again until he was 23rd in 2013 and then 15th in 2014.
As great as Pham has been in 2017, and as much as he flashed adequacy prior to this season, his total career earnings, including salaries and signing bonuses, is under $2 million. Tommy Pham is being paid about half as much by a Major League Baseball team in 2017 as Bobby Bonilla, who retired sixteen years ago.
Unfortunately for Pham, he probably does not have a big payday coming. If he continues to play as well as he has played in 2017, he can continue to earn a comfortable living in MLB, but this presupposes that he will remain healthy, hardly a certainty given his track record in Major League Baseball. Pham will not be eligible for salary arbitration until the 2019 season, and will not be eligible for free agency until following the 2021 season. The one way that Tommy Pham could secure doesn’t-have-to-work-another-day-in-his-life money would be signing an extension. This could also make sense for the Cardinals.
Tommy Pham is by no means an obvious candidate for an extension. When Trout received his aforementioned extension, for instance, he was 22. Martinez was 25. Piscotty was 26. Tommy Pham is currently 29, and will be 30 by Opening Day 2018. The first free agency year for Pham would be his age-34 season, an age by which a solid majority of baseball players are in decline.
But all parties involved know this. Because of Pham’s status as a late bloomer, the Cardinals have the leverage here. This may make the organization sound underhanded, but by offering an extension to Tommy Pham, the Cardinals can provide an organizational lifer financial security at relatively little cost to themselves.
Pham would be a bit of an anomaly among arb or pre-arb contract extensions in that he would begin the extension in his 30s. A twenty-nine year old who began the season in AAA and proceeded to have a season worthy of down-ballot MVP votes screams aberration, but the story of Tommy Pham is quite a bit more complicated than that. In 2015, Pham played at a 5.5 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement pace during his 173 plate appearances, and has of course been even better in 2017.
While his .392 wOBA, currently 11th among qualified batters, is a bit inflated by some probably unsustainable batted ball luck, his xwOBA, a Statcast-based measure of how good a player’s offense is expected to be based on batted ball data, ranks 41st in MLB among players with at least 250 at-bats, trailing only Matt Carpenter among Cardinals players. Pham projects not to be an elite hitter, but a very good hitter nonetheless.
Tommy Pham has one more year at the league minimum awaiting him, plus three years of arbitration. Estimating arbitration salaries is tricky business, but barring an absolutely catastrophic turn of events—a more long-term injury than has generally afflicted Pham in the past, an Allen Craig-like downturn in his performance—Pham appears to be the kind of player the Cardinals will want to annually offer arbitration. Even if he isn’t 2017 Pham, and he probably won’t be, it seems likely that Pham will be a useful utility outfielder at worst for the foreseeable future.
Even if the Cardinals were to extend Tommy Pham on an ultra-moderate deal—one where, say, the Cardinals guarantee his arbitration years for the expected cost of them with a team option at his age-34 first free agency season, the cost for the Cardinals would be minimal (even if Pham flames out, it’s probably a sunk cost of less than $20 million, not a great loss for any team to incur but not a crushing one either), and the potential benefit would be a relative bargain in the outfield in 2022. And even under the worst long-term on-field scenarios, this allows the Cardinals to satisfy a charismatic, fan-favorite type of player.