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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Explaining MLB's recent craze for long-term contract extensions

Cash in hand seems like the way to go now, with players preferring not to gamble on the sport's volatile economic system in the years ahead.

The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. rounds the bases

The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the third inning against the Cubs on April 1 in Atlanta. Credit: AP/John Bazemore

Free agency used to represent a player’s greatest leverage in baseball, his mightiest bargaining chip. Now it’s looking like his biggest fear. Put another way, it’s something that’s best avoided if at all possible.

How else can we explain the sport’s recent contract-extension craze?

Using Clayton Kershaw as the starting point — the Dodgers’ ace re-upped on Nov. 2 for three years and $93 million — a total of 30 players with varying service time signed extensions worth  a combined $2.2 billion.

Those are players who chose to double-down with their current teams and, in many cases, pass on the opportunity to hit the open market in the very near future.

Nolan Arenado (eight years, $260 million), Paul Goldschmidt (five years, $130 million), Justin Verlander (two years, $66 million), Chris Sale (five years, $145 million) and Xander Bogaerts (six years, $120 million) were supposed to be the elite of next winter’s free-agent class, a mere season away from auctioning off their services to the highest bidder.

Yet they decided to stay home. Free agency? No, thanks.

Everyone around the game watched with great interest as the long winter felt even longer for the two marquee free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Both ultimately got what they wanted financially, with Harper’s 13-year, $330 million haul and Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract. But listening to them afterward, it certainly didn’t sound as if each wound up with his first choice in terms of destination.

Seeing both of those negotiations play out apparently had an effect on Mike Trout, universally regarded as the sport’s top player and a two-time MVP who was only two years away from free agency himself. Realizing he was perfectly happy in Southern California, Trout simply decided to get fabulously wealthy right where he was in accepting a 12-year, $430 million deal from the Angels.

“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me,” Trout said at the news conference to announce the deal. “I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it in perspective in my mind. I obviously want to be an Angel for life. That was a big key.”

Locking up players such as Arenado, Trout and Jacob deGrom isn’t the surprising part of this recent phenomenon, however. It’s the younger players at the other end of the spectrum, such as 21-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. — last year’s National League Rookie of the Year — accepting an eight-year, $100 million extension from the Braves. It was a record for a player his age and a huge leap to sign away his free agency until he’s 30. By comparison, Trout is 27. Harper and Machado are 26.

Cash in hand seems like the way to go now, with players preferring not to gamble on the sport’s volatile economic system in the years ahead. The Astros’ Alex Bregman, who at age 24 finished fifth in the MVP voting last year, signed a five-year, $100 million extension last month. The White Sox secured top outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez, 22, with a six-year, $43 million deal before he even played in a major-league game.

The teams and the players appear to be hedging their bets, even though we’re likely years away from significant economic changes, as the current CBA doesn’t expire until December 2021. So with general managers dangling more cash, hoping there are relative bargains to be had with so much uncertainty in the clubhouses, and players now happy to stay put, expect this trend to continue.

“It was two sides wanting to get together and build a winning environment,” deGrom said of his own five-year, $137.5 million extension. “That’s my goal here, is to win in New York City and play for the Mets for the rest of my career. So we were sitting there with a common goal in mind and trying to figure out a way that worked.”

Jake vs. Sale

Speaking of Jacob deGrom and extensions, the Mets’ ace and his Red Sox counterpart, Chris Sale, are going to be compared through the span of their new deals, based on the similarities between the two 30-year-old pitchers.

When Sale got his five-year, $145 million extension from Boston, that shaped up to be the road map for deGrom, who is 15 months older but has 581 fewer innings on his resume, the equivalent of almost three seasons.

Only two starts in, the Mets probably are feeling a little better about their investment, as deGrom seems poised to repeat a history-making Cy Young Award-winning season that everyone figures is impossible to duplicate. DeGrom not only tied Bob Gibson with his 26th consecutive quality start but hasn’t allowed a run in 13 innings and has struck out 24 with only two walks. It’s early, but the average velocities for both his fastball (97.1 mph) and slider (92.8) — according to FanGraphs — are career highs.

Sale, however, hasn’t been himself so far. Coming off shoulder issues last season, he struggled on Opening Day — giving up three homers and seven runs to the Mariners in his three-inning start — and his velocity was notably down in his tough-luck April 2 loss to the A’s (six innings, one run). Sale’s average fastball velo is 91.4 mph, as compared to 95.7 last season.

“He had a long last year,” Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie told reporters, according to The Boston Globe. “He’s building up to be the guy he wants to be. He started last year similar. We’re getting to that point, but just not right now.”

Between innings

Coming home from spring training meant a mailbox full of new baseball books, many written by colleagues, so I can verify them as required reading, even if I’m still working on getting through every page myself. These are the ones I currently have in my possession, with more releases scheduled in the near future.

INSIDE THE EMPIRE: The True Power Behind the New York Yankees, by Bob Klapisch and Paul Solotaroff. You may know Klapisch back from his newspaper days chronicling the 1986 Mets, up through the start of the ’90s Yankees dynasty to the present, and his detailed, behind-the-pinstriped-curtain reporting brings the current Bronx machinery out into the spotlight, using the 2018 season as the backdrop.

AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets, by Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman. The stunning news of Tom Seaver’s retirement from public life last month closed a door that Shamsky and a traveling party of his 1969 teammates were the last to open in a visit with The Franchise at his Napa vineyard. This is a snapshot of that journey and a nostalgic return to that magical season.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner. No one celebrates the details of the game quite like Kepner, The New York Times baseball columnist, and for him to deconstruct the sport down to its most crucial yet arcane element — the art of pitching — is like Michelangelo explaining the brush strokes on the Sistine Chapel.

UNWRITTEN: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, by Danny Knobler. The title says it all for a sport played by a code of conduct that’s widely known among those on the field but mostly undocumented. Consider this your handy guide. There’s even a chapter titled “The A-Rod Rules (Or Stay Off My Mound).”

THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE: The ‘69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History, by Wayne Coffey. The perfect primer for the 50th anniversary of the Miracle Mets, and Coffey traces the unbelievable path from baseball’s laughingstock to arguably New York’s greatest — and certainly most improbable — championship team.

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