Ironically enough, Bryce Harper made the point better than anyone.
When Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in early March, after months of negotiations as a free agent, he talked about the significance of longevity in the life of a baseball player and the team he plays for.
“It’s good to feel wanted by the Phillies organization, by the fan base, by the city as well. I love my family very much, and the Phillies are going to be part of that family for a very long time,” Harper said in the press conference announcing his deal.
The most important words were “for a very long time.”
Longevity had become a rare commodity for baseball talent for any given team, until recently. Just as Harper described the importance of being in one place for a lengthy period, one by one, baseball was seeing a flurry of players sign contract extensions with their current teams. It began in the winter and continued into into the first few weeks of the season.
Harper’s deal as a free agent — along with free agent Manny Machado signing for 10 years and $300 million with the Padres — preceded the 12-year contract extension Mike Trout signed with the Los Angeles Angels for $426.5 million.
Much of the attention for such deals, of course, was on the dollar amounts. But time will show that the real significance is the number of years in the deals. Maybe not so much to the players. But to people who follow baseball, it brings a glimmer of hope that the here-today-gone-tomorrow mentality of the baseball talent market may be slowing.
Baseball needs to see a star player identified with one uniform. The greatest players in the history of the game have been largely identified with one uniform. Baseball had gotten away from that.
Opening Day has become Get Acquainted Day, where the customers learn about their whole new team each year. The days of seeing an entire team of players year after year has been ending. No continuity can be found. Fans find themselves constantly pulling for players with full knowledge that a month later he could be playing for a rival team. Player movement has became rampant. But the rash of contract extensions is a positive sign.
The routine has gotten very old. A bright rookie joins a major-league club, which nurtures him for six years, then just when he blossoms he’s gone. Poof. A free agent, off to the world of big bucks and, all too often, a big flop.
Seeing Trout sign to be an Angel for another 12 years puts a stamp not only on the franchise but on the player. It’s a brand. Trades are still possible. But people can reasonably expect to see a player with a contract extension in a familiar uniform and a connection to the city where he plays. It’s not quite the way it was under the reserve clause, where a team had complete control over a player for as long as the team wanted, but it beats the hello/goodbye nature that has come to define the game.
By the time this season got well underway, the list of contract extensions became long. Ronald Acuna Jr. signed an eight-year $100 million extension with the Atlanta Braves, followed by teammate and good friend Ozzie Albies for seven years and $35 million.
Nolan Arenado signed an extension for eight years and $260 million with the Rockies. Chris Sale five years, $145 million with the Red Sox. Aaron Hicks seven years, $70 million with the Yankees. Former Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray three years, $30.5 million as part of the deal to make him a Cincinnati Red. Miles Mikolas four years, $68 million with the Cardinals. Paul Goldschmidt five years, $130 million as part of his deal with the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter two years, $39 million with the Cards at age 33. Xander Bogaerts six years, $120 million with the Red Sox. Even veteran pitcher Justin Verlander, for two years and $66 million with the Astros. Aaron Nola four years $45 million with the Phillies.
The deals come with critics. Complaints have risen that the deals are too “team-friendly,” as though front offices were pulling one over on players who were worth more money. But financial security is a powerful motivator for any player. Complaints also rose that the extensions meant teams simply weren’t going to shell out big bucks for free agents anymore, especially those who are 30 or older. Players need to recognize that deals like the one an aged Albert Pujols got with the Angels didn’t make a lot of sense. Clubs aren’t getting stingy. They’re getting wiser.
Players don’t have to sign extensions. Mookie Betts is a prime example. The former Overton High School star will become a free agent after 2020 after starting a phenomenal career with the Boston Red Sox. As players were signing contract extensions right and left, Betts was asked if he wanted to do the same. Betts basically said he would pass. He apparently prefers to become a free agent and see how well he can do. Suddenly, that has become the old-fashioned approach. But the point is that it’s Betts’s choice.
Imagine if Mickey Mantle had bolted the Yankees for big money in Boston or Los Angeles after six years of service in New York. Imagine if Stan Musial had decided he could make more in the Big Apple. Those superstars played under the reserve clause, and chances are, if they played under the current format, they would have packed their bags and moved on for more money without a thought. The reserve clause was bad for the players. But in the big picture, as wrong as it was, it was good for interest in baseball.
All those years in one uniform helped Robin Yount of the Brewers get into the Hall of Fame. All those years changing uniforms hurt Bert Blyleven, who had to wait.
Harper signed as a free agent. His deal was not a contract extension with his current team. But the message of a 13-year contract, or the 12 years Trout got, mean everyone can expect that player to wear the same uniform for years to come. That gives the people who follow a team a sense of confidence that the player they watch today will still be on the team tomorrow.
Baseball is currently in its annual frenzy of the trade deadline where teams make significant moves according to their outlook on the current season. Sudden change can be jolting. Saying goodbye to a popular player can be difficult. That will always be part of professional baseball. But some things can help. And contract extensions are one of them.