Reimer: Xander Bogaerts extension is great news for Red Sox, but horrible sign for baseball

Alex Reimer
April 02, 2019 - 12:15 pm

Xander Bogaerts’ six-year extension is great news for the Red Sox. Boston has locked up its star young shortstop through his prime and seemingly still possesses enough financial flexibility to retain Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. With Chris Sale’s new deal finalized, it looks like the Red Sox are well on their way to extending their championship window. 

But it’s a bad sign for baseball that Bogaerts, one of the game’s rising stars and a Scott Boras client, opted to bypass free agency and sign for the same total value that Elvis Andrus did seven years ago. Over the last month, a litany of premier players on the brink of free agency have inked team-friendly deals, with many of them lacking an opt-out. 

MLB may be producing more revenue than ever, thanks to an influx of TV money. But the game is not in a healthy or sustainable place.

Look no further than some of these recent extensions to see how players are seemingly leery of the open market. Last month, slugger Paul Goldschmidt inked a five-year, $130 million contract with the Cardinals, keeping him in St. Louis until he’s 36 years old. As Sports Illustrated notes, it’s likely Goldschmidt would’ve surpassed $200 million in free agency just three years ago, when the inferior Jason Heyward inked a $184 million contract from the Cubs. Chris Davis, who has a career batting line of .237/.319/.470, signed for seven years and $161 million that winter.

It’s not hyperbolic to say Goldschmidt is one of the most productive hitters in baseball. Over the last nine seasons, he’s averaged 31 home runs and a .932 OPS. But he’s 31 years old, meaning his best years are probably behind him. Analytic-savvy teams are largely no longer paying for past performance, so somebody like Goldschmidt gets squeezed. 

It’s the same reason why Jacob deGrom, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, inked a relatively modest five-year, $137.5 million extension with the Mets last week. Prior to the 2016 campaign, the Red Sox signed then-30-year-old hurler David Price to a record-setting seven-year, $217 million deal –– with an opt-out to boot. But deGrom, who is also 30, apparently didn’t like his chances of reaching the $200 million threshold in free agency next offseason. The largest contract given to a free agent pitcher this year was Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $144 million deal.

Sale, who is much more accomplished than Corbin but carries greater injury risk, signed a $150 million extension with the Red Sox in Spring Training. It’s possible we’ve seen our last $200 million pitcher.

The notion of not paying players for their previous accomplishments makes perfect sense. The problem is, players aren’t getting compensated fairly when they are in the primes of their careers. Baseball’s free agency system makes players wait six years until they can reach the open market, meaning their salaries are entirely team controlled for three seasons, and then they head to arbitration. MLB confirmed it hands out a toy championship belt to the team that most succeeded in keeping down its players’ salaries in arbitration each year.

Perhaps no player better embodies this broken system than Aaron Judge. Despite playing for the revenue-rich Yankees, MLB’s hottest and most visible young star will earn just $684,000 this season. That’s nearly $4 million less than the game’s average salary, which has declined for the second straight year.

Since Judge is still in pre-arbitration, he received just a $62,000 raise. AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell was only due to receive a $16,000 pay bump, before inking a five-year, $50 million extension with cash-strapped Tampa Bay. 

According to the analytics firm Block Six, Judge was worth $71 million to the Yankees in 2018. Since he isn’t due to reach free agency until his age-31 season, it’s unlikely he’ll recoup his lost earnings on the back end of his career. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado each signed $300 million deals last offseason, but they’re both in their mid-20s. Mike Trout, the $430 million man, is 27 years old –– just like Judge.

Right now, players’ compensations are largely based on how quickly they get called up from the minors, which is entirely out of their control. In fact, clubs often hold back top prospects an additional couple of weeks at the start of the season, with the goal of delaying their service time. 

Bogaerts, whom the Red Sox called up in the latter days of the 2013 campaign when he was 21 years old, didn’t suffer any of that service time manipulation. But his choice to bypass free agency for a $120 million extension symbolizes all of the game’s aforementioned issues.

Boras was able to put in an opt-out for his client after Year Three of the deal, keeping Bogaerts in a place he loves to play, while still giving him the option to explore free agency before his 30th birthday. But not too long ago, Bogaerts would’ve been looking for much more money than he signed for, even on a team-friendly extension. 

MLB generates more than $10 billion in revenue, and less of it is going to the players. This growing disparity prompted Adam Wainwright and an unnamed veteran to recently warn of an incoming player strike. And it doesn't seem like players have much confidence in the market rebounding. The Braves just signed standout Ronald Acuna Jr. to an eight-year extension worth $100 million, buying out up to four free agent years. 

The power has shifted all the way back to the teams. This broken system is good for nobody besides billionaire owners.

This post has been updated