Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola became Philadelphia Phillie ace Aaron Nola during the 2018 season. He picked up an All Star nod, fired 212.1 innings of 175 ERA+ ball, finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting, earned some mid-ballot MVP votes, and was valued at a stellar 10.5 bWAR for his efforts. He also took home a grand total of $573,000 for his work last year, since that’s just how the baseball salary structure works for players who’ve yet to accrue significant enough service time.
Similarly, Luis Severino has emerged as the in-house ace of the New York Yankees, getting the start in both AL Wild Card games in 2017 and 2018 and posting 10.1 total bWAR across the last two seasons, in which time he fired 384.2 innings of 140 ERA+ ball in the Bronx. Both seasons saw him finish in the top 10 of AL Cy Young voting - 3rd in 2017, 9th last year. His annual salaries for those two seasons: $550,975 in 2017, $604,975 last year.
Both made waves this week by decisions they made off the field, respectively. Earlier this week, Nola avoided what would’ve been his first trip through an arbitration hearing by agreeing to a 4 year, $45 million contract with the Phillies, one that buys out what would’ve been his first year of free agency and includes a year 5 club option that could effectively make the deal a 5 year, $56.75 million deal. Today, Severino - also entering the arbitration process for the first time this winter as a Super Two player - signed a somewhat similar 4 year, $40 million deal with the Yankees, one that has a 5th year club option over what would’ve been his first year of free agency that, if exercised, brings the deal to 5 years and $52.5 million.
Those come on the heels of Patrick Corbin signing a massive 6 year, $140 million contract as a free agent with the Washington Nationals earlier this winter. Of course, they also come as Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, and Gio Gonzalez remain unsigned, after pitchers with decent track records like Drew Pomeranz, Trevor Cahill, and Derek Holland had to settle for 1 year deals as free agents, and even after Trevor Bauer openly bemoaned what he called a ‘character assassination’ during his own arbitration hearing. In other words, as some of the top arms in the game see that both free agency and the arbitration process are things that don’t look nearly as rosy as they once did - just ask Lance Lynn about his experience this time a year ago - two of the most talented young ones have opted to take some guaranteed money now to avoid the other two processes like the plague.
If both deals look low to you, you’re not alone. They’ve both been routinely criticized, primarily from other agents around the game, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal detailed. Those agents, though, are also the ones representing the likes of Keuchel, and Kimbrel, and even Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, all of whom are still holding out for huge contracts that just might not be as readily available as they once thought. It’s a standoff between players, agents, and front offices league-wide, the latter of whom increasingly seem to be putting emphasis on spending the exact right amount of money on every contract they issue more so than, say, just signing the best players out there come hell or high water.
A far cry from the George Steinbrenner days, if you will. It’s a trend that the Cincinnati Reds in particular have been championing for quite some time, even if they’ve not been good enough in the standings for people to really take notice.
The Reds have avoided splashing cash in free agency something fierce, if you’ve not noticed. The multi-year deals to Jared Hughes, David Hernandez, Skip Schumaker, and Jack Hannahan have really been their lone forays into that market, and the guaranteed money on all four of those deals combined barely tops $20 million. Instead, they’ve looked inward to their own players, signing them to long term contracts of varying financial impacts, from the massive deal signed by Joey Votto to Devin Mesoraco, Tucker Barnhart, Eugenio Suarez, and most recently the newly acquired Sonny Gray.
The question becomes whether or not the Reds have seen the free agency freeze coming and have been planning ahead, or if it’s just a case of them really, truly valuing their own players more than those they don’t know as well, since that’s certainly a significant pattern. Even with Gray, who signed his extension before actually being a Red, there was a lengthy vetting process, one that included in-house coaches who’ve known him and worked with him for years in Derek Johnson and Caleb Cotham.
From a league perspective, it’s hard to truly pinpoint how this trend is going to settle. Is it really players fearing what will happen when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021 and locking-in dollar guarantees while they can? Or is it them reading the tea leaves that front offices have become so analytically minded that each time has precise values placed on every player in the game, and that there’s no flexibility (or chance of them overspending)? If anything, reliever Brad Brach’s comments about his free agency seem to imply there’s a bit of both going on, since if every team is operating on the exact same model these days, that’s either due to league-wide collusion on purpose, or indirectly.
Brad Brach on his free-agency experience: "We talked to certain teams and they told us that, 'We have an algorithm and here's where you fall.' ... It's just kind of weird that all offers are the same, they come around the same time. Everybody tells you there's an algorithm."— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) February 15, 2019
For the Reds, it’ll be interesting to see if they continue to try to emphasize this trend with their younger players. I don’t want to say exploit it, but that’s essentially what it would be given the current climate. Given their roster at the moment, the most obvious name that come to mind is Luis Castillo, who is still over a year of service time away from even his first trip through the arbitration process. And given how much less success he’s had relative to both Nola and Severino to date - and that he’s older than both already - even a banner year for Castillo in 2018 would set him up to earn significantly less on a 4 or 5 year deal than both of the other young star pitchers, and it’s hard to envision a player with his talent level just jumping at 4 years and, say, $28 million.
Of course, considering his paltry signing bonus from the San Francisco Giants as an unheralded prospect out of the Dominican Republic and that he’s already 26 years old - meaning he stands to reach free agency at an old 32 years old at this rate - perhaps any guarantee of that range would be right up his alley. And at that price, even for a pitcher (the most fragile asset in the modern game today), it’d be hard to think that’d be too rich for the Reds to jump all over.
It’s a weird trend at the moment, one that will surely see some pull in the opposite direction once the top talent that’s still on the free agent market eventually signs somewhere. Still, the Nola and Severino contracts are going to reverberate for years now, and the Reds might well be in a position to pounce as a result.