Now Batting

The offseason has its rhythms and patterns.

After the World Series ends, you have the free agency filing period, followed by a break before the GM meetings, then signings and trades begin with increasing frequency, reaching a fever pitch at the winter meetings and continuing up to the holidays. The remaining big-name holdouts usually sign shortly after the new year, which begins the arbitration process. Most arb-eligible players reach agreements with their teams in two flurries of activity — one, which we just saw, before the sides are required to exchange numbers, and the other just before the hearings themselves. The hearings continue, of course, but there seem to be fewer and fewer of them, especially as we see the rise of another pre-spring trend: the long-term extension.

We've seen a few already this winter, but for the Red Sox in the Theo Epstein era, the period after signing the arbitration-eligible players usually results in the announcement of a long-term extension or two.

In 2009, the Sox announced a long-term deal with Kevin Youkilis on Jan. 16, buying out two years of arbitration and two years of free agency and including a club option for a fifth year in 2013. In March, the Sox reached a similar deal with Jon Lester, buying out his final pre-arbitration season, all three arb years and one year of free agency, as well as including a sixth-year club option for Lester's age 30 season. 

Dustin Pedroia didn't sign in the spring that year; his deal was announced in December 2008, and it followed a similar pattern: one pre-arb year, all three arb years, two years of free agency, plus a team option for 2015. Pedroia was entering his age 25 season, as was Lester. Youkilis (29) was older, but he was a late bloomer.

Based on that track record, it seems we should expect the Sox to devote the remainder of their time this offseason to, among other things, extending Clay Buchholz.

Buchholz, 26, is a year older than Lester was, but is on a similar developmental path. Lester had completed his first full season of sustained success in the big leagues, a season that, while sporting an impressive 144 ERA+, featured an underwhelming strikeout rate (6.5 K/9). Similarly, though he struggled much more than Lester did in the seasons leading up to his breakout campaign, Buchholz was a revelation in 2010, posting a league-leading 187 ERA+, allowing fewer baserunners per inning than Lester did and striking out a similar 6.2 batters per nine innings. 

At the time of his five-year, $30 million contract, Lester's was the largest extension ever signed by a pitcher with just two years of service time (since surpassed by Yovani Gallardo and Ricky Romero). Presumably, Buchholz's deal would follow a similar path. Buchholz has expressed interest in such a deal, and his agent (unlike Jacoby Ellsbury's) is not Scott Boras.

Doing such a deal has risks and rewards for both sides. For the team, there's the risk the pitcher could be injured, but there's the potential reward of receiving high-dollar performance for pennies on the dollar, freeing up resources to be used elsewhere. For the player, there's the converse risk that he will be well underpaid versus going year-by-year through the arbitration process (Jonathan Papelbon, for example, will earn more than Pedroia and Lester combined in 2011 and millions more in his sixth year of service than either of those two players will), but the security of guaranteed long-term income and the immediate boost in salary he would otherwise have to wait a year or more to receive.

So don't be surprised if Adrian Gonzalez isn't the only Red Sox player addressing the media this spring as a much richer man.

2 comments… add one
  • Excellent post, Paul.
    As I alluded to in an earlier post, this is exactly what I think is going to happen. They’re going to forward Clay a copy of Lester’s contract, and tell him “this is exactly what Lester did, and we’re offering you the same opportunity right now”.
    I would, anyhow.

    Brad January 19, 2011, 11:15 am
  • the sox have been masters at pulling of this strategy, hats off…but, i still don’t get the advantage for the player…unless the specter of a career altering/ending injury is that great, it just doesn’t make sense to me…

    dc January 19, 2011, 4:51 pm

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