Mid-February marked the beginning of contract extension season in baseball. Since February 13, 25 contract extensions have been signed, notably by many young players including Ronald Acuña Jr., Blake Snell, and Eloy Jiménez. Acuña Jr. and Snell were last year’s Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winners while Jiménez could be this year’s ROY.
Acuña, Snell, and Jiménez’s teams locking them up this early in their careers has a two-fold effect: given how good they are (or, in Jiménez’s case, could be), they stand to potentially set salary records going through arbitration. Acuña, for example, was set to become eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2022. His extension is for eight years and $100 million, meaning he won’t become a free agent until after the 2026 season at the earliest. He will earn $15 million in 2022, and $17 million from 2023-26.
Compare that to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (who also signed an extension). Arenado earned a $26 million salary going through his final year of arbitration eligibility. Acuña very reasonably could have matched or exceeded that going year-to-year with the Braves through his arbitration eligibility.
It should come as no surprise, then, that agent Scott Boras isn’t fond of these young players signing away their earning potential in favor of up-front financial security. Per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times, Boras called these extensions “snuff contracts.” Boras said:
Great young players are getting what I call “snuff contracts.” And a snuff contract is that they’re trying to snuff out the market. They know the player is a great player, and he’s exhibited very little performance. So they’re coming to him at 20 and 21, and I’m going to snuff out your ability to move, to go anywhere, to do anything, and your value. And I’m going to pay you maybe 40 cents on the dollar to do it. What’s my risk?
Boras called Acuña’s extension “the king of snuff contracts.” The super-agent then levied an analogy, saying, “This is like hitting. You can be a great hitter, but if you’re out in front of the changeup? But if you know the changeup is coming, you have the skill to whack it out of the ballpark. The idea is you better know your pitches.”
What Boras means is that ownership is one step ahead of the players when it comes to contracts. And he’s not wrong. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported recently that the players believe team representatives are even circumventing the player and his agent by appealing to the players’ families, especially for players with poor and/or Latin American backgrounds. That may help explain why many young players are taking the guaranteed money.
Contract negotiations do not happen in a vacuum. Arenado, for example, wouldn’t have been able to collect $26 million in arbitration if Ryan Howard hadn’t first hit $10 million in 2008. By taking themselves out of the picture, Acuña and Snell cannot set the bar for the industry for players of their caliber, age, and service time.
Acuña, Snell, et. al. may have also been influenced to take the guaranteed money seeing how stagnant the free agent market has become. Craig Kimbrel, an all-time great closer, and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel are still free agents. Most teams are already 10 games deep into the season. Seeing this, and not knowing what the next collective bargaining agreement will provide, may have been a big factor in players deciding to marry their current teams.
Explaining all of this, of course, is not to fault the players’ decisions. No one can say what is right or wrong for them and their families but them. They have every right to prioritize their own financial security over the larger impact on the industry. Boras and others are still correct, however, to worry about the current state of labor in Major League Baseball. The current CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season and things have gotten increasingly tenuous with ownership, though both sides seem to have a willingness to at least address the major issues in the coming two and a half years. If things continue the way they have, we will continue to see players willingly delaying their arrival to free agency, and that’s bad for labor now and for the future.