SAN DIEGO -- In a dizzying 27-day stretch last month, Padres general manager Josh Byrnes completed three significant contract extensions, locking up center fielder Cameron Maybin, pitcher Cory Luebke and catcher Nick Hundley to deals that could keep them in San Diego for many years to come.
These contracts might well have registered a bigger blip nationally had they not occurred during a time when seemingly everyone was handing out similar extensions, the practice of buying players out of their arbitration years, their free-agent years or, in some cases, both.
Since the start of February, 29 players have received contract extensions of at least two years. Most of the deals, though, represented a more substantial commitment -- in years and money. A total of 14 of those extensions covered five or more years, with 18 of them going for four or more seasons.
With their three deals, the Padres have committed at least $46 million and possibly as much as $74.75 million. That, of course, paled in comparison to some of the other deals that have been made recently -- the Reds gave Joey Votto $225 million for 10 years and an option.
San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain got $112 million for five seasons, while his teammate and fellow pitcher Madison Bumgarner received a five-year deal for $35 million. That deal was significant because it's the largest contract for a player with one-plus years of Major League service time.
|"It means a lot that these guys want me to be the face of this franchise, which I'm more than willing and ready to be."|
-- Cameron Maybin,|
on his contract extension
"I do believe in the concept. It's one of those win-win contract models."
Byrnes is certainly familiar with the practice of locking up young and talented core players with the dual purpose of avoiding rising (and unpredictable) arbitration costs and prying some of those coveted free-agent years away from them as well.
Going back to the 1990s, when he got his start in the Indians' front office working with John Hart, Mark Shapiro and Dan O'Dowd, he saw how this practice worked well. The Indians were the first team to lock up their top players before they hit free agency, signing Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome to long-term deals early in their careers.
"I was asked to study how the deals were doing -- was there a cost savings there, the value of the deals," Byrnes said of his early years with the Indians. "But it's always hard to assess. Inflation was pretty strong through the '90s and most of the players were really good."
With those players under contract, the Indians captured six American League Central division titles and advanced to the World Series twice from 1995-2001.
One of the first deals Byrnes worked on closely in Cleveland was a four-year, $5.2 million extension for Thome in Spring Training of 1994. Thome was 23 years old at the time and had all of 114 games of big league service time at that point.
"He said, 'You're telling me that if I sign this, I'll get $5.2 million,'" Byrnes recalled Thome saying shortly before he signed his deal.
As enticing as these deals appear on the surface for players -- simply sign and you receive guaranteed money -- there are factors for both sides (team and player) that can potentially complicate the deals.
"First, a team has to feel comfortable that the player -- on the field -- is worthy," said Brian Goldberg, the agent for Maybin and who previously represented Ken Griffey Jr. "Also, the player and agent have to be comfortable and willing to be locked up for a long period of time.
"I think the team also has to be comfortable if the player underperforms and is going to be overpaid. It's just like the player has to have the right mentality that if he outperforms the contract that he's going to be underpaid."
Deals like the ones the Padres made with Maybin, Luebke and Hundley are good examples of how even smaller-market teams can make some headway during these kind of spending sprees by teams. Because small-market teams often can't afford to keep players from free agency if they outperform their deals, there's still a value in locking them up early.
It also sends a positive message to fans in terms of commitment to these players.
These deals are also an enticing proposition for the player -- getting that first big contract. There's a don't-mess-up-your-first-fortune factor that can't be denied here.
"It means a lot that these guys want me to be the face of this franchise, which I'm more than willing and ready to be. I love playing for these guys ... and I love playing for the fans," said Maybin, who signed an extension worth $25 million and a $9 million vesting option that could keep him a Padre through 2017.
"It says a lot about what they think about my abilities, my character and my work ethic. It's more than just the ability that goes into making a decision like this for an organization."
That many of these teams are or will be flush with more money after signing lucrative television deals -- the Padres' yet-to-be announced deal with Fox Sports San Diego will reportedly pay the team $1.2 billion spread out over 20 years -- has made it easier for clubs to digest the long-term commitments.
Either way, this popular practice is one Byrnes believes in. He's seen the benefits of it. He's also seen when these contracts go the other way and the team is stuck with a bad contract. There's risk involved, but there's also enough of a potential reward to make this practice worth visiting.
In the Padres' case last month, they did three of them. Luebke's extension is for $12 million through the 2015 season, with two club options that could pay him $27.75 million. Hundley's deal runs through '14, with a club option for 2015 that guarantees him $9 million.
"Like with any decision, you're not always going to be right. But there are cases that do turn out better," Byrnes said. "The concept hasn't changed that much. A lot of teams do it. It makes sense from both sides.
"When we have good players and the system gives you six years of control, in some cases, we're trying to add on years. Some years are more expensive than others. In terms of [Maybin, Hundley and Luebke], we went in early on their service clock."