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Whither the contract extensions?

A historical overview of Blue Jays contact extensions, and what’s become quite the drought.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Press Conference Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This coming Friday (January 11th) is the date that eligible players and clubs must file their proposed 2019 salaries for arbitration purposes if they have can’t come to an agreement by then. Thus, over the next couple days, there will be a flurry of settlements as the two parties seek to avoid going to a hearing. That’s especially the case with “file and trial” teams such as the Blue Jays, whose policy dictates no settlement once the figures are formally submitted, unless it’s part of a longer-term deal not limited to the current year.

For that reason, the upcoming filing date tends to mark the unofficial start of the primary extension season, lasting until just before Opening Day. Traditionally, by January teams had conducted most of their offseason business on the free agent and trades markets, and turned towards nailing down contracts for their arbitration eligible and pre-arb players (deadline in early March). Teams and agents had to be in contact on contractual matters, so it was a natural conduit to discussing longer term contracts, and moreover could facilitate bridging differences over the current year salary.

Since almost the beginning, the Jays have been big players when it comes to extensions, though really starting in earnest in the 1981-82 offseason. In March 1985, the Jays famously gave Dave Stieb the biggest richest contract in baseball history, an “11 year” deal valued up to $25-million. In reality it was nothing of the sort, as it only added three guaranteed years onto his existing 1985 guaranteed contract, with seven option years tacked on for 1989-1995. After 1990, with just the first two exercised, salaries had inflated so much that the Jays voluntarily ripped up the rest and gave Stieb a new two year guaranteed at roughly twice the salary.

Over the glory years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pat Gillick extended almost every significant player the Jays had, usually towards the end of the control years, buying out the remaining arb years and a couple of free agent years or control over them: George Bell (2/1988), Tony Fernandez (2/1989), Jimmy Key (2/1989), Tom Henke (2/1990), Roberto Alomar (2/1992), Kelly Gruber (2/1992), Devon White (2/1992), Duane Ward (2/1993), John Olerud (12/1993). Most of those worked out quite well to say the least.

With the post-1993 collapse of an aging team, there wasn’t as much or that for Gord Ash to do. He bought out Pat Hentgen’s control years on a four year deal in April 1995, and then re-worked it after the Cy Young season of 1996 to buy control through 2002. There was a similar deal with Ed Sprague (1/996) and a big money deal for Juan Guzman (11/1996). Neither of those worked out, there were a few smaller deals but that was basically it for buying out control of significant players.

The later Ash years brought a new trend when it came to extensions. In the early/mid-1990s, John Hart established a new practice of extending young players before their arbitration years, when they were still cheap and willing to exchange certainty for the ability to cash in. Other teams took notice and began trying o copy the strategy, none moreso than Gord Ash. He inked multi-year deals with Shawn Green (2/1998), Alex Gonzalez (2/1999), Chris Carpenter (3/1999), Shannon Stewart (3/1999), Homer Bush (1/2000), Billy Koch (2/2000), Roy Halladay (2/2000), Brad Fullmer (1/2001), Esteban Loiaza (1/2001), Jose Cruz Jr. (1/2001) and Steve Parris (2/2001).

The common thread in all these deals was guaranteeing money without achieving any sort of additional control, so it’s not clear what exactly was achieved. There were even deals for the luminaries such as John Frascatore and Alberto Castillo, because it was clearly critical to achieve cost certainty over those them. There were also bigger money extensions that covering free agent years: Carlos Delgado (9/1999 then 10/2000), David Wells, Darrin Fletcher, Paul Quantrill

Ironically, the first major extensions J.P. Riccardi entered into were in the Ash mould. In March 2003, he signed Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske to almost identical five year deals just under $15-million that took them to the end of their control years. The former in particular ended up a bargain.

Riccardi’s other major extensions were a pair of $40-million deals for Roy Halladay prior to 2004 and 2006, covering seven years (five FA years) and both big bargains. There was the Vernon Wells albatross of course in December 2006 that seems to have been pushed on him from above. Then right on the eve of the 2008, he locked up Aaron Hill and Alex Rios to deals that covered remaining team control as well as free agent years. A mixed bag for sure.

This brings us into the modern era of management, with much more of an emphasis and understanding regarding the value of control. This certainly included Alex Anthopoulos, who worked out deals almost like clockwork. His first was just before Opening Day 2010, basically copying the Hill framework for Adam Lind. That summer, he guaranteed Ricky Romero $30-million over his team control years and a free agent year.

February 2011 brought perhaps the best contract in the history of the franchise, Jose Bautista’s $65-million guarantee. Yunel Escobar signed a favourable deal in June 2011. Rjai Davis (11/2011), Brandon Morrow (1/2012), Casey Janssen (2/2012), Dustin McGowan (3/2012) followed in rapid succession. That summer brought another critical extension, tying up post-breakout Edwin Encarnacion.

Again, more deals came quickly in succession: Jeff Mathis (8/2012), R.A. Dickey (12/2012), Josh Thole (1/2013), and then right before Opening Day 2013 J.A. Happ agreed on terms for 2014. For those counting, 13 extensions in Anthopoulos’s first 42 months, or basically one every three months.

And then...nothing. That was the last contract of the Anthopoulos tenure, even though it lasted another 30 months. Of course, the extensions he had already handed out and the moves he made in the 2012-13 offseason resulted in so many players already under contract that circumstances can easily explain this shift. But it’s still a pretty jarring demarcation line.

What’s more surprising is the drought that has ensued since Mark Shapiro came over. His regime is now in its 39th month, with almost no activity. Josh Donaldson was signed to a two year deal covered his middle two arbitration years in February 2016, which was probably done mostly to avoid going to a hearing. In some sense, an extension in name only. Likewise, Marco Estrada signed a one year extension in September 2017 in lieu of impending free agency. But it was close to free agency that it was effectively a free agent deal.

The only real extension was the August 2016 deal with Justin Smoak that kept him in the fold for 2017-19. That’s basically it for the new regime...and remember that Mark Shapiro cut his teeth in that Cleveland front office that pioneered the idea 20-25 years ago.

So with essentially just one real contract extension in going on six years, it’s an unparalleled and almost stunning drought in franchise history, at the least the post-expansion years.

That sets up this winter, since there’s certainly some extension candidates — and almost no money on the books in future years. Some of the arbitration eligible players are obvious candidates to go year-to-year for now: Devon Travis, Joe Biagini, Brandon Drury, Ken Giles. But there’s the likes of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk and even Ryan Tepera where the only way they’re part of a post-2020 future and next likely contender is with an extension. To say nothing of the possibility of something really off-the-wall like the potential for a Scott Kingery type deal with a certain teenage phenom.

In any event, it’s something to keep an eye on over the next 10 weeks or so.


By Opening Day, will the Blue Jays have entered into a contract extension with at least one player?

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