Recently, a number of players signed contract extensions that would keep them on their current teams until roughly forever. There was Buster Posey's extension. There was Elvis Andrus's big deal. Justin Verlander signed an expensive extension on top of his previous extension, and that was designed to beat out Felix Hernandez's extension.
This started a slew of articles that had an essential, basic theme: free agency is dead.
Jonah Keri talked about free agency's death on Grantland. But Rob Neyer of SB Nation's Baseball Nation talked about the boredom of free agency rather than its death., and I always listen to Rob Neyer.
That's all well and good, but how does that affect the Miami Marlins, to whom free agency is a foreign concept? Well, while those parties discuss free agency's impending evolution, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus attacked this topic at a different angle; he discussed the evolution of contract extensions (BP subscription required).
That’s not true anymore. A few days later, Madison Bumgarner signed a five-year extension with two club options, and last week Buster Posey signed a forever extension with just 2.2 years of service time. Both Chicago clubs have joined in:Starlin Castro signed his extension with Chicago when he was right at two years of service time, and Chris Sale signed his this offseason at 2.1 years. The Cardinals signed Allen Craig to an extension when he had 2.1 years of service time. When Bill Baer wrote this week that "extensions are the new OBP," you might have read it as proclaiming a new strategy to take advantage of a market inefficiency. Better, though, to read it as the opposite: The new strategy is now the mainstream strategy.
And when that happens, the market inefficiency might as well be gone. Small-market clubs can’t count on it as an edge; now they have to make these moves just to keep up, and keeping up is not enough. So where does the last dog at the bowl find an edge in the era of extensions?
Now this may have something to do with the Miami Marlins. I have been beating the drum for a Giancarlo Stanton extension since the beginning of my time on Fish Stripes. But while the 2012 season would have been the perfect time to do it, the Marlins allowed that time to pass without much discussion. As the team pursued big-time free agents like Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, they allowed their cheap, team-controlled star to go without extra guaranteed money. This does not necessarily mean that the Fish did not attempt to negotiate a deal with Stanton, but from all the news we gathered, the organization and Stanton had not significantly discussed this opportunity.
Flash forward a year later and the Fish are still without a Stanton extension and the rest of the club is so poorly built as to discourage any discussion of a deal. At this point, most Marlins fans believe Stanton will go the way of Miguel Cabrera, as the two superstar players have similar situations. There is little to no hope of retaining Stanton beyond the 2014 season, and that leaves the Marlins without yet another superstar.
When you look at the history of the team, it seemed as though the Marlins had learned their lesson about offering extensions. They wisely signed away three of Hanley Ramirez's free agent seasons and two of Josh Johnson's years. But perhaps the Fish felt that those deals did not work out and thus became scared of the proposition of being weighed down by a hefty contract. This is a Marlins organization very clearly focused on profits, and the team just went through a difficult situation involving the last two years of Ramirez's deal, which look bloated now but clearly did not in 2008.
Whatever the reason behind the lack of activity on a Stanton extension, the Marlins just missed an opportunity to tie themselves to a superstar for a long time. And while they could have attempted it at an earlier time than they did with Ramirez and Johnson, they passed on the proposition, claiming that there was more time available to them. As you can see from the more recent extensions, these deals are happening sooner and sooner in a player's service time. Posey signed two and a half years into his career. Madison Bumgarner signed sooner than that. Ryan Braun signed his first extension after his rookie season. If the Marlins want to wait until arbitration, they may fall behind with the trend that players want security sooner than that.
And if the Marlins, already a small-market team with limited resources, cannot take advantage of a traditional small-market tool that is now becoming a tool of every team, then where can they gain an edge? The Fish are quickly becoming an ancient organization in their refusal to commit future dollars to players still under team control. Without that weapon, how can the Marlins build a contending club?
The Marlins appear to be in the same spot as the Rays in that they cannot expect to retain all of their elite talent. The Rays are, at some point, likely to either deal David Price or lose him entirely without a return, and the expectation is that this situation will become the pseudo-free agency of the near future. Rich teams with minor league resources may be able to take advantage of poorer squads by offering cash and players in return for taking on free-agents-to-be or players signed to unfavorable long-term deals. That is exactly what happened between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers and between the Fish and the Toronto Blue Jays. But as you can see with the Marlins' current situation, such a trade can leave an indelible mark on a franchise, as fan morale can be stripped quickly in such "fire sale" trades.
The Marlins have used that strategy in the past, and it has yielded mixed results. There is a very good chance they will continue to use that method of team building in the future. But without offering contract extensions to important players, the Marlins will not have a nucleus around which to build the next winning team. And with contract extensions quickly becoming a thing of the present for all teams, the Marlins might be one of the few teams left unable to retain any of their elite players through arbitration. If you are the only team without a sure-fire elite player, you can imagine how bad the situation may be. The Marlins are behind the eight ball with their competition thanks to their unwillingness to extend long-term deals and dollars, and that will continue if they do not rectify the situation.