Recent, Upcoming Pitching Extensions Could Lead to Barren 2015 Free-Agent Class

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

Will 2013 American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer make it to free agency?
Will 2013 American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer make it to free agency?Paul Sancya/Associated Press

What could have been something grand is now looking less grand. Before long, it might look decidedly "meh."

This winter's free-agent market was pretty light on elite pitching. None of the domestic options was an ace. And though Masahiro Tanaka has ace potential, it's not a great look for a free-agent class when the best available pitcher has never toed an MLB mound.

It could have been the opposite with the 2014-2015 class of free-agent pitchers, as it was all set to feature a Big Six (numbers via FanGraphs):

What Could Have Been in the 2014-2015 FA Class
Pitcher2011-2013 AVG fWAR2013 fWAR2015 Age
Clayton Kershaw6.26.527
Max Scherzer4.56.430
James Shields4.34.533
Jon Lester3.64.331
Justin Masterson3.23.430
Homer Bailey2.53.729

For some perspective, only 30 qualified starters posted an fWAR of 3.4 or better in 2013. One-fifth of that population was therefore poised to hit free agency next winter. 

Not anymore, sadly. Guess what those highlighted guys have in common.

As many expected they eventually would, the Dodgers gave Clayton Kershaw a record extension of $215 million over seven years (with an opt-out after five years) in January. And as Mark Sheldon of reported, the Reds have agreed to extend Homer Bailey for $105 million over six years, with a $5 million buyout on a $25 million option for a seventh year.

So what might have been a Big Six is now down to a Big Four. And we naturally have to ask: Since two extensions have already happened, will it even be that?

Let's take a look.

Max Scherzer

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski made no secret of it back in December: Of course he'd like to extend the 2013 American League Cy Young winner.

"That would be a good sign," said Dombrowski, via "I don't mean to imply that that's imminent either, but I'd be thrilled if Max Schrezer was in a position that he stayed on board with us for an extended time."

If it's going to happen, however, it sounds like it's going to have to happen soon.

“For me, now that I’m here in spring training, my focus right now is all about getting on the field and trying to win,” Scherzer told George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press last week. “If it’s not done by Opening Day, then I’m not going to negotiate during the season."

Scherzer said he wants to get something done because he doesn't want his contract status to be a "distraction." That may be true, but he might also be preparing to think free-agent contract rather than extension once the season begins.

Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2013, and he must know that he'll be in for a killing with another big season in 2014. He just saw an unproven pitcher (Tanaka) get $155 million, and now he knows he wouldn't have to compete with Kershaw and Bailey for offers. The bidding war for Scherzer's services would be fierce.

As it is, Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio (subscription required) already has Scherzer's market value at $196 million over seven years. If that's the price the Tigers need to match, they have their work cut out for them.

The Tigers did clear some money when they jettisoned Prince Fielder, but they still have long-term contracts for Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler on their hands, and will soon have to worry about extending Miguel Cabrera.

Nothing should be ruled out. But since Scherzer stands to benefit the most from the watering down of next year's market and the Tigers have iffy long-term wiggle room, we'll go with...

Extension Likelihood: Low

James Shields

The Royals gave up a lot to get Shields last winter, but, hey, at least he held up his end of the bargain in 2013. With a 3.15 ERA across nearly 230 innings, he gave the Royals a typical James Shields-y season.

However, Shields might not be long for Kansas City. He told Jim Bowden in November that extension talks hadn't yet taken place, and more recent comments suggest things still haven't ramped up.

Aug 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields (33) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“If [Royals GM Dayton Moore] wants to talk about it I’m more than willing to sit down and talk about it,” Shields told Blair Kerkhoff of The Kansas City Star in January. “But during the season my main focus is to win games.”

The one advantage the Royals would seem to have is that Shields is older and, thus, possibly not as expensive as the other elite pitchers headed toward free agency next winter. But that might not actually be the case, as one American League executive told the Star's Andy McCullough that Shields is "definitely" a $20 million-per-year pitcher.

That's a tall order for the Royals. Per research done by FanGraphs' Wendy Thurm, their local TV deal isn't even worth $20 million per year. And while the Royals are short on long-term commitments after 2014, it would be wiser for them to save some payroll space for younger players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon, who's only controlled through 2016.

Extension Likelihood: Low

Jon Lester

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe came right out and said it:

Indeed, and the Red Sox have even further incentive given that Lester is willing to give them a discount on an extension.

“I want to win. If that means taking a [Dustin] Pedroia deal where you stay here for less money to be happy and be competitive and win every year, let’s do it. Let’s get it done," the lefty told reporters, including Abraham, in January.

Lester told Abraham on Monday that talks between the Red Sox and his agents haven't yet begun. But he's hoping to get something done before spring training ends, and, unlike Scherzer, is willing to talk during the season. He also said he still hasn't changed his mind about possibly taking a discount.

This should be music to the Red Sox's ears. I wrote in January that they can get away with not extending Lester thanks to their wealth of talented pitching prospects, but he was his vintage self down the stretch last year. That pitcher is worth extending, and the Red Sox can get something done because:

  • A) They certainly have the money.
  • B) They only have Pedroia's long-term contract weighing them down.

Contrary to Scherzer and Shields, it's hard to see something not getting done here.

Extension Likelihood: High

Justin Masterson

As soon as the news of Bailey's extension was reported, there was's Jordan Bastian with an observation:

If we narrow it down to what these two have done over the last two seasons, this is true. Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Homer Bailey vs. Justin Masterson, 2012-2013

Bailey has pitched a few more innings and walked fewer guys. Masterson has racked up more ground balls. Aside from that, their numbers are pretty similar. There's also only a one-year age gap between the two.

As such, it might now take something in the neighborhood of $100 million for the Indians to extend Masterson. That's a reasonable amount for a pitcher of Masterson's caliber, but club president Mark Shapiro didn't sound optimistic in speaking with MLB Network Radio on Wednesday:

The Indians do have a new local TV deal worth $40 million per year, but a good chunk of that will be going toward Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and the newly extended Michael Brantley in coming years. Masterson also isn't Cleveland's only prime extension candidate, as Jason Kipnis is there too.

And maybe the Indians might figure they can get away with letting Masterson go. Corey Kluber is pretty good. The sky's the limit for Danny Salazar. Nobody should give up on Trevor Bauer's potential just yet.

Lastly, working against matters is that the Indians don't seem desperate to extend Masterson. Bastian reported this week that Masterson himself is willing to talk during the season but that Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti would prefer to "keep such talks confined to spring."

I'd guess that the Indians can still get something done with Masterson. It's just that the situation got much more complicated thanks to Bailey and the Reds.

Extension Likelihood: Medium

So What of Next Year's Free-Agent Class?

Well, put it this way: It's bad enough for teams that were eyeing the pitching richness of next year's market that it's already gone from a Big Six to a Big Four. Given that Lester looks like an easy extension candidate, it's likely that the Big Four will eventually turn into a Big Three.

There's a decent chance that said Big Three will turn into a Big Two. Masterson's situation looks like it could go either way right now. But since he's willing to talk during the season, it's possible that the Indians will run into trouble with their other starting pitchers and conclude that, yeah, they had better keep Masterson around.

That's the guess I'm going to go with. But whether it ends up being a Big Three or a Big Two, to a certain extent it won't matter. Regardless of which number it lands on, next year's free-agent class will have gone from an all-timer to nothing special.

Note: Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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