Historically speaking, the Nationals have never been a team to explore early extensions with their core players. They extended Ryan Zimmerman back in 2009 and then again 2012, but even those extensions came when he already had 3+ and 6+ years of service time under his belt. They extended Stephen Strasburg the Summer before he was scheduled to hit free agency, which was quite frankly a shock to everyone.
At some point though, given where the team is, it makes sense to take a risk and offer an early extension to a couple of their core pieces. It would give the team a clearer financial outlook going forward and would also possibly allow them to keep two of their core pieces in Nationals uniform past their final year of arbitration eligibility. Aside from Juan Soto, who I’ve already made my case for extending, the Nats have two core pieces who I think would make sense to extend.
Pre-arbitration extensions are always risky, both for the team and for the player. It’s rare that both the team and player look back at these deals and say “well that worked out for both of us”. One side is usually going to think they got shortchanged. The Phillies likely aren’t too happy with the 6-year $24 million deal they signed Scott Kingery to, and the Mariners might also be regretting the 6-year $24 million contract they signed Evan White to. On the flip side, the Braves would give Ronald Acuña Jr. the 8-year $100 million deal with two additional option years every single day of the week.
I’ll preface this by saying depending on how the new CBA negotiations go, pre-arbitration extensions could look a lot different than what we are used to. I’ll be using comparables from the prior CBA, but those contracts might not even be a conversation starter going forward.
As far as early/pre-arbitration extensions go, Keibert Ruiz would be at the top of my list. There are two caveats right off the bat that could potentially hinder a Ruiz extension. First, Ruiz is a Scott Boras client, meaning if the Nats don’t blow Ruiz and Boras away, it’s probably not happening. Second, there aren’t very many catchers who have signed pre-arbitration extensions. Salvador Pérez signed an extension with the Royals with just 50 days of service time under his belt (Ruiz has 64), but that extension was for 5-years and $7 million, which wouldn’t even be a conversation starter.
On the plus side, arbitration numbers for players like JT Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Contreras haven’t been outrageous by any means. Realmuto, earned $2.9 million in his first year, $5.9 million in his second year and then $10 million in his final year of arbitration. Grandal earned $2.8 million in his first year, $5.5 million in his second year and $7.9 million in his final year of arbitration. So far, Contraras has earned $4.5 million in his first year and $6.65 million in his second year of arbitration.
Using those numbers can give the Nats a baseline of what kind of offer it would take to get Ruiz to at least negotiate. Being that Ruiz has another three pre-arbitration seasons to go, now would be the time for the Nats to make a strong offer. After trying (unsuccessfully) for a couple of offseasons to acquire JT Realmuto from the Marlins, the Nats finally have their catcher of the future, so now it’s time to lock him up long-term.
Although Boras might balk at this, option years are always a part of the give and take involved in these types of extensions. The Nats have to be willing to commit bigger money up front to Ruiz, and Ruiz has to be willing to commit to forgoing a season or two of free agency. I think the two sides could find some middle ground with a 6-year $36 million contract with two option years which are each valued at $17.5 million per year. That would guarantee Ruiz $36 million prior to hitting free agency, with the potential to earn up to $71 million and a chance to hit free agency at 30-years old.
Before I dive into this one, I already know that there are people out there saying “why would you extend Gray, have you seen his numbers?”. He had a -0.5 bWAR and 0.0 fWAR last season to go along with his 5.48 ERA and 6.00 FIP through 70 ⅔ innings. I get it. But here’s the thing: the Nationals traded Max Scherzer and Trea Turner for Ruiz and Gray because they wanted to build around these two guys. They didn’t trade for Gray to be a guy in the rotation, they traded for him to be the guy in the rotation. To make a long story short, the Nats believe in this guy, and we all should too.
In fact, Gray’s offspeed pitches were nearly unhittable, with Gray collecting 51 of his 76 strikeouts last season using his curveball and slider. Hitters hit just .172 (.144 XBA) against his curveball and .191 (.161 XBA) against his slider. The issue was Gray’s fastball was getting absolutely pounded. Hitters hit .282 (.270 XBA) and slugged .620 (.606 XSLG) against his fastball. Of the 19 homeruns Gray gave up, 12 were against his fastball. If he can fix the issues he’s having with his fastball, he’s going to be very good.
At 75 days of service time, where would that leave extension talks with Gray? Matt Moore signed the earliest extension ever as a starting pitcher with the Rays back in 2011. With just 17 days of service time, Moore signed a 5-year deal for $14 million, which also included three option years. The Rays then locked up Chris Archer to a 6-year $25.5 million extension in 2014, which also included two option years. At that time, Archer had 156 days of service time. The last pitcher on the list to sign an extension prior to arbitration was Madison Bumgarner. In 2012, the Giants signed Bumgarner to a 5-year $35 million deal with two additional option years.
I think it’s fair to say that each of those extensions are a bit dated given the value that teams place on pitching nowadays, but Archer’s extension could be the most relevant of the three. Archer made $4.5 million over the course of the first three years of his career, which is a steep raise from the around $2 million players normally earn over their first three years. Archer’s arbitration years were then bought out for $4.9 million, $6.4 million and then $7.6 million.
The fact that both Gray and the Nats likely know that a pre-arbitration extension is a larger risk for both sides makes this potential extension a difficult one. Gray knows how much the league values pitching. The Nats know how volatile starting pitching can be and also know the risks in investing heavily in pitching. The unknowns of what Gray might become is literally the gray area here. Both Gray and the Nats undoubtably believe in his abilities to become a frontline starter. But would the Nats be willing to make an offer in line with that, and is it reasonable for them to even do that?
There’s room for a deal between the two sides, and I think a 6-year $30 million extension with two option years, similar to the Archer extension, could bring the sides together. I do think the option years would have to be valued at a higher value than Ruiz’s option years given the cost of starting pitching. A 7th year option year valued at $18 million followed by an 8th year option valued at $23 million, with $1 million buyouts associated with each could be appealing enough to Gray to forgo a couple of free agent years. That would bring the potential total value of Gray’s contract up to $71 million over 8-years and would allow him to still hit free agency at 31-years old.
Both of these deals are risky, there’s no doubt about that, but at some point the franchise needs to dive into these pre-arbitration deals and take the risk. At the end of the day, neither of these contracts (6-years $36 million and 6-years $30 million) would be detrimental to the long term outlook of the team. The time is now to lock up two of the cornerstones that you want to build your “retool” around.