Locking' em up young

Locking' em up young

In a deal that provided financial security for the player and some cost certainty for the low revenue club, 2004 American League Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby signed a contract extension with the A's during the 2005 season.

It locked up the then-25-year-old shortstop through his arbitration years and will pay him a reported $12.75 million through 2009, and it continued a trend that Oakland general manager Billy Beane has been out in front of for years.

Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Eric Chavez and Rich Harden have received similar deals, helping the A's stay competitive despite a bottom-third payroll.

Beane certainly didn't start the trend, and the more forward thinking -- and, in most cases, cash-strapped -- GMs have been doing the same thing for quite some time. It's been a way of life for many clubs of late.

"In our case, these were no-brainers," Beane said. "We knew that when you're in our position, you're unlikely to be able to hold onto a lot of players once they hit free agency, so you need to find a way to keep them as long as possible until that day comes."

Now, however, teams and players are agreeing to stay together earlier and longer into the players' careers, sometimes well into free agency. The Rays gave rookie third baseman Evan Longoria a six-year deal worth a reported $17.5 million, with three additional option years, less than a week after Longoria was called up to the Majors, and Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez just signed a six-year, $70 million extension.

"It's kind of like taking out an [insurance] policy with Lloyd of London's," Beane said. "The premium is high, but the reward -- if the player ends up being what you think he's going to be -- has the potential to really dwarf the risk."

The growing trend also has the potential to stifle the trade market in big league ball for years to come. Some GMs say that day already has arrived.

"The value of young players and prospects has never been higher with the cost of free agents," says Pirates GM Neal Huntington. "And the difference of putting your player on the field for the Major League minimum and not having to pay the millions and millions that free agents are asking for has slowed down the trade market. It has also decreased the tolerance of trading prospects."

"It takes more prospects or young Major Leaguers to get the few [impact veteran players] available," adds Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. "It's supply-and-demand. And there's a premium on keeping young players because of payroll."

Like Beane, Indians GM Mark Shapiro has a history of locking up his younger stallions, with C.C. Sabathia perhaps his biggest horse kept in the stable long term.

"I feel in the right situation, not without caution, where it balances the risk for both the player and the team, that it makes sense," Shapiro said. "What it comes down to is an equation where you share risk. The player benefits by getting decent security. The team benefits from the ability to control costs and more strategically plan. We'll probably see it more and more, with more and more guys being tied up.

"When C.C. got tied up, guys weren't giving up free agency. Now they are."

Guys like Ramirez, who would have been a first-time free agent after the 2011 season. Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest got Ramirez and his reps to sign on through 2014.

"It's a lot of what-ifs, and it changes from player to player," Beinfest said. "Some players you'd like to go year to year. [Ramirez] is young enough [24] where he can still have this contract and still be a would-be free agent at 30 years old. There is value in that as well for him.

"Over the past five years, we've seen clubs put a real high value on young talent. No longer are they going to give up their best young talent for a rental player. I think what we're seeing is a return to teams putting an emphasis on player development and scouting. Even the teams on top realize that scouting and development are the way to go."
-- Braves GM
Frank Wren

"If a player meets the criteria, we wouldn't hesitate bringing that to [team owner Jeffrey Loria], and then take it from there. You have to look at everything. You have to look at the salary allocation of that player, if we were to lock him up. What the future of the team is going to look like with him on it. Is the player healthy? Is he performing? Is the trend line going up? All those things. All of those things go into it. We'll look at everybody. But this is the one player now we felt comfortable with going to ownership."

Beinfest won't say it, but the next Marlin in line for such a deal is Dan Uggla, a second baseman who hit 27 homers as a rookie in 2006, 31 in 2007, and a club-record 12 in May.

"Over the past five years, we've seen clubs put a real high value on young talent," says Braves GM Frank Wren. "No longer are they going to give up their best young talent for a rental player. I think what we're seeing is a return to teams putting an emphasis on player development and scouting. Even the teams on top realize that scouting and development are the way to go."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman echoed Beinfest's thoughts on Ramirez when discussing his club's decision to secure Longoria for the long-term, adding that the realities of Tampa Bay's financial situation made the risk easier to swallow.

"I think it's one of those situations where we're extremely confident in his abilities and what we believe he's going to be able to do," Friedman said. "We think in other markets, it's easy to wait and see how things play out. We don't necessarily have that luxury. It was also a situation where Evan knew he wanted to be here, so it was just a good fit in an unusual situation that I'm not sure will necessarily present itself again.

"It might. But it's not necessarily something that we're going to look aggressively to continue to do. It's just something that really fell perfectly and both sides thought it was the thing to do."

There aren't many executives who don't think it's the right thing to do these days, but it's not always possible when top agents are involved.

"The so-called super agents hate this trend," said one GM who requested anonymity on the topic. "It's good for the player and good for the club, but it's not so great for the super agent who wants that third house on Lake Cuomo after his guy hits paydirt in free agency."

As for what impact the trend has on the trade market, there are a handful of GMs who don't see it as much of an obstacle.

"They're not the kind of guys you're going to trade, anyways," said Doug Melvin of the Brewers, who recently added Ryan Braun to their collection of locked-down young stars. "I don't see that affecting anything."

Interestingly, Beane himself said, "I don't really see how it relates to the trade market, but I guess time will tell."

Besides, Beane added, having a young player locked up doesn't always mean the club is locked into that player.

Braun got some no-trade language built into his new deal, but Ramirez and Longoria did not. And without such language, GMs are free to trade their valuable cost-certainty trading chips for piles of players that might get flipped under similar circumstances down the road.

Beane, for instance, signed Dan Haren and Nick Swisher to multi-year deals designed to take them through arbitration with Oakland. But over the winter, Beane traded them in separate deals that netted the A's packages of six and three top prospects.

"Being contracted," Beane said, "at times can make it easier to move a player."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. Several staff reporters contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.