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Baseball is slowly killing free agency

Baseball has been making a shift over the past several months—locking up their young stars for years to come. This could have significant effects on free agency, and the talent available in it.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Texas Rangers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The last week leading up to spring training isn’t supposed to be an active time for transactions. Nearly all free agents are signed, the trade market has quieted, and teams are focused on choosing the best 25 players in their organization. Most springs, the only news coming out of camp is about health and/or final roster spots…but this year has been different. More than ever before, the past couple weeks have been a hot spot for long-term extensions—teams locking up their young stars before even hitting arbitration, let alone free agency.

If you want proof of that claim, look no further than the big news around baseball right now. Jose Ramirez and Rougned Odor, two young stars under 25, agreed to extensions that will take them multiple years past when they would have become free agents. Tim Anderson, 99 games into his big league career, signed a six-year deal this week and Kevin Kiermaier, the 26-year-old defensive wizard on the Rays, also signed a six-year extension the week before.

Two top-flight young arms in Carlos Martinez and Danny Duffy were extended for five years each over the past couple months, and outfielders Wil Myers, Ender Inciarte, and Odubel Herrera all signed long-term deals this offseason.

From 2015-2016, eight players signed extensions stretching into their prospective free agent periods. That number remained at eight players last year. Already, less than three months into this year, seven players have signed this type of contract. Considering many of these contracts are generally signed early each year, I can’t yet say that this will be significantly more active than years past when it comes to signing long-term deals, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if 2017 stands out by the time the year is through.

By this time last year, only three of eight such contracts had been agreed on, and just four of eight deals were made the year before. A similar trend extends into years past, indicating that we’re likely to see plenty more deals made over the coming months. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at how baseball’s landscape might be altered by the growing pattern of young stars signing extensions, and how it might affect certain team(s) who are traditionally built through free agency.

Since you’re reading this on Pinstripe Alley, a Yankees site, you can probably guess which ‘team(s)’ I was referencing in the paragraph above. The Yankees, known around the league as a historical free agent powerhouse, has staked its reputation on winning World Series on the backs of big-time free agent signings. While that hasn’t quite been the case over the past couple seasons, with the Yankees’ future in flux and a rebuild underway, it shouldn’t be long before the Yankees are once again the force to be reckoned with on the market. But, if the recent uptick in extensions continues, that may not matter.

While much has been made about the potential superstardom that composes MLB’s 2018-2019 free agent class, from Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and Josh Donaldson to Dallas Keuchel, Matt Harvey, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and David Price/Clayton Kershaw (should they opt out of their current contracts), it could be the last great crop of players seen for a while.

Unfortunately for teams that use their financial might to dominate free agency, the current league is locking up their stars early, with fewer and fewer elite names reaching free agency after their sixth season in the big leagues, as service time rules dictate. Teams that build through free agency may be stuck looking elsewhere to improve, a change that will lessen the advantage rich teams have.

The Yankees seem to have recognized this incoming shift in league strategy, and have quickly moved away from a free-agent-heavy approach over the past couple years. They’d certainly still be wise to dive headfirst into the final few offseasons where impact free agents are available, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the approach of the 2000s Yankees disappear for the foreseeable future.

To combat this, New York and GM Brian Cashman will need to continue finding deals on the trade market while also trying something a bit new to the organization—locking up their young players. The last time the Yankees did something like that (extending a sub-25-year-old player through some of his free agent years) was back in 2001, when the extended a certain young shortstop to a ten-year, $189 million deal. Since then, they haven’t signed even one young player to a long-term extension.

The closest they’ve come is with Robinson Cano, who was signed through his arbitration years but left New York as soon as he hit free agency. Cano was the Yankees’ glaring mistake, one that has haunted them over the past few years (Stephen Drew’s race to a .200 batting average won’t soon be forgotten), and fans will have to hope the Yankees are a bit more generous with extensions this time around.

It may be premature to say New York should be locking up their Gary Sanchez’s and Gleyber Torres’s, but once they have enough confidence in their young talent, Brian Cashman shouldn’t be afraid to pull the trigger. It may take just one more excellent season from Sanchez for him to be ready for a long-term deal, and the Yankees would be wise to follow the league and make the move, because there’s little chance they’d be able to find a similarly-talented player in free agency.

It might be extreme to say free agency is dying, but the impact that it has is quickly dwindling. The effects of this year’s rash of extensions won’t be felt for a few years—until the players signed would have hit free agency—but, should baseball continue to keep their homegrown stars, the free agent market won’t be nearly as fruitful as it used to be. There will, of course, still remain the few Scott Boras clients who refuse to sign extensions, but there are cracks in his armor too; Stephen Strasburg signed a seven year extension last season. Baseball’s free agents will continue to exist, but it’s hard to envision the same prevalence of years’ past, where teams could bank on building through free agent classes.