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The trade-offs of long-term contract extensions

A Harrison Bader extension could work, but doesn’t present much upside.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians - Game Four Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images


The Atlanta Braves will enter spring training next month with 18 players on guaranteed contracts, 10 of them guaranteed beyond 2024. It’s become almost a meme at this point, the tweet in the middle of a weekday that the club has extended some other All-Star calibre player for the next six, seven, or eight seasons. They do a good job of picking those extension candidates, too, with those 10 players under contract through at least 2024 projected to cost $127.3 million while providing 30.2 fWAR next season.

The Yankees, for comparison’s sake, will head to Tampa with 11 players under guarantees, 7 of them under control through at least 2024. That group is projected to put up 23.8 fWAR at a cost of $173 million in 2023. On average, these contracted players are pegged for 3.02 wins each, for $12.73 million on Atlanta’s books, and 3.4 wins at $24.71 million on the Yankees’.

I bring this up because of Tuesday’s FanGraphs post about Harrison Bader, arguing that the Yankees should extend him. The Braves are the ur-example of why it’s smart to lock up your talent early in their careers — indeed, the big reason why the average long-term contract for the Yankees costs double what Atlanta is paying is because five of the Yankees’ seven such deals came in free agency, where prices rise substantially.

Herein lies the case made by Ben Clemens: that the Yankees should extend Bader now because he’s a better option than most of the free agent class next season, nobody in the Yankee system is ticketed to be a full-time center fielder, and the club can take advantage of the likely last chance they’ll get to secure Bader for the $12.5 million posted by Clemens in the piece.

It’s a fair argument. Bader is one of the very best defenders in baseball, and his five-year projections showcase that:

Here’s where things start to go south for me, though. There’s a lot of value in having two-to-three win players on your roster — how much better would the Angels have been over the last half-decade if they had six or so 2.5-win players to surround Shoehi Ohtani and Mike Trout?

But when we start talking about extensions, one of the focuses the Yankees have made over the past couple of seasons has been that two-to-three win player. When they brought DJ LeMahieu back after his stellar 2020, he was projected to be worth 3.1 wins in the first year of his contract, and decline from there. You can quibble with how WAR grades first basemen, but Anthony Rizzo probably isn’t going to be worth more than three wins this season or next.

This has been a boon in many ways for the club — the Yankees are, essentially, what the Angels should be; a couple of superstars surrounded by high-floor performers who can consistently deliver a 95-win team and perennially play into October. The downside to these extensions though, is that they lock players onto the roster, and—unlike the situation in Atlanta—locks them in at the decline phase.

Every single one of the seven Yankees under a “long-term” contract is over the age of 30, with Carlos Rodón the baby of the group having crossing that milestone in December. Again, in contrast to the Atlanta Extenders, 7 of their 10 long term deals went to players under 30, four to players 25 or younger, retaining upside at the same time as they secure the high floor the Yankees enjoy.

Harrison Bader is an excellent player for the bottom third of a team’s lineup. A team chock full of 2.5ish-win players propped up by a couple of superstars wins a lot of games. I’m just not sold that the direction is more extensions for more players entering their thirties. The guys who the Yankees should be targeting for long-term extensions are the guys who will make their debuts this year and become stalwarts going forward ... if they can squeeze playing time from the over-30s who are already locked into the roster.