The major league pay system permits teams to artificially control players’ salaries in their first six or seven seasons, from minimum wage through arbitration-eligible years. By free agency, many players are nearing or beyond 30, and organizations more and more are refusing to invest long-term dollars in them.
Clubs essentially deflate salaries on the front end, then refuse premium prices for declining years. So players are restrained in their 20s and shunned in their 30s.
Think about Jacob deGrom, freshly minted as the NL Cy Young award winner. He was drafted in the month he turned 22, missed his age-23 season following Tommy John surgery (because he was in the minors a year in which he could not accrue service time) and was not Rookie of the Year until 26.
By FanGraphs calculations, deGrom has provided the Mets $197.7 million in pitching value since his 2014 debut and been paid $12.6 million. In the next two years, he likely will earn about $33 million through the arbitration system. So, no tin cup need be sent around for him. But this is about fairness. He will not be a free agent until after his age-32 campaign and, thus, faces never being compensated for his actual value.
Jacob deGrom at last gets a win: the Cy Young – in a landslide
This is why for deGrom — and I think this would work for others with similar trajectories — I am recommending pre-agency, in which he gets treated as a free agent today in exchange for fewer years on a contract. Both sides give and take, both run risks for the potential of rewards short and long term.
My concept: A five-year, $155.5 million accord that would pay deGrom $20 million in 2019, $27.5 million in 2020 and then $36 million annually from 2021-23. The $31.1 million average would beat the annual value of all pitchers except Zack Greinke (I assume positionally that both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will exceed the $31 million average of Miguel Cabrera this offseason). The $36 million seasons will top the most ever given in a single year to a pitcher (Max Scherzer has $35 million seasons in his contract).
Strong statistical similarities tie deGrom’s last three seasons (age 28-30) to the three (2013-15) prior to Greinke inking his six-year, $206.5 million windfall, notably their Wins Above Replacement in those time frames: 17.7 for Greinke, 17.4 for deGrom. Since Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 ERA in 1985 the lowest by a qualified starter in a 162-game season are 1.66 by Greinke in 2015 and deGrom’s 1.70 in 2018.
Greinke was a year older in this three-season window. But that his stats were a tad better combined with Greinke being an actual free agent is why deGrom is limited to five years and does not reach Greinke’s average value.