The Detroit Tigers are approaching the point in their rebuild where identifying the key contributors to the next successful era of Tigers baseball is of paramount importance. It has become very trendy in Major League Baseball (I’m looking at you White Sox) to sign young players to extensions to create cost certainty and hopefully generate surplus value (player performance vs salary).
Two types of players are generally seen as the most likely to be engaged in these types of extension talks. First, elite prospects just reaching the MLB level, and second, young players with less prospect pedigree who have performed early in their MLB careers. The total cost of the extension can vary greatly and is based on a number of factors but the most important are years a player is already under team control and expected performance. Years of control are particularly important since the contract structure for rookie contracts creates a ceiling on what a player can earn during the first six years of their MLB career.
During pre-arbitration years (basically the first three years a player is in MLB) they essentially make the league minimum. Then in the final three years of the rookie contract, the players are eligible for salary arbitration which gives them a raise based on performance and years of service. This in a nutshell is why these extensions can work despite paying the player less than free-market value. The player gets millions in guaranteed money (rookie contracts are not guaranteed) and the teams usually get additional years of control, in addition to the cost certainty the extension provides over the arbitration process.
Of course, in discussing extensions it is also important to consider traditional extension candidates. These are players whose contracts are about to expire. With these players projected performance is the most important driver of contract length and size. These players sign contracts much closer to market value since they are much closer to entering free agency and therefore having competition for the rights to their services. Below we will look at players who fit these profiles for Detroit.
Detroit Tigers Extension Candidate: Daniel Norris
It feels like it’s been a long, winding road for Norris since his arrival in Detroit as a part of the David Price deal with the Blue Jays. He’s been a starter, a reliever, injured, bad, and good during his tenure in Detroit but now as he enters his final year under team control a decision is approaching about his place in the Tiger’s future. Norris has become a full-time reliever over the past couple of seasons and in 2020 he was quite productive. Serving in a multi-inning role out of the bullpen, he posted the best FIP (2.87) of his career and generated more groundballs than ever before while maintaining his strikeout rate. Expected to return to the same role in the upcoming season a full season of 2020-esque production would put Norris in a position to be a relatively sought-after free agent. It would also make him an interesting candidate to be extended by the Tigers.
Detroit Tigers Extension Candidate: Jeimer Candelario
Candelario was a solid prospect but never among the elite prospects in the game. He was acquired via the Cubs in the Justin Wilson trade and was immediately installed as the everyday third baseman. He accumulated 2.9 bWAR in parts of four seasons and showed glimpses of a competent player however inconsistency meant he didn’t look like a key part of the rebuild. Then 2020 came and Candelario broke through in a big way.
Overall he was quite brilliant offensively last season despite a slow start to the year and that places him firmly in the discussion for an extension. Candy is making around $2.5M this season and would see that price rise modestly through the arbitration process over the next two seasons assuming he performs to a reasonable level.
ZiPS projects a WAR of between 2.5 and 2.9 over the next three seasons and given his age and the modest production forecast it seems likely he will continue to produce in years four and five as well. This level of production is sufficient for the Tigers to attempt to negotiate an extension since there is potential value in locking up those additional years of control. Not to mention, the need to find position players to augment the young pitching in the system.
Detroit Tigers Extension Candidate: Tarik Skubal
Where Candelario fits in the capable player performing capably category (yes, I just made that category up), Skubal fits in the elite prospect with minimal service time category. Excitement surrounds Skubal heading into the 2021 season. From his arsenal of plus pitches including his high-end fastball to the development of a new split/change during the off-season to stellar spring training results, positivity abounds regarding Skubal.
It is seemingly becoming easier by the day to see Skubal as an impact talent in Detroit. ZiPS is projecting a cumulative WAR of 3.7 over the next three seasons but Tiger’s fans everywhere hope he can outperform that and rise to become a frontline starter. Production isn’t the biggest consideration in signing Skubal to an extension, however.
The biggest difficulty surrounding an extension is the inherent injury risk in pitchers. Most of the contract extensions for elite prospects tend to be for position players since they are seen as less likely to be derailed by injury issues. All of this begs the question, should the Tigers strike now with an extension for Skubal?
Additional Note: Any of the Tigers prospects who ascend to majors in upcoming seasons could be candidates for extensions. Casey Mize and Willi Castro, specifically, could also be the choices for this category.