No matter what happens on the field for the Orioles, the 2018 season will be defined by the fact that the team has a quartet of stars in Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Brad Brach all reaching free agency at once.
All but Jones is on his first professional contract, and there's been a fair amount of wondering around the game how it got to this point with the other three. After that, it will be a slow trickle of the team's stars, from Jonathan Schoop after the 2019 season to Kevin Gausman after 2020, who can hit free agency.
Schoop might be too close to free agency for a new deal, and the same could be said for Gausman. But there's been precedent recently for players even further away from free agency to sign and extend their stay with their current clubs, especially for players at the same stage of their career as blossoming star Trey Mancini.
This spring alone, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Scott Kingery, and Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Ketel Marte have all signed deals before reaching salary arbitration that guarantee their clubs control of them for a fixed rate and give the players some protection from injury or underperformance with arbitration and free agency proving particularly volatile.
Mancini said he's taken notice, but that it doesn't seem to be a one-size-fits-all solution to a contract.
"I've seen some of the deals that a couple of the guys have been signing, and I feel like that's totally up to that person and whoever represents them, and the team," he said. “But it is definitely interesting, an interesting trend. I've definitely taken notice of that, and I'm sure there's probably been some more offers to other guys that nobody has heard about and they didn't take them. You don't know what goes on. But it is pretty interesting what's going on there."
While there's been no indication that Mancini or anyone else in the Orioles clubhouse has received such an offer, they seem to have sprung up in early March around the contract renewals for pre-arbitration players elsewhere.
DeJong had less than a year of service time before signing a six-year, $26 million deal with two club option years that could add $27.5 million more on the back end. He essentially earned a $1 million raise for each of the next three seasons — before he'd even reach arbitration — and will make just over $20 million in what would have been his three arbitration years.
Kingery was likely to be subject to service-time games this spring and hasn't made his major league debut yet, but signed away what would have been seven years of team control for $24 million guaranteed in a deal that also includes three club options for what would have been his first three free-agent years worth $13 million, $14 million, and $15 million, respectively.
Marte, who is the latest to sign and the furthest along in service-time, took a guaranteed $24 million for his five remaining years of club control, with two options worth a combined $22 million.
Three players out of thousands does not a trend make, but it provides at least a context for the Orioles to open such discussions with their own young players as they look for cost certainty and to prevent the same perception that will plague this 2018 team, regardless of success — that they didn't keep the stars when they could.
The main candidate for something like this now seems to be Mancini, who remains two years away from salary arbitration and has five seasons of club control remaining.
Mancini won't reach salary arbitration until the 2020 season, meaning he'll likely have two more seasons at or near the league minimum of $545,000 this year and $555,000 next season.
Then, he'll have three years of salary arbitration before free agency. According to Baseball-Reference.com, there are two strong comparisons for Mancini through last season in the modern game — Shin-Soo Choo and Corey Dickerson.
Choo was an up-and-down player until age 25 when he became a regular, like Mancini, and in his three arbitration years, he made a total of $16.25 million.
Dickerson, a more recent comp, is two years into arbitration and has made a total of $8.975 million, with one more year to go. Another raise of around $3 million for his final arbitration year will put him around $9 million for next year and $18 million total for his three arbitration years.
So using that as a baseline, and assuming that Mancini continues to be a two-win player who does well in the counting stats that matter in arbitration, a deal that buys out two years of pre-arbitration and three seasons of club control for Mancini might be in the five-year, $22 million to $24 million range.
While it's on the higher end of the deals for someone a year into his service time, the Orioles will have to pay a bit of a premium considering Mancini will likely perform well in the power numbers that drive arbitration hearings and, if Jones and Machado leave, will be a middle-of-the-order bat set up to drive in runs.
Whether he'd do it or not is another question, but if the Orioles lock up a player of Mancini's caliber who has become a darling off the field, even if he's not going anywhere for a while anyway, it'd be quite a sign of good faith for all parties.
It's harder to find modern comparisons for any of the other players who might qualify for such an extension for the Orioles.
Catcher Chance Sisco could sign the Kingery contract, but as a catcher who will undoubtedly hit well, he could be looking at something similar to the $21.5 million Matt Wieters earned in three arbitration years.
Considering Wieters missed time with Tommy John surgery and that number could have still been higher, that would require the Orioles to probably go close to $27 million to buy out what at this point will be six years of club control, considering Sisco will need some incentive, too. Seems like a big bet on both sides.
Gausman has two more years of arbitration as a Super Two qualifier last year, and will earn $5.6 million this year after earning $3.45 million in 2017, his first arbitration-eligible season. Neither side really has incentive to extend far beyond that at this point. The Orioles will want to see Gausman pitch more consistently, and should Gausman do that, he'll reach free agency for his age-30 season having already made around $25 million and will be coming off good seasons while doing it.
Other candidates could include Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy, both in their final pre-arbitration year with three years of arbitration to follow. Signing Givens could be prudent for the Orioles, especially if they see him as a long-term closer once Brach and Britton hit free agency. Saves can be expensive, and Brach cost the Orioles a shade under $10 million over his three arbitration seasons with only two months of closing on his resume. Britton closed in his final pre-arbitration year and made around $20 million in his first three arbitration seasons.
As for Bundy, whom the Orioles invested years of medical care and rehab in and are now getting a good return, there could be some incentive on the team's side to ensure some cost-certainty for the next four years and on Bundy's end to ensure against any more injuries.
But starts like Thursday's Opening Day gem mean the price tag won't be a low one for Bundy. And as much as teammates might talk about the young players blossoming as candidates for such a deal, it's not something they discuss with those players themselves.
"I feel like it just kind of happened pretty quickly, and nobody has really talked too much about it," Mancini said. "I haven't really gauged anybody else's interest or what they think of it. I don't know if that'll be a subject of conversation in here or not."