- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

In Major League Baseball, the formula used to go as follows: Play for a few years, prove your worth, then cash in with a long-term contract.

But increasingly, teams and players are tinkering with the formula, agreeing to long-term deals well before the players have established themselves as stars of the senior circuit.

Consider that last week, the Tampa Bay Rays reached a deal with third baseman Evan Longoria that could pay him $47 million over nine years. The 22-year-old Longoria’s total major league service time before signing the deal: six games.

The contract follows similar long-term agreements with Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Cleveland Indians pitcher Fausto Carmona and Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young, all of whom have played less than two years in the major leagues.

Granted, Longoria is projected to become one of the best third basemen in the American League, while both Tulowitzki and Young were rookie of the year candidates last season. Carmona, meanwhile, won 19 games for the Indians, who nearly made the World Series.

“To the extent you can solidify your core players and create cost certainty with that core, it allows you to plan,” said Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes, who locked up Young with a five-year, $28 million contract that starts in 2009. “There are risks on both sides, but the reason these deals are prevalent is that it’s a fairly obvious win-win model.”

To understand why teams pursue these deals requires knowledge of baseball’s salary system.

Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players can be paid the league minimum — currently $390,000 — for their first three seasons.

After that, their salaries can be determined by an arbitrator, until they become free agents after six years of service time. Those arbitration and free agent years make teams nervous, as it is often difficult to predict what market forces dictate a player should be worth.

In most of these long-term contracts, teams buy out a player’s arbitration years and, in many cases, at least one year of free agency. The downside is that the player could become hurt or fail to perform, but that’s a risk many teams are willing to take.

“Wrapping up players in this fashion is going to become more common place, as clubs decide that the risk of losing a key prospect to free agency is outweighing possible injury or decline in performance over time,” said Maury Brown, editor of the Web site Bizofbaseball.com. “While the figures being offered may look exceptionally high now, with the market inflation for players in free agency, clubs may see the early signings as great deal in the future.”

Indeed, some long-term contracts that were once viewed as risky for a team are now considered great values. Consider that Mets third baseman David Wright, a perennial MVP candidate, will earn $5 million this year, likely far less than what he would have earned through arbitration.

But for the player, the advantages of signing a long-term contract early in their career are clear. He is guaranteed to be set for life financially, even if he plays poorly or becomes injured, and the contracts are generally viewed as an important vote of confidence from the team.

“If something should happen, where he doesn’t perform or can’t play the game, he’s cashed in,” said Vince Gennaro, author of the book “Diamond Dollars” and a consultant for the Cleveland Indians. “Plus, he’s usually got some years on the end where he can be a free agent.”

Securing a long-term deal with a player can also prevent an uncomfortable situation down the road. Going year-to-year with a player forces teams and agents to engage in often tense conversations about a player’s worth, and the arbitration process often requires teams to point out a player’s deficiencies to justify an offer.

But for every player like Longoria and Tulowitzki, there are young players who are making close to the league minimum or going year-by-year with teams. While Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is seen as a cornerstone of the team’s rebuilding efforts, he was unable to reach terms on a multi-year contract this offseason.

The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile, have taken a single-year approach to contracts with first baseman and 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard and All-Star pitcher Cole Hamels. And Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder expressed disappointment when the team declined to offer a long-term deal a year after he hit 50 home runs in his second season.

“If we get a deal that makes sense, I’ll do it,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not going to comment on other people’s deals, but if one makes sense for me I have no problem signing a contract now. But the big thing for me is that it has to be worth it.

“You’re going to make your money whether you go year-by-year or whether you sign a contract. I don’t want to go through the system, and I don’t think they want me to go through the system either. But I don’t worry about that now.”

Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, declined to discuss his client’s contract situation specifically but said that contracts like Longoria’s can often make great sense for the team, but not necessarily the player.

“From the club’s perspective, it’s very smart business,” he said. “I’m not at all surprised, from the club’s perspective. But I don’t always know the rationale for the player to do it. But in each situation, there’s a price point where it makes sense to do a long-term deal. What that price point is is where the rub is.”

Ben Goessling contributed to this report.

YOUNG AND RICH

In the last two years, there has been a marked increase in the number of long-term contracts signed by players with limited service time in the major leagues a few of them since the start of the new year:

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

Contract: Six years, $17.5 million, plus three club option years worth an additional $30 million

Signed: April 2008

Service time when signed: Six games

Fausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians

Contract: Four years, $15 million, plus three club option years worth $28 million

Signed: April 2008

Service time when signed: Two years (289 innings pitched and 39 starts)

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks

Contract: Five years, $28 million, plus club option worth $11 million. Contract begins in 2009.

Signed: April 2008

Service time when signed: One full season, plus one month (178 games)

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

Contract: Six years, $31 million, plus one year club option worth $15 million

Signed: January 2008

Service time when signed: One full season, plus one month (180 games)

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