Getting the offseason right often involves more than deciding which new players to acquire. Important organization judgments can also concern the current roster.

Major league baseball teams own (control is a more polite word) players in their organization for six big league seasons. Clubs can reach agreements with their own players to extend their terms beyond those six years. Those deals are referred to as contract extensions.

Contract Extensions

Teams benefit from contract extensions in three ways. First, when they agree to a specific salary for any or all of the player’s three arbitration-eligible seasons, it creates cost certainty for budget planning. Second, if the contract is early enough in the player’s career, the club will receive a discount compared to shopping for similar WAR in the open market. That discount comes from the player’s desire for the security that comes from the newly guaranteed wealth. Finally, the negotiations can lengthen the team’s control into the player’s free agency period.

The downside for the club is the risk that the player will get injured or perform poorly and the team ends up stuck with a bad contract.

Young players are generally favorable to deals that make their earnings guaranteed. Without an extension contract, if a player gets seriously injured during their first year of arbitration eligibility, for example, they could be cut by the team at will. But because of the guaranteed nature of major league baseball contracts, if the club signs an extension and the player gets hurt (or slumps terribly) the team still owes the money.

A couple recent examples for the Reds:

Jay Bruce signed a six-year extension after the 2010 season. It covered his four years of arbitration (Bruce was a Super Two player) and two years of free agency. The Reds have a $13 million option for the 2017 season, when Bruce will be 30 years old.

One month later, Johnny Cueto signed a 4-year, $27 million extension that covered his three arbitration years and one year of free agency. The agreement also included a one-year team option for $10 million that covers 2015, this season. Cueto will turn 29 before Opening Day.

Much has been written about whether the Reds should and will sign extensions with pitchers Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Cueto. But new deals for two position players — Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco — would also seem to be worth considering.

Frazier and Mesoraco are linked in many ways. They were both first-round picks by the Reds in 2007 and each debuted with the major league club in 2011. They both are right-handed and had strong offensive seasons in 2014. Both have positive defensive stats. Both made the All-Star team for the first time in 2014. They each have reputations for being strong clubhouse guys.

And, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco have identical contract statuses. They just finished their pre-arbitration years and are set to enter their first of three arbitration-eligible seasons. Without contract extensions, they both would reach free agency in the 2018 season.

Given all those similarities, it’s tempting to lump the two together when discussing how the Reds should negotiate with them about their futures. For example, John Fay wrote earlier this month that the Reds should offer both players long-term contracts this offseason.

But you really can’t reach that conclusion without analyzing the one crucial dissimilarity between Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco … their age.

Frazier is more than two years older than his teammate. And, like choosing the road less traveled, that makes all the difference.

Todd Frazier

Should the Reds sign an extension this winter that guarantees Frazier money in 2018 and beyond?

To answer that question, one needs to consider the aging curve for major league players. An aging curve shows how the average player declines as they get older. This is a natural and inevitable phenomenon. Individual player results will vary. Some will perform better than curve, of course. But it’s important to understand the average.

Figuring out accurate aging curves in the post-PED Era is tricky. Factors beside stricter enforcement against PEDS — defensive shifts, advanced data on hitter weaknesses, pitcher specialization, rising fastball velocity and expanding strike zones — have worked against hitters since 2006. For most hitters, their batting stats have declined in ways that look like the player is getting old, when in fact, aging isn’t the entire explanation. Therefore, it’s important to use a statistic like wRC+ (weighted runs created) that is neutralized by season and run scoring environment. Here are aging curves for wRC+ (Zimmerman). The green curve is the post-PED era (2006-2013).

aging_curve_wrcp

Jeff Zimmerman, FanGraphs

Not only has the post-PED era seen a decline in performance for players older than 26, but notice the steeper decline in the green curve after age 30 and particularly after age 34. Hitters decline, on average, two years earlier than they did from 1990 to 2005. The data has profound implications for the strategy the Reds should take in dealing with Todd Frazier.

Frazier will turn 29 on February 12 of this year. That means when he reaches free agency, he’ll already be 32 years old and well down that curve. Chances are great that the Todd Frazier who played for the Reds in 2014 won’t be much like the guy who would take the field in 2018 and beyond.

Devin Mesoraco

Redleg Nation covered Devin Mesoraco quite a bit this year: Biography, mid-season MVP delusion, August update, historical comparison and he’s swinging harder. All positive stuff. But as we saw with Todd Frazier, the fact that Mesoraco had a great 2014 isn’t definitive regarding how the Reds should approach him for 2018.

But here’s where that age difference really matters.

Devin Mesoraco will turn 27 on June 19, 2015. That means when he finishes his arbitration years, he’ll just be 29, reaching age 30 halfway through that first free agent season.

In looking at how other catchers have aged in the post-PED era, what can the Reds expect from Mesoraco in his early 30s? The graph above shows performance at age 29-30 to be markedly better than at ages 33 and above.

You might expect that catchers, due to the extra stress on their bodies, would experience a more severe decline associated with aging. The data shows that assumption to be wrong. Recent research shows in terms of durability and WAR, catchers age pretty well through their early-30s (Travis Sawchik). The graph below shows how games played declines as catchers move through their early 30s. Catchers were considerably more durable until age 34 in the PED era (red line), but in the post-PED era (blue line) they don’t show the same rapid decline in playing time.

Durability

Travis Sawchik, Pittsburgh Tribune

Data plotting WAR against age shows a similar pattern.

CatcherWAR

Travis Sawchik, Pittsburgh Tribune

Yes, the aging curve now starts at a lower average level — we’ve documented the decline in hitting overall over the past few years — but the rate of decline stays relatively flat through the players’ early 30s (Cameron).

aging(1)

Max Marchi, Baseball Prospectus

Certain defensive skills for catchers, like pitch framing, do not decrease as they age. A few, in fact, enhance their framing skills over time (Marchi).

If the Reds were to extend Mesoraco for two or three years beyond his arbitration years — in other words, buy out 2-3 years of his free agency — the data shows the club would have little reason to fear a sudden decline over that period of time. Devin Mesoraco stands a pretty good chance of being close to the same player at age 32 as he is at age 29.

Conclusion

There’s no real urgent need to negotiate with either Todd Frazier or Devin Mesoraco. The good news is they are under team control for three more seasons. The front office could decide to watch both players perform in 2015 and wait until next offseason to deal. But if the organization chooses to delay a year and Frazier and/or Mesoraco duplicate their 2014 success in 2015, the signing price jumps up relative to negotiating now.

The Reds should negotiate Todd Frazier’s salary for his three arbitration seasons, but no more. That would give the club cost certainty. To gain security, Frazier would offer a small discount relative to what he’d expect to receive in arbitration. The Reds could float the idea of one or two years beyond that, only as a team option, not a guarantee. But it’s hard to imagine Frazier agreeing to a contract that extends one or two years into his free agency. He won’t want to risk waiting until age 34 to cash-in. Rather, in 2018, at age 32, he’ll sign a big, long-term contract with a team willing to pay him for his past. The Reds should not be that team.

Devin Mesoraco is an entirely different case. This offseason, the Reds should sign him to a five or six-year contract, buying out with a guarantee his first two or three years of free agency. If Mesoraco signed a six year agreement (a three-year extension), he would be just 31 years old at the end of the deal. Beyond that term, it would make sense for both sides if the extension had a team option for the sixth or seventh year. Mesoraco would still be plenty young to sign another lucrative multi-year contract after that.

For both Frazier and Mesoraco, the Reds should be willing to say good-bye as the player reaches the age 31-32. That’s not to say either player won’t be productive past that. But guaranteeing money for several seasons beyond that timeframe is a risk the club shouldn’t take this winter. Pay for what the player is going to do, not what he’s already done.

27 Responses

  1. droomac

    Extending Mesoraco seems like a no-brainer. I like the notion of buying two years of free agency from him. The caveat, however, is that there will be a “plan b” in the event that some injury (or defensive issues) prevent him from being able to continue to catch. In the AL, the alternative is simple, he DH’s. For the Reds, this is a bit tricky. After all, if he cannot catch, he is also unlikely to be serviceable as an outfielder. Of course, Joey is locked up through the next two presidential administrations, leaving 1B out as a viable everyday position as well. So, the recourse may be a trade in the event that something prevents him from being able to catch. This is an easy play a few years down the road, as long as he is still hitting.

    With Frazier, I believe you are spot-on. He is presently at his peak and the value is in the combination of production and salary.

  2. Grand Salami

    Considering the the relatively muted decline by the time an extension of Devin would be set to end. It would be nice to see a well developed option on the contract as well!

    • GomerPyle

      MY take on the lack of decline for C relative to others is that catchers rarely have as high an offensive peak, hence less room to fall off. This makes sense as catchers are behind others in hitting development given the demands of catching. OR in the Dusty Baker sense (that catchers are there to catch, not hit).

  3. lwblogger2

    I am really impressed with the data points you use in articles like this. Even when I don’t agree with you, it can’t be said you don’t do your homework. In this particular case, I think I’m in agreement with what you’re saying. I think the better long-term bet is certainly Mesoraco and that an extension should cover at least 1 year of FA if possible. I’m not sure that the extension should be done this year though. I love Mesoraco’s tools but he’s only shown me one really strong season. Frazier on the other hand has shown me a couple good seasons.

    What I’d do is try to sign Frazier to a deal buying out his 3 arb years and offer a mutual option for one of his FA years. For Mesoraco, I’d like to see a solid 2015 and then I’d try to buy out his last 2 arb years and 2-3 FA years if he’d be willing. Yes, you’d have to pay more for Mes if he has another year like 2015 but I’d feel there would be less risk if he’d show me one more good year. Of course the Reds drafted him in the 1st round. They made room for him as the starting catcher this year. They obviously believe in him. It wouldn’t shock me if they moved just like you advise and make a solid offer of an extension for him.

    • RedsFaninPitt

      I would be all for extending Mesoraco for another reason not mentioned and that is the Reds do not have a clear ‘plan b’ to replace his plate production as a catcher in their farm system. Barnhart may be a good (maybe even better) defensive catcher than Mez, but he is never going to be able to produce like Mez with the bat. Related to all of this, is that I believe the Reds have a solid ‘plan b’ at 3B (perhaps even better player) in Seth Meijas Brean who may be MLB ready by the end of 2015. If he ups his slugging a little and continues to show great plate discipline and solid defense, I could see a trade involving Frazier helping the Reds fill other holes after 2016. Small market teams have to be careful to not lock up players long-term who block other much cheaper players who are equally good or potentially even better.

      • lwblogger2

        I agree with you about not many options for C in the pipeline. Barnhart is a fantastic defensive catcher, much better than Mes, who isn’t as bad defensively as some folks seem to think around here. Like you said though, Barnhart is challenged with the stick and his body type also worries me for 120 games behind the plate a year. I think he projects better as that MLB backup catcher that all pitchers like working with.

        I think Meijas Brean still has a lot he needs to show but he seems like he’s going to be a very good player.

      • GomerPyle

        I will submit that we may have seen Mesoraco’s best season this year already. That being said, he was so good that a slight decline is no problem at all. I guess I am just pointing out that signing Mes based on this seasons numbers will be inflated and we need to factor in his first 2 seasons. It all just depends on the numbers.

  4. tct

    Good stuff, Steve and I agree with the conclusions. One thing I would add is about team control. You said that teams control a player for six years. I’m sure you know this, but that is not exactly accurate. Teams control a guy for at least six years, but if they manipulate service team they can get a big chunk of a seventh year. This may sound like semantics, but that extra year can be a big deal.

    The rule is that you have to have at least six years service time at the end of a season to qualify for free agency. If you have five and a half years at the end of a year, you have to wait til next year to be a free agent at which point you will have given your team six and a half years. This is why big time prospects shouldn’t start the season in the majors, unless they are much better than the player they would be replacing.

    A real world example would be Mesoraco. The reds started the 2012 year with him on the roster, even though he was essentially the backup. Had they gone with Navarro as the backup for two months, and then called Devin up in June, he would now have four years of team control left instead of three. He also wouldn’t be arb eligible yet which would save the reds a few million this year. This, among other reasons, is why I have been so against the people who think Winker should be the opening day left fielder if he has a good spring.

  5. Lars Benders

    Two points:
    1) The Zimmerman graph above is sobering. Going by that alone, it would not be a good idea to extend anyone beyond age 28 or 29. This is problematic for the Reds as it seems to me (anectodal evidence only) that the Reds tend to initially call up players who are older. Is there that long of a learning curve to reach the major leagues? Why does it take so long? Can’t some of these guys be fast-tracked to the majors? The last substantial counterexample I can think of is Jay Bruce. And he turned out alright. So I guess I’m second-guessing the seeming policy of the Reds to give guys “more time to mature”. Let’s see; Baumgarner just turned 25 and already has an impressive and substantial career. Obviously, he is an exception, but where are the 22 year old Reds that are ready for the majors?
    2) I suggest caution with all of the recent off-season contract status talk. Most of the comments I have read recently advocate for big contracts for players coming off of good years (Cueto, Mesoraco, Frazier, etal). Remember this time last year? Nobody talked about extending Cueto then because he was injury prone. And folks thought Latos should be locked up longterm because he was young and coming off a great year. Now, Latos and Cueto are flipped in the conversation. And Meso is a guaranteed future all-star because of one excellent year so sign him to a longterm deal? Not to mention: Votto’s 200 million contract was nearly a direct result of one MVP year, and we are seeing how that turns out. So I think alot of these knee-jerk reactions to contract status need to be tempered and put into perspective. In fact, using Zimmerman’s data, perhaps the Reds should avoid signing anybody longterm. Just bring up the young guys, let them learn and improve and at least get something out of them in their peak years (age 20-26 or so). And why not? The Rays, A’s and others have had success dabbling in this method. Are we 2-4 years away from seeing Stephenson, Winker and Lorenzen? And if so, why? They are just wasting their prime years in the minors.

    • Michael Smith

      Cueto was in the Majors by 22, Bailey was 21, and Leake was 22.

      • redmountain

        And how old is Hamilton? There are several young pitchers who will probably make the majors in their early 20s.

  6. al

    Great read.

    The changing nature of contract extensions is one of the most interesting aspects of the front office game these days. Ten or twenty years ago extending your own players was a great way to save money, especially when PEDs were keeping guys valuable for a lot longer.

    Now players know what they can get in free agency, and you’re not seeing a lot of discounts in extensions (look at Votto, Bailey, or Freeman). Combined with that, you have the aging curves posted above, that show it’s not a great idea to be dolling out big money for players over 32 or 33.

    I think the new thing we’re going to see more and more of is what the Astros did with their first base prospect Singleton. Before he even played a game in the majors, he signed a 5 year $10mil deal, with club options for $2.5, $5, and $13mil. Assuming they turn down the last one, they’ll get 7 years for $17.5 mil, or about $2.5 mil per year.

    Obviously, if Singleton turns into a league average player (or better) this contract is going to be a gigantic win for the Astros. The tradeoff is that teams get 3 years of league minimum payments to evaluate their players before arbitration, and the Astros gave that up. If Singleton is a bust, they’ll have to pay him $10mil no matter what, instead of $1mil or less.

    I think deals like that are the wave of the future. Imagine if Winker spends another year and a half in the minors and keeps his .900 or so OPS. He’d be 22. What if the Reds gave him a 10 year $20mil deal?

    • HELLSBELLS

      I would sign Winker for 6 years and 20 million, but only because that is well below market and I am fairly sure Winker will be good. Remenber, these deals fo not always work out. The Pirates are paying 7 million for the last 2 years of Tabata to not even play for them. So that was not savings.

  7. BJ Ruble (@brublejr)

    Great piece. I am a huge Frazier fan, but there is no reason to extend him. Mesoraco is worth a wait and see, mostly after this year. If he has another big year, then it would be worthy of extending him. If not, you still have him locked up through arbitration and you won’t be out a whole lot of years.

    • Dale Pearl

      Spot on sir. The Reds would be foolish to make a move right now. Just about anyone can have one good year and I for one would like to see another solid year from Mesoraco before giving him the bank. Frazier…. he is going to be to old to sign on a long term conract.

  8. HELLSBELLS

    UPDATE: Reds buy out Jack Hannihan for 2 mil. I guess we no longer have “jack for that.” Now, we just have “jack” for the 2 million.

    • lwblogger2

      They essentially just paid out $2-million for a roster spot on the 40-man and a roster spot on the 25-man. Buying out Ludwick will be doing the same thing but at over twice the price. Those buy out amounts were high. Half of what a guy earns as a buyout? Rough.

    • Dale Pearl

      and hopefully we don’t have to hear that silly slogan. Talk about beating a dead horse.

  9. Steve Schoenbaechler

    Like with anything, it all depends upon the money. Like with Frazier, if the extension is for $60 million per, then no way do I sign that. But, if it was for $2 million per, then I sign that everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.

    So, for the sake of discussion, taking that out of consideration, I do extend Frazier and wait on Devin for at least AS break if not the end of next season. Breaking point with me? Many of us questioned if Frazier’s rookie year was fluke or not, especially after his sophomore season. After this past season, he proved it wasn’t a fluke. Would I expect him to have all great seasons like last season? Nope. But, do I expect him to have seasons like 2013? Nope. I would extend him.

    However, for Devin, you can’t really count his first two seasons in the league under Baker. This past season Devin was in an entirely different role for him, being the first string catcher. For me “as the extender of contracts”, I see this past season as Devin’s rookie season. So, I want to see of this past season was a fluke or not. He could have very well surprised a bunch of teams this season. What happens when they get a hold of the scouting reports and videos, determining how to get him out? You can’t tell. You can go through all the numbers you want; they are all based on his past performance and other’s past performance. None of that has to do with how the teams are going to adjust to Devin and if they will be successful at doing it. Will Devin be able to adjust back and have a season next year like he had this past season?

  10. Dale Pearl

    To me it is simple. Resign Mesoraco because it is difficult to find good hitting catchers. Let Frazier walk because of his age and third base is also an easy position to fill.

  11. redmountain

    As far as the next catching prospect may have just signed with the Reds out of Australia. He is 16 and he is playing in their “major league” winter league. Yeah it is not major league, but if he is that good, maybe he could grow up to be a good major leaguer. Of course. Votto signed as a catcher as well.

  12. redsfan06

    I just don’t think Walt has done all that well in his recent long term signings (Votto, Phillips, Bailey). I would wait another year before thinking about extending either Frazier or Mes. and see how all the soon to be free agent starting pitching works itself out.

    Steve, these were great charts you put together. Do you have similar for starting pitchers?

  13. chezpayton

    Any word on wheather or not Eric Gagne is coming out of retirement to play first base?

    • lwblogger2

      Mr. Gagne says you must have him confused with some guy named Sean Casey.

      • chezpayton

        No that can’t be right. The Gagne I know would gladly take the job.

  14. WVRedlegs

    Excellent work Steve. The game is changing and an astute front office has to be on the cusp of those changes. As much as I like Frazier, I don’t think he is an extension candidate. Mesoraco should be though.
    To combine this article with the 3 trade target articles, I’d say that the best trade targets then probably would be Miami OF Christian Yelich or Braves OF Jason Heyward.

  15. Joey

    I think the reds should give Mez a good extension to let him get into a comfortable position with the Reds. He showed the past couple years what he can do at the plate. Now all he has the do is improve behind the plate. But still an overall great catcher in my opinion.