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We’ve been talking a lot about extensions lately, but, well, extensions keep happening. Ozzie Albies is the latest to sign one, and it’s a doozy: it’s basically the culmination of everything MLB has worked for in terms of suppressing potential outlets for earnings, funneling players into one specific direction that benefits teams more than anyone else.
Jeff Passan reported that agents, scouts, and even team executives think Albies’ seven-year extension worth $35 million guaranteed, that jumps to nine-years and $45 million should his options be picked up, could be “the worst contract ever for a player.” Michael Baumann wrote an article in response to that for The Ringer that does not discredit the notion that Albies and his agent put pen to an awful piece of paper. Craig Goldstein tweeted a thread on how Albies’ deal is a reminder that teams are acting like insurance companies, and if you know anything about myself or Craig, no, that is not a compliment.
I agree with the above, but they’ve already done that work, so let’s shift focus a bit: yes, this is one of the worst, if not the worst, contracts signed by a player in the post-reserve-clause era. It’s also a deal that makes a lot of sense for Ozzie Albies, despite him being a 22-year-old in line to be a highly productive player for years, because of the environment he’s lived in and now works in.
Albies told The Athletic’s David O’Brien that he signed this deal because he wants his “family to be safe.” That’s an understandable position to be in, and I certainly don’t begrudge Albies taking guaranteed money — real life-changing money — the first time it’s offered to him. The reason this money looks so attractive to Albies and so confounding to everyone outside of his event horizon, though, is that very thing: this is the first time life-changing money has been offered to Albies, even though he’s been in professional baseball since he was signed as an international free agent back in July of 2013.
He received a $350,000 signing bonus in 2013, which is obviously not chump change, but is also a relative pittance in comparison to what was allowed just a couple of years before. Before 2012, MLB teams could spend anything they wanted on international free agents, but beginning with the collective bargaining agreement that went into effect that year, there were caps and bonus pools to work within, with severe penalties for overages that capped future spending and limited the quality of free agents that could be signed in following signing periods. The market then shifted to finding prospects teams could underpay relative to their potential, like Albies, like teammate and fellow extension recipient, Ronald Acuña. So, whereas under 2011 rules teams might have bid separately and heavily on Albies and his potential, in 2013, most teams were working within a much narrower band of potential offers, which helps drive down the market and its costs for everyone.
Albies didn’t get a massive payday then, and the $350,000 had to be stretched for years after, because minor-league players earn poverty-level wages, and only during the regular season. They are responsible for their own housing, equipment, and far too many meals if they want to eat something besides food from a Dollar Menu. Albies was signed in 2013, and didn’t become a full-time big-league player until 2018, meaning he was living that life and partially off of that signing bonus for nearly five years. While the league-minimum MLB salary he earned in 2018 is higher than the signing bonus he received back in 2013, it’s also not the kind of money that changes a player’s life forever, either: while Albies’ present was secured by reaching the majors, his future was not.
He’s not the first player to be underpaid upon the transition from amateur to pro, nor is he alone in his minor-league suffering. He is, however, part of a newer generation of ballplayers who are seeing teams fight back harder and more unified against arbitration. He’s seeing a future where free agency isn’t a viable option at all unless you’re one of the elite, like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. As Baumann pointed out, only Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez have managed to sign nine-figure deals in free agency the last three offseasons after turning 30. Albies is living in a present where his teammate, Ronald Acuña, who could very well be an elite player like Harper or Machado thrust into free agency in his 20s, decided instead to sign away the indecision and uncertainty for well below his potential value, rather than betting on himself. Albies is living in a present where veteran and Braves’ clubhouse leader Nick Markakis signed an awful, below-market free agent deal for a productive all-star from 2018, and then went to the press to talk about how it’s okay, he’s just playing a kid’s game, anyway.
Albies is a product of his environment in many ways, but it’s an environment shaped by the behaviors of the people who pay him, who have a vested interest in making sure they’re paying him as little as they can get away with. You might think, “Well hey, now the Braves have more money to invest in the team, and are in a better position to win!” Are they? Will they? Who are they going to sign, amid a flurry of extensions that are taking everyone of note except for Mookie Betts away from free agency? Look around: all of the future free agents that would be interesting are locking up the rest of their 20s on absurdly team-friendly deals so that they don’t have to deal with the horrors of free agency until they’re already comfortable financially. By the time they’re free, teams aren’t going to want their ancient asses, anyway.
This is all leaving aside, too, that the Braves have plenty of money to spend even if they went year-to-year with Acuña and Albies in arbitration, and came away spending far more on each than they will now have to. The Braves won the NL East in 2018, made $442 million in revenue in the process, and then dropped their payroll for 2019, anyway, even with useful free agents like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel still out there even now looking for work. The Braves are using that leftover money on real estate ventures, not the Braves themselves, even though the Braves are the reason there is money for real estate in the first place. Atlanta has a front office executive whose entire job is this kind of development, listed on the team’s own official website. They are telling you who they are and what they are doing, and brazenly so.
Albies and Acuña got the present-day security they craved and needed following a winnowing of the alternatives. It’s generally not financially sound to bet on yourself in baseball these days, but players giving in en masse to these extensions will inevitably lead to even less money going to them, because their widespread acceptance will mean teams have successfully swept every other option off of the table. And when left with just the extension model to be paid by, you can guarantee that teams will stop being as generous as they’ve been in that arena, too.