The Fernando Tatis Jr. extension feels wrong, but that’s what’s great about it

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The Padres signed young star Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $340 million extension this week, and it is a fascinating deal on a number of levels. For one, Mookie Betts, who, as one of the absolute best players in the game, would have been the jewel of this winter’s free agent class, inked a 12-year, $365 million contract extension with the Dodgers just last season. Tatis, on the other hand, has a single season’s worth of MLB games under his belt, and will be just 22 years old during the 2021 campaign. And yet, they have two very similar deals despite the major difference in service time and experience, with only Mike Trout’s 12-year, $430 million deal topping what these two will earn.

It feels inherently wrong for Tatis to have already pulled in that kind of guaranteed money, given the gap between the two in terms of proving that they’re worth that kind of pay day. Feeling wrong and being wrong are two different things, though: we’re just used to a system that holds off on paying players for as long as possible, in the hopes of coming up with an excuse to never have to pay them fairly for their production at all. (You know, like when the Red Sox traded Betts away in a salary dump so that paying him in line with his production could be someone else’s problem.) Guaranteeing Tatis Jr. a huge salary now, before he’s performed in such a way that would normally mean he has “proven” he’s worth that salary, is simply paying him for what he is still going to do. It’s paying a player for their expected future production, which is how free agency is supposed to work.

Normally, when a pre-arbitration player signs a deal, it’s heavily and unequivocally team-friendly and not player-friendly. Sure, it’s good in a vacuum that Ozzie Albies signed a deal with the Braves that guaranteed him $35 million over seven years, because $35 million is a lot of money. In exchange, though, the Braves added two team option years that only pay a total of $10 million on top of those seven, and a nine-year, $45 million deal is not the kind of thing a player of Albies’ caliber should have been comfortable saying yes to. Because of how gutted free agency was/is becoming, though, because of how teams pushed back in arbitration, because of how little money Albies made from his international signing bonus and his time on playing in the minors, though, that $35 million guaranteed looked like a lifeline, and it became difficult to turn down even if Albies was selling himself short on the money he could earn, if he had been in a position to put his talent and potential above the risk. All of the risk ends up absorbed by the player, as the team generally pays what, for them, is a rounding error that will, in the long run as a philosophy, save them millions upon millions upon millions more than they will ever “lose” because of injury or ineffectiveness to an extended player.

As I wrote at the time of Albies’ deal:

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.

Albies and [Ronald] 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.

Tatis’ deal might not trade away any future earnings at all, given that the free agent market for players over 30 is almost entirely dried up: even if he had just locked himself in for nine years, like Albies, he would have been 30 in the first year of his first free agent contract. The Padres didn’t ask Tatis to take money that was going to do him a little bit of good and much more good for them. They didn’t buy out a number of his free agent years with below-market options in exchange for a guaranteed sum that is likely less than what a player like Tatis would have earned through arbitration alone. They paid Tatis the kind of money he would have earned if a 21-year-old of his ability was suddenly and inexplicably available to the entire league, which is not a thing that actual 21-year-old players of immense talent can even manage to agree to thanks to MLB’s continued shrinking of the international signing market, and their longstanding and intense amateur signing rules.

The Padres did not have to sign Tatis the way they did, and given the focus on efficiency and business-minded moves, the conventional wisdom of the day says that they shouldn’t have done this. On the other hand, they just guaranteed that a rising star in the game is staying with them throughout his prime. They signed Manny Machado to a massive deal just a couple of years ago, too, and hell, they listened when Machado told them, during his first spring with the Padres, that this Tatis kid was for real and ready for the bigs right now. In a league where players are seeing more and more how they are treated as replaceable cogs with no real value to most teams beyond their surplus value, something like what the “small-market” Padres are doing is going to be noticed by them, to the likely benefit of San Diego.

They signed Machado while other teams that traditionally spend like the Padres are expected to spend leaked about how it just wasn’t fair that they couldn’t sign a player like Machado in this unbalanced financial world. They signed Tatis to a massive, production-appropriate extension after 143 games in the majors, paying him for what he is expected to do, less than a month after a fellow NL West club sent their own face of the franchise to the Cardinals, and paid $50 million in cash to do it. The Padres are doing this during a time where one of the game’s most significant and influential reporters can pen an article that basically asks, “is it even worth trying if there is no guarantee it will work?” in response to the Tatis extension. And that all kind of rules, that San Diego would just go ahead and do this anyway.

It feels odd that we’re in a position to praise a team for doing the kinds of things teams should just be doing as a matter of course — keeping their players happy and trying to win so that they look like a destination for other players who can help them with both goals — but such is the state of MLB these days.

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