Last week Mike Axisa for CBSSports.com detailed that the Tampa Bay Rays have had discussions with left-handed pitcher Blake Snell about signing a long-term contract with the team. It’s not out of the ordinary for teams to try and lock up young, promising players for multiple years. What is interesting in this case is that Snell has not thrown a pitch at the major league level. While such a signing would be almost unprecedented, it made me think that perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirates should consider approaching Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon about signing a long-term deal prior to advancing to the major leagues.
A multi-year contract for a player who has never played in the majors certainly has it’s risks and rewards for both sides. For the player, he is giving up the potential to make even more money down the line but he is also guaranteeing himself enough money to take care of himself, his kids, his grand-kids, and maybe even his grand-kid’s grand-kids. For the team, they are gambling that the guaranteed money given to this young player will be well spent and he’ll blossom into a star with a team-friendly contract.
Sure, there is always a chance that the player will not be as productive as the team projected, but it’s a risk that a savvy team like the Rays or Pirates should be willing to take. Neither team has shown a willingness to spend a lot of money on pitchers on the free agent market, so this is another avenue they can take towards locking up promising players without completely breaking the bank.
Unfortunately, we do not have many cases to look at to get an idea of what Glasnow or Taillon would cost at this point of their career; in fact, we only have one. The Houston Astros signed Jon Singleton to a five-year, $10 million contract with three team options prior to his arrival to the big leagues in 2014. Singleton has been a huge letdown so far in his career. In 357 major league at-bats, he has slashed .171/.290/.331 with just 14 HRs and a horrendous 151 strikeouts. Clearly Singleton has time to turn things around, but right now the contract is favoring the player and not the team.
The Pirates did attempt such a deal with one of their own in 2014. The team approached Gregory Polanco with a deal that was for eight years with three team options that could have paid him somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million. Polanco’s performance over the last two years has been underwhelming, and one has to wonder if he regrets turning down so much guaranteed money. There is still a window open for Polanco and the team to work out a deal to keep him in Pittsburgh for years past what the team already controls him for, but he’ll need to improve on his 2015 season for the team to be willing to commit many years and millions of dollars to him.
While Tampa Bay has not successfully signed a player long-term prior to his major league debut, they have signed players in the past who only had a week or two of service time. Both Evan Longoria (six years, $17.5 million in 2008) and Matt Moore (five years, $14 million in 2012) were signed very early on in their careers. Longoria eventually signed a monster extension to keep him in Tampa Bay well past 2023 and has played fairly consistently for the club, while Moore pitched very well for a few seasons before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in early 2015. Tampa Bay’s experience with giving contracts to players with hardly any experience shows the rewards and the risks of such an offer.
Now let’s take a look at the three minor league pitchers we are discussing:
Blake Snell, 23, LHP
#14 overall prospect heading into 2016, Rays #1 overall
#2 LHP prospect overall
2015: 15-4, 1.41 ERA. 134.0 innings, 163/53 K/BB
Four starts at A+, 12 at AA, nine at AAA
Snell put up much better numbers in 2015 than he did in 2014, and this was while he was rising in the ranks of Tampa Bay’s system. He pitched more innings and saw his K/9 go from 9.3 to 10.9 while dropping his BB/9 from 4.4 to 3.6.
Tyler Glasnow, 22, RHP
#10 overall prospect heading into 2016, Pirates #1 overall
#2 RHP prospect overall
2015: 7-5, 2.39 ERA. 109.1 innings, 136/43 K/BB
Two starts at A-, 12 at AA, eight at AAA
The big righty is the most anticipated pitcher for Pittsburgh since Gerrit Cole, and with good reason. His K/9 last season was 11.2 across the three levels and while his BB/9 at Indianapolis was high (4.8) for 2015 it was 3.5 overall, which was much lower than in previous seasons. Pairing him with Cole would give the Pirates an unbelievable 1-2 punch for years to come.
Jameson Taillon, 24, RHP
#54 overall prospect heading into 2016
DNP in 2014-2015
2013: 5-10, 3.73 ERA, 147.1 innings, 143/52 K/BB
20 at AA, six at AAA
The fact that Taillon is ranked the 54th best prospect in the game and has missed the past two seasons due to injuries speaks to his talent. Because he has lost so much time, the Pirates will probably handle him carefully. They’ll want to see that he is ready for a full season’s worth of innings before pushing him too hard.
Other than the fact that they pitch with opposite hands, Snell and Glasnow are fairly similar. They both are their team’s top prospect, ranked second overall in their handedness and both strike out way more batters than innings pitched. They both also saw almost the same number of starts at AA and AAA. Because of this, Glasnow is probably less likely to sign such a deal. He is young and has a very high ceiling, and might want to bet on himself.
Of the two, I think that Taillon may be more open to such a deal. He was drafted back in 2010 and has still not reached the majors due to various injuries. Because of the lost time and injuries, he may be more inclined to take the guaranteed money. Taillon’s arsenal is something the team should take a chance on, even considering his injury history.
The details of the discussions between Snell and Tampa Bay have not been made public at this time, so we can only speculate what may have been offered. But if we take a look the deals that Singleton, Longoria, and Moore signed either before or right after their call-up, the average cost per year is somewhere between $2-2.9 million a year.
Starting pitching is the most valuable commodity in the game, so locking up a young, promising pitcher before he even reaches the majors is not going to come cheap, even compared to the deal Moore received in 2012. The Pirates will no doubt want to get at least one year of the player’s free agent years, so any deal will probably cover seven years. With that in mind, a deal for that many years for $25-30 million, with the annual salary gradually rising, may be considered by Glasnow or Taillon.
Another reason that the Pirates should consider approaching these two pitchers is the recent kerfuffle with Cole’s 2016 contract. Most teams don’t react too kindly to players speaking out to the media the way he did, and considering that his agent is Scott Boras, he’ll most likely be looking for greener pastures when he is no longer under control by the Pirates.
Approaching either or both of these players with such a deal would certainly make waves since it’s so unprecedented. But it’s something that a team like the Pirates, who do not chase the high-end free agent pitchers, should consider. While there is a certain amount of risk in such a deal with a pitcher who has not worked at the MLB level, the reward of what he could do on the mound for years to come might outweigh that risk. It’s certainly something to consider.