Smart money is on Polanco … and approaching elite talents early


SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have fallen out of the gate, but you can applaud their off-the-field strategy of aggressively targeting young, core players to lock up to long-term deals. Earlier this offseason I wrote and about how teams should – and might have to be – more aggressive in locking  up young players as free agency and arbitration salaries continue to soar, lessening the incentive for players to sign long-term deals early in their careers, particularly as they draw closer to arbitration and free agency.

And the Pirates were as aggressive as any team in baseball history in offering a contract to Gregory Polanco.

As you have probably heard by now and was first reported by Yahoo!, the Pirates offered Polanco a 7-year, $25-million deal, which reported included three options years that could have pushed the deal to a 10 years and near $60 million.

Had Polanco accepted the terms, it would have been the earliest any player was signed to a long-term deal in MLB history. (The Houston Astros offered a deal like Polanco’s to George Springer, which was also rejected earlier this spring. The are the two most aggressive known contract offers made to players with zero days of service time in MLB history.)

Evan Longoria signed a six-year deal with three club options nine days into his Major League career, but I can’t recall any player signing such a long-term deal before arriving at the major leagues.

(Side note: I guess Polanco is ready for the majors after all. Had he signed the deal, he’s not in Indy.)

Big picture: this is the most leverage the Pirates will ever have with Polanco. His major league service time has not begun. He did not sign for millions of dollars as a first-round pick, he signed out of the Dominican for $150,000 five years ago. Such a contract would give Polanco and his family security regardless of whether Polanco turns into a star or even stays healthy. For the Pirates, Polanco is a player to bet on. I think he’s third most valuable asset in the organization after Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

More than 100 players on major league rosters have signed extensions as young players, deals that have bought out arbitration years and at least one year of free agency. But because pre-arb dollars are so undervalued, and because such contracts are typically far below eventual market value, John Hart – who pioneered the strategy – told me this winter he thought clubs would no longer be able to wait a couple years into a players’ MLB career to get such deals done. He thought clubs would have to be more aggressive earlier in a players’ careers – or in the case of Springer and Polanco teams are targeting players before their careers begin.

And players are still saying ‘No.’

Still, it’s a smart approach by the clubs. And remember Starling Marte turned down the Pirates’ first overture, so there’s still a chance this gets done. And if it gets done that’s a big deal. The Pirates are trying to lock up what might become the game’s best outfield for the majority of the rest of the decade (McCutchen is under control through 2018) and controlled costs.

This is how small-market teams remain relevant. This is how a small-market team maximizes its dollars spent.