Late last week, with arbitration hearings looming, both Aaron Nola and Luis Severino - the aces of their respective clubs - agreed to contract extensions that are essentially guaranteed to eat into their free-agent eligibility.
In Nola's case, the Philadelphia Phillies will be able to retain their star right-hander's rights through at least one year of eligibility, and two if they pick up the $16-million team option in 2023.
Meanwhile, it's a similar story for Severino, as the New York Yankees will be able to postpone his free agency by one season if they pick up his $15-million team option in 2023.
|Year||Nola salary||Severino salary|
|2023||$16M ($4.25M)||$15M ($2.75M)|
Now that we know the nitty-gritty, let's examine three major takeaways from the pair of extensions.
These deals reflect how free agency has become a scary concept to players, as several of the league's elite - including Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, and Craig Kimbrel - continue to languish in unemployment, with spring games set to start Thursday.
Severino has ostensibly negotiated away his first shot at free agency and elected to hit the open market heading into his age-30 season in 2024. If the Yankees do decide to pay Severino $2.75 million to go away instead of $15 million to suit up for his age-29 season in 2023, that would mean everything has gone wrong for the right-hander.
Nola's contract, which came first and will postpone his free agency for up to two seasons, seems to have been instrumental in Severino's agreement. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that negotiations with the young ace had hit a standstill until the Nola deal gave "us a beacon to follow," according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
In Nola's case, he could make just under $55 million over the next five seasons, postponing his free agency from before his age-29 season to his age-31 season. That's the same age as Keuchel, and one year younger than Jake Arrieta was when he languished in free agency last offseason until March.
Even though the arbitration process isn't the most equitable, it's become a legitimate way for players to seek recompense much nearer to their true value. As weird as it is that Severino and Nola would forfeit early shots at free agency, it's also odd that they would forego arbitration, as players seem to be winning hearings at a pretty impressive rate.
Of the 10 arbitration hearings that have been settled, six of them have gone in favor of the player, including large settlements for Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Correa, and Blake Treinen. In fact, the four players who lost their hearings - Kyle Barraclough, Michael Fulmer, Michael A. Taylor, and Ryan Tepera - have relatively smaller deals.
Even if players don't make it to the arbitration hearing, they're breaking records, like Nolan Arenado did when he signed a $26-million contract for 2019.
Arenado may not be a perfect proxy for Nola and Severino - they are, after all, pitchers - but we can compare their cases to Jacob deGrom. Both Nola and Severino could be in the running for Cy Young awards over the life of their deals, while deGrom is coming off a Cy Young season and is midway through his arbitration process, with one season left.
Qualifying for Super Two status back in 2017, deGrom was eligible for arbitration one year earlier than normal. Here's how his salaries have gone since:
Assuming Severino - who was also eligible for Super Two status this year - gets similar salaries adjusted for inflation, he would easily blow by the $40-million guarantee he signed with the Yankees. Worst case scenario, he would've earned $4.4 million in 2019 if he lost his arbitration hearing, and Severino has been worth more WAR in each of the last two seasons than deGrom produced in 2017, which earned him the $3.4-million raise. It's not a stretch to believe Severino left eight figures on the table.
All of this indicates that players don't want to go to arbitration. As tempting as the payday may be, it's an ugly process.
Severino himself admitted Saturday during the press conference to announce his extension that he wanted to avoid arbitration. "My agents told me they were going to say bad things about me," the flamethrower said, according to Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, adding, "It's not fun." For the Yankees, it can get ugly outside of the hearing as well, as president Randy Levine notably ripped Dellin Betances after the reliever lost his hearing two winters ago.
Even this winter highlighted how ugly the process can get. Following Bauer's arbitration hearing - which the right-hander won - the former first-round pick publicly blasted the Cleveland Indians for "character assassination."
Admittedly, Nola and Severino aren't tied to controversies on social media in the way Bauer has been, but no player wants to hear their employer tell them they're worth anything less than what they believe is fair.
The final wrinkle of these deals might be that players just want the looming battle between the league and players' union off their plates.
The current collective bargaining agreement - a five-year deal signed prior to the 2017 season - is set to expire following the 2021 season. In the event there is a player strike, and a portion or all of the 2022 season is lost, Nola and Severino have guaranteed themselves employment - or at least a small payday if they get their options declined - when baseball resumes in 2023.
If Nola and Severino didn't sign these deals, they could potentially be contending with a free-agent class that is loaded with a significant number of out-of-work players, as the 2022 class and 2023 class of free agents would all be vying for jobs at the same time. Sure, there would be more openings, but players on the wrong side of 30 would have a much smaller chance of guaranteeing themselves work after a full year off.