Last week I talked about the Diamondbacks and the salary difficulties they have looming on the horizon. In the piece I posited that one approach which could be adopted to help offset some of those difficultes would be to start aggressively evaluating the current roster of players in order to find the best candidates for early extension of contracts, the sorts of players that the Diamondbacks could save money on by providing long-term security to in exchange for a discounted rate by buying out arbitration (and possibly even early free agency years) before arbitration even becomes a possibility.
In the world of baseball, where all contracts are guaranteed, there is always risk when signing players to big money, or to multiple years. Extending players before they even reach arbitration eligibility comes with its own set of risks. The inexpensive years of team control come with less cash savings. The sample size of performance tends to be smaller, allowing for greater volatility in player performance versus expectation. Lastly, such contracts tend to be fo a minimum of four or five years, enough to buy out all arbitration years, and possibly a free agent season. When examining the budgets of mid-market teams like the Diamondbacks, this is essentially a long-term contract commitment. Because of the nature of baseball, such contracts tend to be difficult to move should they not work out. After all, if the team is happy with the contract, the player is overperforming expectations, and is therefore kept. However, if the team is unhappy, then it likely means that the player is underperforming the contract, and such players are hard to move should the team need to move on from a bad signing.
These dangers likely explain part of why the Diamondbacks have never been terribly aggressive about early extensions. Another reason could simply be because the team has had few talents over the years truly worth considering for such a contract extension. Keeping all of this in mind, the first candidate being examined is Jake Lamb.
The Case For:
For years now, third base has been a veritable black hole of suck. Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury are trying to change that. Coming up through the minors, Lamb displayed plus defense and a bat with pop. Unlike most of the Diamondbacks’ hitting prospects, Lamb also demonstrated the ability to take a walk. The fact that Lamb also bats left-handed is a plus for this squad. With Ender Inciarte traded last offseason, the Diamondbacks went from thin to laughably undermanned from the left-handed batter’s box. The fact that Lamb can be slotted between Goldschmidt and Castillo or Tomás is not a small thing, especially given how much time David Peralta has missed over the last two seasons.
While being the NL RBI leader at the all-star break is largely a matter of luck and team performance, what being such a player showed is that Jake Lamb is very capable of being a run-producing bat in the heart of the order to help complement Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, and potentially David Peralta.
With a .291/.371/.616 triple slash to go with 61 RBI before the break, Jake Lamb was a potential all-star. Given that the expectation is that he will only improve with practice and exposure, ther is plenty of reason to be bullish that Lamb could be a corenerstone contributor moving forward. Should he begin displaying the defense he was known to have in the minors, he could potentially function as a mirror of Paul Goldschmidt across the diamond.
The Case Against:
Jake Lamb’s performance since the break has not done anything to inspire confidence in his bat. Furthermore, Lamb’s defense at third base has been marginal to say the least. As good as he was in the first half, he has been almost equally bad since the end of July. This sort of wild swing in performance makes it dufficult to bank on a player over a five to six year span. Furthermore, Jake Lamb still does not become arbitration eligible until 2018, so there is still at least one more season of league minimum that the team controls him for. Though Lamb still shows flashes of being the player he was early, his strikeouts have sky-rocketed and his slugging has fallen off to the point of mediocrity.
If a team is going to commit early and substantially to a young player before it needs to, expecting performance consistency is hardly asking too much.
Without actually sitting down and talking to Lamb’s representatives at CAA Sports, it is impossible to know what sort of financial future or domestic situation Jake Lamb is interested in or expecting. However, a 6 year/$53 million contract with the possibility of various options attached to the end seems fairly reasonable, with Lamb making modest salaries over the course of what would be his arbitration years, but then getting a solid bump for the final two seasons.
The issue is Lamb’s inconsistency. Waiting another season to see how he rebounds in 2017 is almost certainly the best possible move at this point. The problem with going that route is if he rebounds the way everyone is hoping, a contract like the one suggested above is going to fall far short of the mark. This is the season where the Diamondbacks are going to have the ability to get the team-friendly deal of the century if they are going to get one at all.
Sometimes, the best move is to pay a bit more later for surety. Waiting an extra season, or even until the break next year, may cost the Diamondbacks more in the long run, but should protect the team from a making a potentially big mistake. If Lamb rebounds, he will be one to lock up quickly. If he continues to flounder, he still has value as a year-to-year placeholder until Drury displaces him or the Diamondbacks develop another third baseman.
Next week - Robbie Ray