Within the last four years, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Evan White, and Scott Kingery all signed their first multi-year Major League contracts before even debuting in the Show, as clubs began to increasingly explore the idea of the “pre-career” extension. The logic is simple — if a team thinks it has a can’t-miss prospect, signing that prospect to an extension before his service clock begins can give the team both cost-certainty over the player’s arbitration years, as well as control over at least a few free agent years via club options.
Robert’s six-year, $50MM pact with the White Sox (that could be an eight-year, $88MM deal if Chicago exercises a pair of club options) in January 2020 represents the high-water mark for pre-career deals, yet it is worth noting that the Astros were something of a pioneer with this tactic. Jon Singleton signed a five-year, $10MM contract in June 2014 before playing his first MLB game, and Houston also notably explored such a contract with George Springer prior to the future All-Star’s big league debut. This period overlaps with Mike Elias’ time (2012-18) in the Astros’ front office, and now that Elias has since moved on to run his own team as the Orioles’ executive VP and general manager, it is worth wondering if Elias might attempt locking up his own blue-chip prospect.
Adley Rutschman is widely expected to not only make his MLB debut in 2022, but also get the bulk of playing time as Baltimore’s starting catcher. Jacob Nottingham and Anthony Bemboom were recently signed to minors deals to provide at least some Major League experience in the team’s catching ranks, but either will just be a placeholder until Rutschman gets the call to the big leagues. Whether this debut happens on Opening Day or a few weeks into April may hinge on whether or not the service-time manipulation issue is addressed in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, but an extension for Rutschman would make that question moot, and guarantee that Baltimore fans will get to see Rutschman as soon as possible.
The first overall pick of the 2019 draft, Rutschman has done nothing but reinforce that pedigree during his brief pro career. Rutschman already received two promotions up the ladder (to A-ball) in his first season in 2019, and after working out at the Orioles’ alternate training site in 2020 due to the canceled minor league season, he tore up the farm system in 2021. The catcher hit .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs over 543 combined plate appearances with Double-A Bowie (358 PA) and Triple-A Norfolk (185 PA).
An argument can be made that Rutschman could use a bit more seasoning at the Triple-A level, particularly since he’ll be taking over a position that requires so much extra work in terms of pregame preparation and working with pitchers. However, as noted in Baseball America’s scouting report, Rutschman may be a bit ahead of the curve in this respect, due to his time spent with veteran pitchers, catchers, and Major League coaches at the 2020 alternate training site. Plus, Rutschman was already seen as a strong defender even in his college days at Oregon State, and BA now gives him a strong 60 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale (to go along with an eye-popping three 70 grades in hitting, power, and throwing arm.) Both BA and MLB Pipeline rate Rutschman as the best prospect in all of baseball.
In short, Rutschman seems like the kind of cornerstone prospect that any team would covet, especially an Orioles club that has been grinding through a top-to-bottom rebuild during Elias’ entire tenure. The O’s already see Rutschman as the next face of the franchise, and an extension would only cement that status. Given that the Orioles have almost literally no money on the books beyond the 2022 season, there’s plenty of payroll space to commit to a hefty contract for the burgeoning star.
For Rutschman and other star prospects presented with pre-career extensions, the question is simple. Does the player feel comfortable in taking a big payday now and locking in at least one eight-figure fortune from his baseball career, or does the player feel like betting on himself to perform as expected in the majors? The latter route carries more risk, but potentially sets the player up for even more money down the road, either through rising arbitration salaries, bigger free agent money once he hits the open market, or even a later extension with his current team.
From a pure dollars perspective, Rutschman has already achieved some solid financial security, via his $8.1MM signing bonus from the draft. This isn’t necessarily an indicator that he would be less open to an extension — Robert, for instance, already had a $26MM international signing bonus in the bank prior to his extension with the White Sox.
The added wrinkle in this case is Rutschman’s position. No catcher has ever signed a pre-career extension — expanding the list to players with less than a year of service time, the Royals’ February 2012 deal with Salvador Perez represents the earliest pact ever given to a backstop. Needless to say, Rutschman won’t be signing for a contract similar to Perez’s five years and $7MM in guaranteed money, though Perez did end up doing much better in two subsequent extensions with Kansas City.
Rutschman is enough of a top-tier prospect that the Orioles probably won’t have much concern over guaranteeing a big long-term deal to a catcher. From Rutschman’s perspective, taking a big contract now might have some appeal as a hedge against potential injury, simply because catchers inevitably receive so much wear and tear (even if the DH or a potential move to first base down the road can help). Plus, unless the next CBA adjusts when players are eligible to reach free agency, it will be quite some time before Rutschman can hit the open market. He turns 24 in February, so if his debut is indeed pushed off to mid-April for service-time reasons, Rutschman won’t be scheduled for free agency until he is entering his age-31 season.
So while there are some valid reasons why Rutschman might be open to an extension early in his career, that doesn’t necessarily mean he would take a deal before his career gets underway. It can be assumed that a Rutschman extension would top Robert’s record, and yet Rutschman might have eyes on a bigger target — such as the 11-year, $182MM deal Wander Franco just signed with the Rays in November.
Since Joe Mauer is the only catcher to sign a deal worth more than $182MM, Rutschman won’t top Franco’s number. Plus, Franco is both younger (turning 21 in March) and plays shortstop, so he is more of a safer long-term play for an extension, even for a lower-payroll club like the Rays. However, while Rutschman and his representatives likely wouldn’t be aiming to top Franco’s contract, the deal does serve as a reminder of the greater riches that can await a star prospect if he exhibits even some of that early promise at the MLB level. While no reports surfaced whether or not Tampa explored a pre-career extension with Franco, had he inked such a contract, it would have been worth much less than his eventual $182MM guarantee.
Obviously, matching Franco’s excellent 2021 performance is no small feat for any player, especially a rookie like Rutschman. But, just staying on the field and performing pretty well in 2022 would represent a nice showcase for Rutschman, and give the Orioles even more confidence in committing a major sum closer to the $100MM mark than simply a bump over Robert’s $50MM pact with the White Sox.
Given Rutschman’s status as an elite prospect, it is quite possible an extension akin to Robert’s deal could be on the table next winter anyway even if he doesn’t quite hit the “performing pretty well” threshold. Barring a major injury or an unusual amount of struggles at the MLB level, the Orioles would likely still have interest in extending Rutschman prior to his sophomore year, considering all of his widely-touted potential.
A Rutschman extension would also have no small amount of symbolic value for the franchise. Simply promoting Rutschman might have that same galvanizing effect on the long-suffering Baltimore fans, so Elias and the front office don’t necessarily need to rush into things just yet. However, officially planting the financial flag on a new era of Orioles baseball would set a clear direction that the rebuild is almost over, and the organization will again start spending and looking to play some competitive baseball.