The Texas Rangers earlier today signed ace reliever Jose Leclerc to a 4-year, $14.75 million contract, with two options at $6 million and $6.25 million. Basically, they’ve locked him up through his age-30 season, because those options will, easily, be exercised if he stays healthy.
Allan wrote about Leclerc last year as a potential trade target, but that’s not going to be a possibility for the foreseeable future. As you’ve probably guessed by now, that’s not the point here. The extension got me thinking if there are any young, good Dodger players whom the team might want to extend and buy out their arbitration years.
We can cross guys like Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Julio Urias off the list. All are represented by Scott Boras, and he doesn’t typically do extensions of those types. But if we’re looking at someone similar to Leclerc, one name stuck out: Caleb Ferguson.
First off, I’m not exactly sure who his agent is. I don’t think it’s Boras, so for this exercise, let’s just assume it isn’t.
Ferguson, 22, was a mostly unheralded 38th-round draft pick in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery and decided to sign with the Dodgers. Just four short years later, he was pitching for the Dodgers.
While some think his future could still be in the rotation, I think his future is in the role he served mostly last season — the bullpen. He’s not just a LOOGY, which makes him quite a valuable arm. He had a 3.49 ERA, 3.79 FIP and 2.95 xFIP last season, to go along with a 29.2 K% and just a 5.9 BB%. As a reliever, those numbers were 2.35 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 2.55 xFIP, 30.5 K% and 3.9 BB. His 26.6 K-BB% was the 15th-best mark in all of baseball among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched (Ferguson logged 38 1/3 innings as a reliever last season). The kid is really, really good. This is why the Dodgers should consider a long-term extension for him.
The comparison to Leclerc isn’t 1:1. Ferguson isn’t set to be a free agent until after the 2024 season, when he’ll have just finished his age-27 season. Leclerc was four years away from free agency and two of his free agent seasons are team-friendly options. If we’re looking at Ferguson for a deal that’s, somewhat in the same realm, what might that look like? Let’s take a look.
Ferguson is pre-arbitration-eligible, meaning he’s making basically near-MLB minimum and will for the next three seasons. He’ll earn less than $2 million in that time (barring any changes to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement). The amount he earns in arbitration will be dependent on his performance.
Pedro Baez, for example, earned $1.5 million in his first year of arbitration and is contracted for $2.1 million this season. His numbers have always seemed a tad on the low side, mostly because saves are valued much more in the arb process than they should be. A somewhat more appropriate comparison might be to Tony Cingrani. He’s in his final season of arbitration and has earned $1.825 million, $2.3 million and $2.65 million during the process ($6.775 million). After earning $1.568 million in his first three years of pre-arb, Cingrani’s total earnings are at $8.343 million.
Before we get too far into it, no, the Dodgers aren’t going to be able to lock up Ferguson for $8.5 million over 5-6 years. That’s not where this is heading.
Pre-arb deals are usually for teams to save money over the entire process. Here, though, this might be more of a chance for the Dodgers to lock up an lively left arm who should be in the org for many years to come. It would avoid having to exchange arbitration numbers in a couple years and go through that whole process (even though the Dodgers haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since 2007).
This would be more of a commitment to the player and faith that he’ll end up producing more than what his contract is paying him. And if they lock him up for five years, he could be a free agent at age-28 with a lot of potentially high-leverage situations (.670 OPS allowed in those situations last season). With Kenley Jansen able to opt-out of his deal after this season (seems unlikely) and Joe Kelly may or may not being the next great reliever — coupled with the ever-changing nature of reliever usage — there could be some save situations in Ferguson’s future.
For this to be worth it for the Dodgers, they’d have to buy out all his arbitration years. For it to be worth it to Ferguson, he’d have to get money that makes sense for him. So, here’s what I propose:
- 5 years, $15 million
A $3 million average annual value for a solid reliever is not a prohibitive rate for the team and it’s life-changing money for the player. It would buy out all but his final year of arbitration, allowing him to potentially get paid more for the 2024 season in his “third” year of arbitration than he could have earned in the contract or if he had gone through the entire arbitration process from the beginning. If the Dodgers plan on him being a big part of their future, it could end up being a nice bargain.
Felipe Vazquez (4 years, $22 million) and Brad Hand (3 years, $19.75 million) signed extensions last offseason, but they weren’t in the same position as Ferguson. They’re both closers, and saves pay. The record for a pre-arb extension for a player with less than a year of MLB service time (Ferguson is at 113 days; full-season is 187 days) was Tim Anderson‘s 6-year, $25 million deal (1115 days of service time), but he’s an everyday player and those guys tend to get paid a lot more than relievers.
Andrew Friedman does have a history of signing players to these kinds of deals (Chris Archer, Wade Davis, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore), but he has yet to do that in his time as Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, and this could be a good time to start.
Still, I’ll admit, this isn’t terribly likely to happen. I once pondered the Dodgers signing Joc Pederson and Urias (before he switched to the Boras Corporation) to pre-MLB deals. That’s a different bag. But I really like Ferguson and think he could be an invaluable member of the bullpen going forward. Having some stability in the bullpen for the long-term could be beneficial instead of relying on non-roster invitees and/or failed starters. It would also mean the Dodgers wouldn’t have to invest in non-elite, free-agent relievers like Kelly (who might prove us all wrong and be dominant, we’ll see).