What could a Walker Buehler contract extension with the Dodgers look like?

With all the doubt surrounding the game (and the world) because of COVID-19, this is probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. But, I’m wondering if there’s a chance of a Walker Buehler contract extension in the not-so-distant-near-future.

Before you ask, no, Buehler does not appear to be a client of Scott Boras, who is famous for, among other things, having his clients not sign pre-free agency extensions. That isn’t iron clad (see Stephen Strasburg, 2016), but a lot of his clients tend to get to free agency after six (or seven) years of service time.

Buehler, 26 in July, is heading into his age-25 season as the Dodgers’ best pitcher and one of the top pitchers in the National League. He’s coming off a season in which he posted a 3.26 ERA, 3.01 FIP and a 24.2 K-BB% (7th-best in among qualified MLB starters). The best of Buehler could still be on the way, as he’s expected to take another step forward this season (whenever it actually gets played).

Walker will be arbitration-eligible for the first time after the 2020 season. He’s a Super Two player, so he’ll go through the process four times. As such, there might be a chance of a long-term contract extension instead. Another reason is his age. Because he was drafted at 20 years and didn’t make his professional debut until late the next season after having Tommy John surgery, he lost a year of developmental time. The Dodgers thus control his contractual rights through his age-29 season. Gerrit Cole just signed the largest contract in MLB history after his age-28 season, so there could still be a lot of money there for Buehler, but he’s a different pitcher, physically, than Cole, and it remains to be seen how he holds up over the course of 2-3 seasons as a guy expected to throw 180-plus innings per season.

Buehler would begin the 2020 season with 1 year, 168 days (1.168 for short) of service time (thanks to some service time manipulation by the Dodgers, which, ugh). There are normally 187 days of service time available to a player every year. We know that’s in doubt for 2020, but let’s just roll with it for the sake of argument and assume he gets to arbitration. He’s set to make a little more than the league minimum of $563,500 in his final pre-arbitration year, and while his salary will jump next year, it probably won’t rise to an incredible level. Cody Bellinger got $11.5 million as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. He broke Kris Bryant‘s record of $10.85 million from 2018. Bryant broke Ryan Howard‘s record of $10 million all the way back in 2010. Are you seeing a pattern? They’re all position players. Pitchers don’t tend to get nearly as much as position players via arbitration or in pre-free agency contract extensions.

Here are some of the pitchers who got contract extensions in recent years before accruing at least of two years of service time:

PlayerYearLength (years)Money (millions)Service Time
Chris Archer20146$250.156
Jose Quintana20145$211.133
Julio Teheran20146$32.41.062
Martin Perez20134$121.038
Madison Bumgarner20125$351.127
Cory Luebke20124$121.033
Matt Moore20125$140.017

I don’t think a Buehler extension lives in this neighborhood, because an extension that applies here would have to come before this season. With all the uncertainty surrounding not just the game but the world right now, there’s almost no chance of any kind of contract extension right now.

So, let’s look at the neighborhood in which a Buehler might reside. Here are the contract extensions for pitchers with between 2-3 years of service time (since 2012), which Buehler would have after this season:

PlayerYearLength (years)Money (millions)Service Time
Marco Gonzales20204$302.102
German Marquez20194$42.4352.027
Blake Snell20194$49.4262.072
Miles Mikolas20194$682.037
Luis Severino20194$402.170
Corey Kluber20155$38.52.074
Chris Sale20135$322.061
Jon Niese20125$25.52.107
Derek Holland20125$28.52.120
Gio Gonzalez20125$422.162

The most accomplished player here is Kluber, who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2014 en route to signing his extension before the 2015 season. He was also going into his age-29 season, so the circumstances are a bit different than what might happen with Buehler. Sale, who signed after his age-23 season, had a 2.89 ERA and 3.19 FIP and was coming off a 6th-place finish in the AL Cy Young race in 2012. Both of those deals were notoriously team-friendly. Snell was also coming off an AL Cy Young Award (at age 25) when he extended before last season.

The best comp from the above list might end up being Severino, who came off 3rd and 9th-place finishes in the AL Cy Young race in 2017 and ’18. He’s within two days of Buehler’s projected service time (assuming a 187-day season), and their numbers aren’t that far different from each other. But his contract only buys out his final four years of arbitration, and I’m not sure that’s enough for the Dodgers (and Buehler) to come to an agreement.

And, just for fun, here’s a few with between 3-4 years of service time, should a Buehler extension be more realistic after the next two seasons.

PlayerYearLength (years)Money (millions)Service Time
Aaron Nola20194$453.076
Carlos Martinez20175$513.073
Lance Lynn20153$223.119

If Buehler signed after three-plus years, you could expect him to top all these deals with relative ease. Of course, it’s difficult to compare any of the 2-3 or 3-4 year players because we don’t know:

  1. How Buehler would fare in 2020 — shortened or otherwise
  2. How much service time he’ll have, if the 2020 season even gets played

If the Dodgers and Buehler were to come to an agreement, the team would likely want to buy out at least one free-agent year to make it worth their while. So, here’s what I would propose after the 2020 season:

5 years, $70 million

  • 2021: $4 million
  • 2022: $8 million
  • 2023: $12 million
  • 2024: $18 million
  • 2025: $28 million

No options, no funny business. This would take him a free agent at age 31. Strasburg just signed a 7-year, $245 million deal following his age-31 season. Of course, that was on the heels of a World Series title and series MVP. I would take the under on Buehler making that much in free agency, but it’d still be possible for him to land a long-term, big-money deal while already having $70 million in the bank (not really, but you get it). And if he doesn’t hold up, physically, over the life of the deal, he’ll still have made a ton of money in this profession.

All that said, the reality is the Dodgers haven’t done many deals like this in recent memory. The Max Muncy and Chris Taylor extensions were solid, but neither of them are on the level of what a potential Buehler extension would bring. Still, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire after the 2021 season, the timing might be right for a deal between the two parties following the 2020 season. Maybe. You know, if we make it that long.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.