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Should the Pirates sign Starling Marte to a long-term contract?


Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Tim Williams, Travis Sawchik and a few other people were discussing this earlier today on Twitter. Marte's youth, talent, projection and likely lack of financial security (he only signed for $85,000 as an amateur) make him an excellent candidate for an extension. We might have said the same thing about Jose Tabata before he signed, of course, which demonstrates that there's still a lot of risk here, but the upside is tremendous, particularly if the Pirates have the ability to buy out a couple free-agency years at the end of the deal.

So what might a Marte extension look like? Anytime you're dealing with pre-arbitration extensions, the number of precedents will be small, because there are only 30 teams, and a relatively small number of players sign pre-arbitration deals. The best comparable is probably Denard Span, who signed a five-year, $16 million contract with a $9 million option with the Twins after hitting .311/.392/.415 while playing good defense as a 25-year-old in 2009. Span was a year closer to arbitration than Marte currently is, however. Evan Longoria's 2008 deal and Matt Moore's contract with the Rays provide other precedents, not because those players are similar to Marte, but because they also had less than a year of service time. In both cases, the Rays were able to negotiate three option years because of those players' lack of service time.

Projecting what Marte ultimately might make if he's not signed to an extension is very difficult, because he's not even eligible for arbitration until after the 2015 season. What we do know, however, is that even if remains in the majors until that point (very likely, of course, but not a guarantee), he can only make about $1.5 million in total through 2015. Any discussion of an extension would have to start there.

Let's look a little more closely at the Span contract. Span made $750,000 in 2010 in what would have been his second full year of service time. (Marte's second full year of service time will be 2014.) Span made $1 million in 2011. Then he made, or is scheduled to make, $3 million, $4.75 million and $6.5 million in what would have been his three seasons of arbitration eligibility.

Now let's adjust those numbers upward slightly, because baseball salaries have increased since that deal was reached (in particular, the pre-arbitration extensions of guys like Starlin Castro and Paul Goldschmidt have moved the meter) and because we want to tack on an extra option at the end.

So, let's have Marte's contract officially begin in 2014, but give him a $1 million signing bonus. Let's propose that Marte will make $1 million in 2014 and $1.25 million in 2015 (and remember, these are pre-arbitration seasons for him). Then let's say he'll make $3.25 million in 2016, $5 million in 2017 and $7 million in 2018. Then let's add a $10 million option for 2019 and a $12 million option for 2020, either of which would come with a one-time, $1 million buyout.

That's a five-year contract (2014 through 2018), and it provides Marte with $19.5 million guaranteed. It also allows the Pirates to control Marte's rights through his age 31 season. $19.5 million might not sound like a lot if you're a terrific player signing away your rights through your age-31 season, but keep in mind that, first, it's still far from guaranteed that Marte will ever get a multimillion-dollar deal and, second, he's a very, very long way from free agency, and the Pirates just aren't going to pay him much through 2018 no matter what. (He can't become a free agent until after 2018 at the earliest.)

As much as we love Marte, the Pirates would be assuming some risk here, particularly in 2018. It's still pretty rare for teams to sign players with track records as skimpy as Marte's to long-term deals -- Span had more than twice the number of plate appearances Marte has now when his deal was signed, for example. But the Pirates would get a terrific payoff if Marte continued to play well. And Marte, obviously, would be set for life.