Should Blake Snell Consider A Short-Term Deal?

Should Blake Snell Consider A Short-Term Deal?

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This offseason has proven to be incredibly slow, with many notable free agents still lingering on the open market in the middle of February. That includes J.D. Martinez, Michael Lorenzen, Gio Urshela, Tim Anderson, Amed Rosario, Whit Merrifield, Brandon Belt, Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall, Hyun Jin Ryu, Brandon Woodruff, Liam Hendriks and many more. But most notably, it includes four top free agents that were generally expected to land nine-figure deals coming into offseason: Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell.

As the calendar continues moving forward and they remain unsigned, the possibility of creative solutions has to be considered. If some club was willing to give these players a straight deal that matched their asking price, it would likely have happened by now. If they can’t find what they are looking for, they might have to open their minds to alternatives. Things can always change, especially with an unexpected injury. The O’s are suddenly without Kyle Bradish as he’s been diagnosed with a sprained UCL and his status is up in the air. That’s not to say that the O’s will suddenly pivot and sign Snell, merely to illustrate that plans can change quickly for any club.

Players in this situation will sometimes opt for a short-term deal with a high average annual value and opt-outs. For instance, when Carlos Correa first signed with the Twins prior to the 2022 campaign, it was a guarantee of $105.3MM over three years. That was a $35.1MM AAV, with Correa having opt-out opportunities after each year. That allowed him to make a huge salary that year and gave him a decent floor in the event of catastrophic injury or a huge dip in performance, while maintaining future earning power.

Correa eventually triggered that first opt-out and returned to the open market, agreeing to a 13-year, $350MM deal with the Giants. That deal eventually fell apart due to the club having concerns about his long-term health, but it still illustrates the appeal of taking this path. Even after that deal evaporated, Correa still managed to get a $200MM guarantee by signing with the Twins. Carlos Rodón settled for a two-year, $44MM with the Giants going into 2022, eventually opting out and signing with the Yankees for $162MM. Lucas Giolito is hoping to follow his lead, signing a two-year, $38.5MM deal with the Red Sox this winter which allows him to opt out next offseason.

The argument against Snell taking such a path is straightforward. He simply won’t have a better platform year. He just won a Cy Young award, the second of his career. He stayed healthy enough to make 32 starts and log 180 innings, allowing just 2.25 earned runs per nine. His 13.3% walk rate was quite high, but he struck out 31.5% of batters faced and induced grounders at a 44.4% clip. The walks could come down a touch, but he likely won’t sustain a .256 batting average on balls in play nor an 86.7% strand rate. Producing a Cy Young-caliber season in back-to-back years is incredibly hard for even the greatest pitchers in history.

That’s especially true for Snell, who hasn’t been the most consistent pitcher in his career. He also won a Cy Young while with the Rays in 2018, but the years in between his two award-winning campaigns were far less impressive. From 2019 to 2022, he posted a 3.85 ERA over 85 starts. None of those seasons saw him pitch even 130 innings, thanks to the pandemic and various injuries. He went on the injured list in that stretch due to a fractured right toe, loose bodies in his left elbow, gastroenteritis and a couple of left adductor groin strains.

Taking a short-term deal would carry the risk of the baseball gods souring on him and his ERA jumping up over 4.00 this year, or perhaps sustaining another injury and turning in a more limited workload. He’s also 31 years old and would be marketing himself as a 32-year-old a year from now. Based on his excellent 2023 season, MLBTR predicted him for a seven-year, $200MM deal coming into the winter. The Yankees reportedly offered him $150MM over six, but he was hoping for more years and/or an AAV of at least $30MM.

The odds of Snell faring better in next winter’s market are low. Even if he manages to stay healthy and have another great season, he will be joining a market that’s also set to feature the likes of Corbin Burnes, Shane Bieber, Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Max Fried, and Max Scherzer, while options/opt-outs could also add Giolito, Justin Verlander, Nathan Eovaldi and Robbie Ray to the market.

The argument for returning to free agency next winter would be that the external conditions that Snell can’t control would vastly improve. It seems fair to conclude that those factors aren’t working in the players’ favor this winter. The collapse of Diamond Sports Group is pushing down the desire of many clubs to spend, particularly into the long term where the uncertainty is greater. Teams such as the Padres, Rangers and Twins have been decidedly less aggressive this winter compared to previous offseasons. This seems to have allowed other clubs to either be patient or address their needs via trade, like the Yankees did.

Beyond that, the Mets have decided to stay away from the top of the market this offseason. They have been plenty active but have spread their money around to various player on short-term deals. They have avoided the marquee free agents, apart from sniffing around the Yoshinobu Yamamoto bidding for a while, depriving the market of one of the bigger spenders from previous offseasons.

Perhaps things will change significantly in the next nine months or so. Maybe MLB will get its desired streaming package together and the finances of the league will vastly improve as a result. Maybe the Mets have a pretty good year and Steve Cohen gets back into spending mode. Maybe the Red Sox get encouraging development from their young players in 2024 and decide to go “full throttle” for real in the coming offseason. A similar path could be ahead of the Tigers this year. Perhaps the sale of the Orioles will be approved and the new owner will want to make a big splash, shaking up the market. Maybe the Nationals or Rockies decide their rebuild has gone on long enough and it’s time to send a signal to that effect. That, however, is a whole lot of “ifs” and “maybes.”

It’s possible it could work out for Snell if he were to pivot to maximizing short-term earnings. That’s what Trevor Bauer did when he signed a three-year, $102MM deal with the Dodgers, an average annual value of $34MM. He had the ability to opt out after the first year with $40MM already banked or after the second year with $85MM already earned.

Instead of focusing on a total guarantee, Snell could push for a record in terms of average annual value. The top mark in that category is currently held by Shohei Ohtani, whose heavily-deferred $700MM deal was valued at $46.06MM annually in terms of present day value by MLB and just under $43.8MM by the MLBPA. If he were to get something like $93MM over two years or $139MM over three, he would vault himself to the top of that list.

Snell is 31 years old and could still get paid in his mid-30s if he stays healthy and effective. Jacob deGrom got $185MM over five years going into his age-35 campaign. Scherzer got $130MM over three years going into his age-37 season. Verlander got $86.67MM going into his age-40 season. At a lesser tier, Sonny Gray just got three years and $75MM going into his age-34 season, slightly better than the $63MM over three years that Chris Bassitt got going into his own age-34 campaign.

If the straight $200MM deal isn’t there for Snell, he’ll have to consider other paths. If he were to take something like the Correa or the Bauer deal, he could get roughly halfway to that $200MM target but with plenty of opportunity to go back to the open market and get the rest. He’s currently encumbered by having rejected a qualifying offer, but that wouldn’t be an issue in future since a player can’t receive a second QO in their career. The QO is generally a small detail when clubs are making $200MM investments, but that would be one thing working in Snell’s favor in future offseasons.

Still, the short-term path is fraught with risk. Baseball history is full of dominant pitchers who suffered some kind of career-altering injury and were never the same again. Predicting such things is impossible, and it’s something that every hurler has to at least think about. There’s also the possibility that the market conditions get worse and not better going forward. That’s why having the guarantee in hand is such a preferable path. As the proverb says, the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

What do you think? Should Snell take the best guarantee he can get here in the next few weeks or maximize short-term earnings with a path back to free agency in the not-too-distant future? Have your say in the poll below!

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