The evolution of Taijuan Walker has been a huge boon to the Mariners. Not only will he be a big part of their efforts to reach the playoffs this year, he’s young enough that he’ll be a core member of the roster for years to come. The Mariners have almost $450 million guaranteed to four players over the next eight years. With very few other commitments past 2016, it might be time to start thinking about securing the future of one of the brightest, young stars on the team.
In his age-22 season, Walker accumulated 1.9 fWAR which was supported by a 4.07 FIP. His peripherals were excellent—his strikeout rate and his walk rate were both well above average—but he was prone to giving up home runs. His ERA estimators show a lot of promise; a 3.82 xFIP and a 3.69 SIERA were both above average marks. He’s shown the potential and the ability to develop into a front-line starter, and that leap forward could come as early as this year.
Since 2006, there have been 15 pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title in their age-22 season. Walker’s fWAR and FIP don’t compare favorably, ranking 13th and 11th, respectively, but his xFIP was 7th in this group. Considering the context of his peers, offering a contract extension to Walker at this point may seem premature. His age-22 season didn’t blow away the league and the potential he’s shown has been undermined by a failure to prevent runs from scoring.
The case for offering a contract extension to Walker may come down to service time instead of his performance on the field. Walker made his major league debut in 2013 at the age of 21, pitching just 15 innings in a brief September call-up. He would pitch another 38 innings in 2014 in two separate stints with the Mariners. All told, he’s earned 1.142 years of service time. Remember that number, we’ll come back to it in a moment.
The rules governing major league service time are complicated and confusing. For the most part, a team controls the rights to a player until that player earns six full years of major league service time. For the first three years of service, major league players earn a figure at or near the league minimum, currently somewhere around $500,000 per year. After three years of service, a player is eligible for salary arbitration, wherein they’re able to negotiate with their team for higher salaries based on their performance. Generally, a team pays a player the league minimum for three years and then three more years of arbitration level salaries. But, there are edge cases where a player who has earned between two and three years of service time is eligible for an extra year of salary arbitration, eliminating a year of team control at the league minimum salary; this is called the Super Two cutoff. This cutoff point varies each year but it’s generally between 2.120 and 2.150. The average Super Two cutoff point over the last seven years is 2.135.
At the conclusion of this year, assuming Walker spends the entire year on the major league roster (including any time spent on the disabled list), he will have accumulated 2.142 years of service time, making him very likely to qualify for Super Two status. Based on his performance to date, we could probably guess that his first arbitration salary could fall between $3 and $4 million and increase from there. This accelerated salary structure could end up netting around $35 million in total arbitration by the time Walker reaches free agency.
From the Mariners perspective, a contract extension would give them some control over Walker’s yearly salaries. If Walker does realize his potential in the next year or two, his arbitration salaries could rise even higher. Locking him into a team friendly contract now allows the team to better plan for the future. An extension would also presumably include team options on the back end allowing the team to retain him during his first few free agent years at below market salaries. From Walker’s perspective, a contract extension would give him some insurance against potential injury and would net him a significant raise or signing bonus in the present. His injury history isn’t lengthy, but it does include some red flags. An extension would also avoid the potentially ugly arbitration process, where both parties are motivated to assess and criticize one another.
So what might a contract extension look like? Using the nifty extension tracker at MLB Trade Rumors, we can easily find a few precedents. Julio Teheran’s extension that he signed in 2014 might be the best comparison. Like Walker, Teheran had just completed his age-22 season, had a similar prospect pedigree, and had earned 1.062 years of service time. The Braves locked him into a six-year deal with one additional team option worth $32.4 million. If the Mariners waited a year, there have been a number of pitchers who have signed large contract extensions after two years of service time, with names like Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester entering the picture. These deals ranged between four and five years with total values between $30 and $40 million.
My best guess would be a five-year deal that buys out all of Walker's remaining years of team control with additional team options tacked on the end of the term. My guess is that the total value of the deal could be around $26 million broken down like this: $1M signing bonus, '16: $750K, '17: $1.25M, '18: $3M, '19: $7M, '20: $11M, and two team options each worth $15M with a $1M buyout. The Mariners could also structure the contract so that Walker's salaries are adjusted if he would have qualified for Super Two status or not (like the Rays did with Chris Archer's contract).
The Mariners are in the awkward position of playing to win now with an aging core while also having very few players locked up outside that core after 2017. Taijuan Walker has shown enough promise and is young enough that he’ll be a key piece of the puzzle for the Mariners for years to come. It may be in the best interest of the club and player to start negotiating a contract extension to guarantee a future in Seattle. With Walker’s service time clock already accelerated, the right time may be now.