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Tim Anderson’s extension is great for him, but bad for young ballplayers

Anderson’s deal sets him up for life while highlighting that most of baseball’s best players are still drastically being underpaid.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the White Sox announced they had signed shortstop Tim Anderson to a six year, $25 million extension, with two option years that could raise the total of the deal to $50.5 million. It was a record for the most guaranteed money given to a player with less than a year of service time, and when contrasted with the way the Blue Jays treated staff ace Aaron Sanchez last week, seems very generous.

But is it? Anderson turns 24 in June, meaning that he’s now under contract until his Age 30 season. Assuming he develops into the kind of player the White Sox are expecting, and after being above average both offensively and defensively as a rookie there’s little reason to think he won’t, he’ll be under the Sox’s control (or whoever they trade him to, if they trade him) until he’s 31. It could, if current trends continue, prevent him from signing the kind of massive free agent deal that used to go to guys in their early 30s. It’s a deal that, like others given to young burgeoning stars, guarantees financial security for the player while still depressing the salaries of ballplayers overall.

Which is why Joe Sheehan, one of the minds behind Baseball Prospectus’s golden age and a contributor to Sports Illustrated, was so negative about it yesterday:

I definitely get that criticism. After all, Kendrys Morales, who is essentially only a DH and was worth less than a win above replacement last year, signed a deal this offseason that paid him $11 million a year for the next three years. Anderson, under his current deal, wouldn’t cumulatively make even that much until the fifth year of his extension, and wouldn’t eclipse it on a per-season basis unless his first team option is picked up. There is little doubt that Anderson’s deal is going to cost him money both in the medium and the long run, while marginally increasing his salary over the next three years. Because of it, Anderson may never be paid what his production will be worth to the Sox.

This is not to criticize Anderson, by the way. I don’t know what Anderson’s background is or what his family is like, but I’m certain that $25 million is a life-changing amount of money for almost everybody in the world. The young man made an understandable decision to prioritize a lifetime of financial security, if he plays his cards right. Congratulations to him.

His extension does, however, raise the question of what’s to be done about the salary imbalance in the game today, where (as we’ve discussed) baseball’s middle class is getting squeezed out of the game’s economic boom by a crop of cheap young players. Owners are, by and large, getting richer while suppressing salaries and bonuses. But are there solutions?

Not easy ones. Not ones that owners will agree to without a fight. And not ones that would leave the underpinnings of the current system in place. Raising minimum salaries, especially with so much of the league’s production provided by young players, is going to be a tough sell, especially when something like 40-50 percent of the players who made it onto the field had less than three years of service time last year. Reducing the number of years teams control a player, so that a free agent payday comes sooner, also removes some of their incentive to properly develop a young player in a way that he’s most likely to stay healthy and productive. There simply is nothing players can offer short of a salary cap or non-guaranteed contracts (which are non-starters), especially after already giving away so much, that will get the owners to the bargaining table.

Players could threaten to strike, but that carries with it a massive risk. The last strike crippled the game for years, left both players and owners deeply unpopular, and wound up costing both groups money (at least in the short term). Nor does the current MLBPA leadership seem particularly inclined to take a hard line with the league.

The only solution may be for young players to take the hit and forgo the right to bargain for an extension before they have two full years of service time, which would decrease their overall security while reducing the incentive to allow themselves to be under-compensated. It’s not fair, and it further divides young players from the rank and file veterans. But it would eliminate most of the extremely team-friendly contracts like the one Anderson signed that set him up for life, while severely curtailing his lifetime earnings.