The Rangers are in the unique position of being both a “win now” and “win later” team. Their current roster with Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Joe Nathan, and others is good enough to win in 2013, but they’re also set up for the future with guys like Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez, and Mike Olt. They also have a handful of players who bridge both the “win now” and “win later” groups, including Yu Darvish, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, and left-hander Matt Harrison.
Harrison, 27, has been the team’s best pitcher over the last two years, so it wasn’t a surprise when Jeff Wilson of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that the two sides are in “preliminary negotiations” about a contract extension. Harrison is arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter, but more importantly he is on pace to become a free agent after the 2014 season. He will have just turned 29 when that rolls around, and if he continues to pitch like he has these last two seasons, he’ll be in line for a huge free agent contract.
The Rangers signed another young southpaw, then-25-year-old Derek Holland, to a five-year contract extension worth $28.5 million during Spring Training this year. He was at a very different point of his career than Harrison — just one full season as a starter under his belt and four years from free agency — so the club can forget about using him as a point of reference during talks. With some help from the MLB Trade Rumors Extension Tracker, here is a list of comparable pitchers who signed contract extensions two seasons away from free agency in recent years…
Platform Year WAR
Platform Year RA9
Previous Two Years WAR
Previous Two Years RA9
It’s fitting that Harrison’s best comparable is Cain since both guys have demonstrated the ability to outperform their peripheral stats. Cain has done it over many more innings of course, but Harrison is a two-seam heavy left-hander — he told David Laurila he looks to pitch to contact early in the count a few months ago — who generates weaker than average contact, at least anecdotally. Considering the stellar non-Michael Young infield defense behind him, it’s not a surprise he excels at keeping runs off the board despite a below-average strikeout rate (5.49 K/9 and 14.3 K%).
If there’s a reason for the Rangers to have pause about extending Harrison, it’s probably his injury history. He had surgery to treat Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in July 2009 and missed a little more than three weeks with shoulder inflammation in May 2010, but he assuaged the injury concerns by throwing 213.1 innings this year and 399 innings over the last two years. Harrison doesn’t have much of a platoon split, has shown he can succeed in a tough home ballpark, and has playoff experience. There’s a lot to like here and Texas should absolutely look to keep him around for the foreseeable future.
The Rangers surely want to buy out at least one and probably two or three free agent years if possibly, but inflation has likely killed the notion of a three- or four-year pact worth less than $10 million annually like the ones Nolasco, Cain, Johnson, and Greinke signed. Those contracts were completed at least two years ago and in Greinke’s case, as far as four years ago. Billingsley’s deal is the most recent (signed in Spring Training) and pays him $11.7 million annually with a fourth-year club option worth $14 million. His track record as a starter was twice as long as Harrison’s at the time, however.
Wilson notes the Rangers typically don’t finalize contract extensions until the spring (Holland and Kinsler are recent examples), and doing the same again with Harrison gives them another offseason worth of data on the free agent value of quality starting pitching. Anibal Sanchez‘s (7.6 WAR and 5.9 RA9 over the last two years) next contract would give them a decent estimate of Harrison’s value on the open market. A four-year deal worth $10-12 million annually seems to be in the cards, and that strikes me as a solid buy for a still-underrated starting pitcher several years away from his 30th birthday.