Blue Jays' Berrios chooses security over lure of larger free-agent payday

Faizal Khamisa & Arden Zwelling analyze Jose Berrios signing a 7-year / $131m contract extension with the Blue Jays and what that means for other potential offseason moves in Toronto.

TORONTO — You can look at the seven-year, $131-million extension Jose Berrios agreed to with the Toronto Blue Jays this week in a couple of ways.

From the team’s perspective, it’s outstanding. Berrios is durable, effective, dedicated. He hasn’t missed a start in four years. He pairs a put-away curveball with strong command of two fastballs and a changeup that neutralizes left-handed hitting. He’s detail-oriented, preaching the importance of routine, proper nutrition, a good night’s sleep. He’s a 27-year-old frontline starter the club was already positioned to pay $11-million next season — one they now have locked up for potentially six more beyond that at an annual average value of $20-million. Once both sides agreed to those terms, the club couldn’t get the contract in front of Berrios’ pen fast enough.

But then there’s the player’s perspective. And for the same reasons this extension could be a substantial boon for the Blue Jays, it could be a relative bane for Berrios. Not that a $131-million guarantee is anything to scoff at. For a workhorse who’s thus far earned a little more than $11-million in exchange for the 15.1 fWAR he’s produced over a fantastic career, it’s a deserved payday. But in the context of a league that generated over $10-billion of revenue in 2019, this life-changing deal still sees Berrios foregoing the potential of earning far more a year from now.

Considering all of the above, Berrios was in a unique position to bet on himself, pocket his $11-million through arbitration, pour all of his energy into pitching to his potential in 2022, and hit the open market next winter prior to his age-29 season. The outlay he could’ve commanded in that scenario would have been immense — surely greater than the six years and $120-million it cost the Blue Jays to buy him out of pursuing the possibility.

It's hard to even find precedent for what that market could have looked like. Starters this good, this durable, and this young seldom reach free agency. The closest recent comparable is likely Patrick Corbin, who signed a six-year, $140-million deal with the Washington Nationals as a 29-year-old in 2018. Although he was a year older than Berrios will be next off-season, Corbin had pitched to a 3.97 ERA over 630.1 innings the four seasons prior — relatively comparable to the 3.71 ERA over 647.2 innings Berrios has thrown since 2018.

But that was three years ago. Inflation’s a thing. And Berrios’ innings total was depressed thanks to a pandemic-shortened 2020. That’s not to mention his better overall track record. And the fact teams pay players for what they will do, not what they’ve done. The strength of Berrios’s peripherals, the quality of his stuff, and the ease of his athleticism make him a strong bet to continue pitching as a frontline starter for seasons to come. You couldn’t say all those things of Corbin, who’s declined significantly and pitched to a 5.50 ERA over the last two years.

If he went out this season and sustained his career production, Berrios could have been in a much more favourable position entering the market. He could’ve looked at Corbin’s six years and $140-million as his free agency floor. Maybe even beneath it. And his ceiling could have realistically approached $170-million over the same term. Or $200-million if his representation was able to push the bidding beyond six years — not unreasonable for a player 18 months shy of his 30th birthday.

Of course, there’s a flip side to those if’s. What if Berrios bet on himself and blew out his elbow in May? What if his fastball command waned and his curveball stopped generating whiffs? What if a full season pitching against stacked AL East lineups in cramped AL East ballparks exposed his flaws? It isn’t a bet if you aren’t accepting some downside risk. And that risk can materialize in an instant.

Ask Noah Syndergaard, who carried a 3.71 ERA through late August in 2019, layering another stellar season on top of the four prior he’d pitched for the New York Mets. He was two years from hitting free agency at 29 with ace-like stuff and ace-like production to back it up. And Stephen Strasburg was about to ink a seven-year, $245-million free agent deal with the Nationals, setting a precedent for pitchers of Syndergaard’s age and calibre.

But Syndergaard’s performance faded down the stretch that year and as he tried to ramp back up the following spring, he was diagnosed with a torn UCL in his pitching elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. He’s thrown only two innings since.

Tuesday, as Berrios’ extension was breaking, Syndergaard was finalizing a one-year, $21-million pact with the Los Angeles Angels. It’s a show-me deal for an electric right-hander who now must prove he’s healthy enough to pitch and still nasty enough to post the exceptional strikeout and walk rates he built his early-career success on. If he can, Syndergaard will re-enter the market next winter as a 30-year-old possibly looking for something like the $126-million, six-year pact Yu Darvish signed with the Chicago Cubs entering his age-31 season.

But Syndergaard must pitch his way there first. He has to carry that pressure with him every time he takes the mound. Berrios can sit back and enjoy the guarantee of hefty paycheques regardless of how his career progresses from here. And he does have an opt out after the fifth year of his contract, which will allow him the choice of entering the market ahead of his age-33 season. It’s possible, if he remains as healthy and effective as he’s been to this point, that Berrios could recoup some of the potential earnings he’s forgoing now at that point.

We’ll see. Extensions are all about sharing risk. And players almost always accept more of it when signing one. Berrios no doubt understands that. It was only four months ago that he was talking about the significance of waiting as long as he has for the rare opportunity to maximize his value in an open market.

For a ballplayer, it’s the ultimate career outcome — reaching free agency young, with strong track records of health and performance. It’s insanely difficult to achieve and so much of it is out of their control. Merely getting within a year of it, with the opportunity to bet on yourself and pursue that mountain top, is an exceptional position to be in. Ultimately, the Blue Jays gave Berrios enough reason to forego it.

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