Kyler Murray looks like the odds-on favorite to go first overall in next month’s NFL Draft. That would be a remarkable, life-altering accomplishment but deep down, I bet the reigning Heisman winner is feeling a tinge of doubt right now. Why? Because in baseball—the sport he left behind to pursue a career as an NFL quarterback—teams are doling out nine-figure contracts like candy.
Exhibit A: Paul Goldschmidt, six-time All-Star and proud recipient of a freshly penned five-year, $130 million extension. It’s not Mike Trout money—he and Manny Machado would have to pool together their funds to equal Trout’s unheard-of $430 million haul—but it’s still a hefty raise for Goldschmidt, who is on the books for $14.5 million in 2019. That would have been the final year of his contract had a deal not been reached. Now signed through his age-37 season, the two-time runner-up for NL MVP has essentially signed on to be a Cardinal for life.
With all the intrigue surrounding Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s free agency this winter, Goldschmidt’s trade to St. Louis in December fell somewhat under the radar. The ex-Diamondback has been a model of consistency, hitting .290 or better in each of his last six seasons. Even the Millville Meteor Mike Trout can’t put that on his resume (he hit .287 in 2014, that bum). A five-tool player if there ever was one, Goldschmidt’s all-around skill set is second to none. The slick-fielding first baseman has achieved three Gold Glove Awards, which he barely has room for in his trophy case because of all the space taken up by his four Silver Sluggers. And if those credentials don’t move the needle for you, consider that Goldschmidt may have the best wheels of any first baseman in the sport, collecting 15-plus steals on five occasions with a high-water mark of 32 thefts in 2016.
Considering the laundry list of accomplishments I just rattled off, you probably think St. Louis got Goldy on the cheap. And compared to some of the other bloated deals we’ve seen come to fruition this winter—four of the seven largest contracts in North American sports history have been inked in the last month—Goldschmidt’s $130 million grand prize seems rather tame. But keep in mind it’s still more dough than Boston paid for a similar talent in J.D. Martinez last winter (five years, $110 million). Goldschmidt will also net more than Harper on a per-year-basis. And while the total value isn’t in the same stratosphere as the landmark sums commanded by Trout and Harper, the first-year Cardinal did well for a player entering his age-32 campaign (he’s four years Trout’s senior and five years older than Harper).
Goldschmidt is as steady as they come, showing few cracks in the armor throughout his big-league tenure. But the eight-year vet encountered a rare dry spell last year, faltering to a tepid .209 average through his first two months. He righted the ship quickly, however, turning in a fabulous .330 average from June 1 on. The Texas State alum will now occupy the middle of a potent Cardinals lineup surrounded by talents like Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, up-and-comer Paul DeJong and veteran backstop Yadier Molina. Adding a tent-pole bat to what was already a well-stocked lineup should give St. Louis the ammunition necessary to compete with Milwaukee and to a lesser extent Chicago in the NL Central. Though it didn’t always feel like it—the final stretch of Mike Matheny’s tenure was a dark time indeed—2018 marked a noticeable step forward for the Red Birds, who cashed in with 88 victories, a five-game improvement from their 2017 output. Flush with talented arms (if Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty haven’t attained ace status yet, they’re well on their way) and propped up by a budding superstar in Goldschmidt, the Cardinals are aiming to erase a three-year playoff drought and might have the tools to do it.
Goldschmidt wasn’t the only big name to cash in Thursday. The greenbacks were flowing in Tampa of all places as the frugal Rays made a rare concession to Blake Snell, who pocketed a five-year, $50 million extension. That’s the largest dollar amount ever granted to a player with only two years of big league service time. Snell dazzled in 2018, compiling a league-high 21 wins while becoming just the second Ray ever to garner AL Cy Young honors (the first was David Price in 2012). A hard-thrower—his cheese averaged a brisk 95.8 mph last season—with nightmare stuff, Snell quickly made the leap from decent to dominant while elevating the Rays from afterthought status to one of the league’s biggest surprises.
Many players—particularly clients of diabolical agent Scott Boras—would have waited in hopes of landing a more lucrative payday, but instead of betting on himself like Mookie Betts is doing, Snell opted for the fast cash. That used to be frowned upon, but with baseball’s middle class quickly vanishing, more and more players are beginning to go this route. Rather than waiting for the fruits of free agency to manifest (or not), eager beavers like Eloy Jimenez, Miles Mikolas, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino and Snell’s teammate, Brandon Lowe, have taken below-market deals this offseason, reasoning that a team-friendly contract is still better than the alternative. Countless stars in recent years have played out their rookie deals in hopes of landing monstrous, irresponsible loot, only to receive an icy reception on the open market. The eye-popping, astronomical paydays secured by Trout, Harper, Machado and Nolan Arenado this offseason are exceptions, not the norm. It’s feast or famine in the cruel, unforgiving world of big league contracts and sometimes cashing in your chips is better than risking it all.
It’s a nice raise for Snell, whose original deal called for only a $573,700 salary in 2019. The crafty left-hander’s new contract accounts for the current season, all three of his arbitration years and a year of free agency. When it comes to roster construction, the small-market Rays are well-known for their “love ‘em and leave ‘em” philosophy, routinely shopping stars at the end of their contracts while making little effort to retain them. Maybe that will be the case for Snell in a few years, but Thursday’s commitment suggests the 26-year-old could be one of the few to buck that trend.
AL Quick Hits: Playing in the final game of his illustrious career, Ichiro Suzuki went hitless in four at-bats Thursday in Seattle’s 12-inning victory over Oakland, wrapping up the team’s two-game set in Ichiro’s native Japan. The future Hall of Famer tallied a remarkable 3,089 hits, 22nd all-time over his 18 major league seasons. That game featured the debut of Yusei Kikuchi, who scattered four hits and two runs (one earned) over 4 2/3 innings in a no-decision … Matt Olson departed Thursday’s game in Tokyo with an apparent right-hand injury. He went 1-for-2 with a single before Mark Canha spelled him at first base … The Rangers optioned Willie Calhoun to Triple-A Nashville Thursday after the 24-year-old scuffled to a .217 average during Cactus League play. Hunter Pence beat out Calhoun for the Rangers’ fourth outfield spot … Joey Gallo will appear in a minor league game on Friday. It will be his first game action since injuring his groin last week. The power-hitting outfielder should be a go for Opening Day against the Cubs next Thursday … X-rays on Greg Bird’s injured elbow came back negative. He’s in competition with Luke Voit for the starting job at first base in New York … CC Sabathia logged 26 pitches in a minor league game Thursday. The 38-year-old will begin his 19th and final big-league season on the injured list after getting a late start this spring due to offseason knee and heart surgeries … ESPN’s Buster Olney reports the Red Sox are looking to deal Sandy Leon. With Leon on the outs in Boston, Christian Vazquez will likely serve as the Red Sox’s primary catcher with Blake Swihart as his backup … Jesus Luzardo will be shut down 4-6 weeks while he works through a strained shoulder. The A’s lefty holds the No. 12 position in MLB.com’s latest prospect rankings … Francisco Lindor reportedly ran at close to full speed on Wednesday. He seems to be over his strained calf and could be available for Opening Day at Minnesota next Thursday.
NL Quick Hits: Bryce Harper launched a pair of homers, his first two of the spring, Thursday in Philadelphia’s Grapefruit League win over Toronto. Fellow newcomers Andrew McCutchen and J.T. Realmuto also went yard for the Phils in Thursday’s triumph … Corey Knebel will seek a second opinion on his injured UCL. With Knebel out of commission and Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder) also ailing, the Brewers could be tempted to fill their late-inning void with former Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, who remains unsigned … With Corbin Burnes joining the rotation, Milwaukee will move right-hander Chase Anderson to the bullpen. Despite pitching reasonably well the past two seasons, Anderson has had a disappointing spring, managing only a 7.07 ERA across five Cactus League appearances including four starts … Todd Frazier and Jed Lowrie are both expected to begin the year on New York’s injured list. A sprained left knee has limited Lowrie’s availability this spring while Frazier has been hampered by a strained oblique … Michael Conforto extended his home run streak to four by drilling another round-tripper in Thursday’s win over the Marlins. The former first-round pick led the Mets in both home runs (28) and RBI (82) last season … Manager Mike Shildt announced Thursday that Alex Reyes will begin the year in the Cardinals’ bullpen. He’ll be joined by John Gant, who will function as a long reliever after losing out to Dakota Hudson for the fifth spot in St. Louis’ starting rotation … Matt Carpenter could return to Grapefruit League action Sunday against Miami. The Cardinals third baseman, who is coming off a career-high 36 homers in 2018, has been nursing a tight back for the past week … Brandon Morrow completed a 25-pitch bullpen session on Thursday. The Cubs right-hander is working back from offseason elbow surgery and won’t be on hand for Opening Day next week. Pedro Strop, who was recently shelved with a minor hamstring injury, should slot in as the Cubs’ primary closer throughout Morrow’s absence … Starling Marte was scratched from Pittsburgh’s Grapefruit League game against the Orioles Thursday due to lower back tightness. The 30-year-old isn’t at risk of missing Opening Day next week … Jung Ho Kang blasted a walk-off grand slam to lift the Pirates to a 7-5 win over Baltimore on Thursday. All seven of his hits this spring have gone for extra bases (six homers, one double).