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Colt Keith’s contract is more likely a rarity than a trend for the Tigers

The deal answers some questions about the 2024 active roster, but the contract’s concept isn’t as applicable to other young Tigers.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kimberly P. Mitchell / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Monday, the Detroit Tigers announced that their top position player prospect, second baseman Colt Keith, had agreed to a six-year contract with three option years attached. The contract locks in Keith’s salary at very modest rates for his years of team control, but does frontload him additional money beyond the major league minimum he’d otherwise be set to make this season. In exchange, the Tigers bought the rights to his first three free agent season well down the road, also for pretty modest rates assuming that Keith’s bat plays as expected in the show.

Because this is such an unprecedented move for the Tigers, there may be a tendency to view this as just the first of many such moves, but it’s worth remembering that Colt Keith is a bit of a unique case. As Scott Harris said during the press conference to formally announce the contract, “However, we don’t just give out these deals to every talented player that comes through.”

Harris went on to tick off several qualifications that made Colt Keith a good fit for a preemptive deal before he’s ever had a major league at-bat. Grit and work ethic were included, as you’d expect. A team has to have conviction that whatever happens, the player is going to give their all. Keith has always had strong marks for make-up as a player and for just being a good teammate and person in the locker room. Harris also mentioned the speed at which they saw Keith making adjustments in his first look at the Triple-A level last year as pitchers started to work different approaches against him.

Right now, all the contract means is that Colt Keith is going to start the year as the Tigers’ second baseman, as President of Baseball Ops Scott Harris explained in the Keith press conference on Tuesday. That was extremely likely to be the case whether Keith signed a contract or not, but it does take away a little uncertainty as to whether a rough spring camp might lead the Tigers to stash him in Toledo long enough to avoid this season counting as a full year of service time, thus giving them an extra season of control.

As such, third base remains the only position on the field where there is real uncertainty as we move into February and the report date for pitchers and catchers draws near. You can go ahead and draw up lineups with Zach McKinstry, Matt Vierling, and Andy Ibánez in the mix at third base, and you’re not going to go too far off the mark.

Riley Greene, Parker Meadows, and a mix of Kerry Carpenter and Mark Canha will handle the outfield. Jake Rogers is the starting catcher, with Carson Kelly the backup, and Dillon Dingler their top catching prospect and next man up waiting in Toledo. Spencer Torkelson will play first base. Colt Keith will play second base, and Javier Báez will play shortstop. That doesn’t leave a ton of room for speculation. It’s pretty much the three third base options and fifth outfielder Akil Baddoo to fill the rest of the 13 position player spots not occupied by the regulars.

So the Keith contract means that much at least. We have more clarity on the Opening Day roster. We know that for this contract to be offered, that the Tigers are confident in Keith being at least the solid player they’re now committed to paying for in advance. That means he’s likely going to be here for a while even if someday it becomes more in the Tigers interest to trade him.

What we don’t know is whether this means more of this type of deal is forthcoming.

Colt Keith has a unique combination of factors

Every time he’s asked about the subject of signing long-term deals with pre-arbitration eligible players, Harris has emphasized that his front office is always willing to work with players who are interested in signing on long-term. So there’s at least an openness to the idea that is new for the Tigers.

Of course, having numerous prospects and young MLB players who they’d want to lock up long-term is also a new phenomenon within the organization. They should be operating differently than we’re used to seeing. Scott Harris listed a set of traits they look for in considering a deal like this and Keith fits the bill. The question is just whether the contract really heralds some new way of doing business for the Tigers, or whether he’s just a unique situation.

The first problem with reading too much into this contract and its implications for Tigers other young players, is simply that other players may just not be interested. Traditionally, most players don’t sign these deals, and agents largely hate them. Unless the player is really driven to make it happen now, these just aren’t common deals even if cost conscious teams are more interested in discussing this kind of extension in recent years.

The Tigers have already expressed a general openness to discussing contract extensions with young pre-arb players, but thus far no one else has taken the bait. Colt Keith is an equivalent hitting prospect at this point to Spencer Torkelson prior to his 2022 debut, and yet Torkelson didn’t pursue a deal like Keith’s. Nor did Riley Greene. Every player’s situation is different, and maybe other players will see this and decide to take the idea more seriously. No doubt the Tigers hope so. But by and large, baseball players of this quality at this age believe strongly in themselves as players. They’re just built to expect success and with it plenty of money. Finally, the other big issue is that agents believe in their players too, and they traditionally have hated to leave money on the table.

As a player, waiting for that long-term contract security is easier when you’re Torkelson or Greene, both of whom came away with over $7 million in signing bonus based on their high draft position. Meanwhile, Keith signed for $500,000 out of high school as a fifth round pick. A shorthand to sort out who might be interested in a deal from those who aren’t is simply to look at their initial signing bonus. First round picks who’ve already landed a big payday just aren’t under any pressure to lock in the rest of their future dollars, and those players have typically had the whole industry behind them as boosters, lending them an added confidence that they’ll come out ahead in the long run with a big free agent deal or contract extension somewhere down the road.

From Keith’s perspective, getting that first big payday in terms of his new first year salary of $2.5M, plus a $2M signing bonus, as opposed to the major league minimum of $740,000 this season, makes it worth signing the deal, even if it costs him significant money six years down the road when he would’ve hit free agency. Of course, on the back end of the deal, as long as Keith is the player the Tigers expect him to be, he’s still going to come away with a max payout of $82.5M, and reach free agency at age 31. Colt Keith is going to be fine and can now fully concentrate on baseball for most of the next decade without having to attend to the business side of the game.

Perhaps deals for Torkelson or Greene are still possible, but they aren’t going to come this cheap in guaranteed money. A more interesting case may be right-hander Jackson Jobe, who has a very good chance to make his major league debut this summer. The now 21-year-old top starting pitching prospect won’t collect his first full year of service time until 2025 at the earliest. Jobe, like Torkelson and Greene, received a fairly massive signing bonus as a top first round pick. So, he may not feel as pressed to get that first huge payday in the way that perhaps Keith was, but as a pitcher he might value the security even more.

On the other side of it, the Tigers may not be as interested in this kind of deal with a pitcher. For a pitcher, the kind of financial security Keith received might be more attractive due to the fickle nature of elbows and shoulders regularly derailing careers. Were Jobe to sign one of these deals, it would seem to expand the parameters of who the Tigers are willing to sign early extensions with, and what players might be interested in return. We’ll see this time next year if the Tigers might do something similar with Jobe, but I would guess that with pitchers they’ll want to see a little more proven durability.

So maybe we should focus on position players, specifically position players who didn’t receive a huge signing bonus. Perhaps a Kerry Carpenter or Parker Meadows, or perhaps a hitting prospect who didn’t land the huge bonus like Justyn-Henry Malloy might be more likely subjects for deals like this. However, other than Carpenter perhaps, who has already proven himself a quality major league hitters, the other players in that category just aren’t the sure thing Colt Keith is, at least as a hitter. The Tigers have every reason to believe Keith will mash for years to come.

But the one crucial factor here that brings us right back to the idea that Keith and his situation are something of an anomaly, is the age factor. By extending Keith, the Tigers capped what he could earn in his first three years of free agency, buying the right to cap those three option years at very low commitment from the organization. In the process, and this is the key, they locked up Keith all the way through his age 30 season.

Kerry Carpenter is already under team control into his 30’s. The same will be true for Parker Meadows, Jace Jung, and Malloy. The thing that makes Keith unique is the combination of his major league readiness as a player, and his age. He was drafted out of high school in 2020, and he’s now guaranteed over $30 million and about to embark on what looks like a pretty promising career in the major leagues. Jobe has the youth too, but received the bigger bonus, and has the additional factor of being a pitcher to consider. Otherwise, there isn’t anyone comparable in the system right now.

Perhaps Max Clark will have a huge year and be in line for something like the Keith deal down the road, but again, Clark got the huge signing bonus. Top SS prospect Kevin McGonigle, who was drafted in the first competitive balance pick round in 2023, got a sizable seven figure bonus of $2.85M, but not the $7.7M that Clark received as the third overall pick. Perhaps if things go well with McGonigle, he’ll make another good test case, but that probably won’t come for at least another two years for the now 19-year-old infielder. He is at least capable of reaching the majors in his early 20’s, fulling what is the most distinctive feature of Keith’s readiness for such a contract.

The more you look at the Keith deal, the more it looks like a one off under a pretty rare set of conditions. It’s possible that this deal spurs some younger players to pursue something similar, but the Tigers aren’t going to be motivated in the same way to extend team control for players they already control into their 30’s, and that’s the norm. Keith is a perfect subject for such a deal because of his early readiness for big league action, the bankability of his bat, and the fact that he didn’t land the security of a huge signing bonus out of the draft.

Instead of a herald of some new philosophy for the Tigers’ organization, Colt Keith may just be a unique case. Don’t be disappointed in the front office if this remains the exception rather than a new trend.