Bowden: 15 key MLB contract extension candidates to watch before Opening Day

We are entering the time in the baseball calendar when general managers and their front offices work in earnest to reach contract extensions with their key players. This includes players who will be free agents after this season, next season and those who are a few years away, but also young stars who have as little as one year of major-league service time. Most front offices and players prefer to use Opening Day as a deadline for extension talks so negotiations don’t spill into the season and affect performance.

The stakes are high as teams weigh different metrics and risk versus upside. There are ripple effects from any deal, but also from waiting too long to sign a player long term.

There have already been major extensions this offseason, including the Red Sox and third baseman Rafael Devers agreeing to an 11-year, $331 million deal. So which player could be next? Here are my picks for the 15 most significant extension candidates in the game, the players whose teams should be prioritizing talks now.

Teams and agents typically don’t want to discuss negotiations extension. They don’t want to tip their hands or negotiate in public. That is the case with this group. I reached out to most of the front-office decision makers associated with these 15 players, and none contacted I would comment on the record about the status of potential talks. However, most of these players and their agents likely have had initial talks with their respective teams about a longer-term contract, and it will be fascinating to see what deals get done.

(Wins Above Replacement are according to Baseball Reference. All stats are from the 2022 season unless otherwise noted.)

Shohei Ohtani (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Age: 28 Free agents: 2024
WAS: 9.6
OPS: .875 MR: 34 RBI: 95
WL: 15-9 ERA: 2.33 SO: 219

Ohtani shocked the industry when he agreed to a one-year contract for $30 million this offseason despite being arbitration-eligible. Most analysts believe he would have had a strong argument for a one-year deal in the $35 million to $40 million range because of his unique resume as an impact two-way player. Ohtani is eligible for free agency after this season and if the angels can’t extend him before the trade deadline, their best play will be to trade him at that time. Ohtani likely will break all the financial records (average annual value, overall money), with his next contract probably ending up in the $450 million to $500 million range. But will it be with the Angels or another team?

Age: 24 Free agents: 2025
WAS: 5.6
OPS: .853 MR: 27 RBI: 62 OBP: .401

the Padres basically traded their farm system to land Soto and potentially experience three postseasons with him. However, their goal is to sign him in the long term. Soto will have to perform better this year at the plate and in the field if he wants to be paid more than Mike Trout ($426.5 million over 12 years), Mookie Betts ($365 million, 12 years) and Aaron Judge ($360 million, nine years), but if he plays to his potential, he could be the next $400 million outfielder.

Age: 23 Free agents: 2026
WAS: 3.9
OPS: .818 MR: 32 RBI: 97

The Blue Jays’ top priority has to be trying to sign Guerrero to a long-term deal in the 10- to 12-year range, and they should expect it to take around $350 million. Guerrero has hit 80 home runs with 208 RBIs in the past two years and he has a 135 OPS+ over four major-league seasons. He has developed into a plus defender at first base. Guerrero keeps himself in great shape, but the one concern for Toronto is how his body will age over a long-term pact.

Kyle TuckerWendell Cruz / USA Today

Age: 26 Free agents: 2026
WAS: 5.2
OPS: .808 MR: 30 RBI: 107 SB: 25

Tucker hit 30 home runs in each of the past two seasons, and last year stole 25 bases in 29 attempts and won his first Gold Glove Award for his play in right field. He’s finished top 20 in the National League MVP voting the past two years and his prime years are ahead of him. It’s time to extend him, even though the Astros control him for three more years. In all likelihood, the price is only going to go up. For the Astros’ sake, hopefully they’ve learned it’s much better to act and sign the player at a young age rather than waiting and losing him, like they did with George Springer, Carlos Correa other Gerrit Cole.

Age: 28 Free agent: 2025
WAS: 4.0
WL: 12-8 ERA: 2.94 SO: 243

the Brewers control burnes for only this year and next, and if they’re going to extend him, they need to do it before Opening Day or they might have to consider trading him at the trade deadline or in the offseason. Burnes has been one of the best starting pitchers in the game over the past two years, leading the NL in ERA in 2021 and in strikeouts in 2022. He’s finished top 7 in the NL Cy Young Award voting three consecutive years and won the award in 2021. Given his age (28) and recent dominant seasons, his trade value will never be higher than it is now. In addition, he has only 515 2/3 innings pitched on his major-league odometer, which is a positive for the long term. However, at this point, I think the Brewers are more likely to trade Burnes at the deadline if they’re not in the postseason race, or in the offseason if they are. It’s unlikely they will pay the going rate for a Cy Young-caliber starter, in terms of years and dollars, but in the meantime, they want another shot at the playoffs this year with him.

Adleyrutschman (Paul Rutherford / USA Today)

Age: 24 Free agents: 2029
WAS: 5.2
OPS: .806 MR: 13 RBI: 42

rutschman is already considered one of the best all-around catchers in the game along with JT Realmuto other Salvador Perez. He’ll be the face of the Orioles for the next generation of fans. rutschman hits for average and power, is a plus defender, calls a great game, shuts down the running game and is a leader. This is likely the best time for the Orioles to extend him, and they should be considering a deal similar to the seven-year, $120 million contract the mariners gave rookie standout Julio Rodriguez last summer. (Rodriguez’s complex contract is worth $210 million guaranteed over 12 seasons.)

Age: 26 Free agents: 2024
WAS: 4.9
WL: 17-7 ERA: 2.16 SO: 166

I’m really surprised the dodgers haven’t extended Urías, who has become their ace. The Dodgers deserve credit for how they’ve taken care of Urías’ arm over his career, and they’re enjoying the rewards of their pitching development and health efforts. Now it’s time for them to ink Urías long term if his medical records are clear and don’t indicate future risk. He’s a special talent who is entering his prime years.

Age: 28 Free agents: 2025
WAS: 4.4
OPS: .869 MR: 40 RBI: 131

The Polar Bear has mashed 146 home runs over his first four years in the majors, including 40 last season with a major-league-leading 131 RBIs and a .352 on-base percentage. A two-time All-Star and two-time Home Run Derby champ, Alonso has finished top eight in the NL MVP voting twice. He’s a fan favorite and a franchise player, so it just makes sense for him to spend his entire career with the meads. After 530 games and 2,254 plate appearances, New York knows who he is as a player, so it’s time to reward him.

Max FriedDale Zanine / USA Today

Age: 29 Free agents: 2025
WAS: 5.9
WL: 14-7 ERA: 2.48 SO: 170

the brave have done as good a job of signing their players to long-term contracts as any team in MLBas evidenced by the extensions they’ve reached with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Michael Harris II other Sean Murphy. Now they need to take care of their ace. Fried has a 54-25 record with 3.09 ERA in 632 1/3 innings over six seasons. He’s finished top 5 in the NL Cy Young voting in two of the past three years and won three consecutive Gold Gloves. He’s the most important Brave not signed to a long-term deal.

Age: 29 Free agents: 2026
WAS: 3.7
WL: 17-6 ERA: 2.82 SO: 194

With Justin Verander gone, Valdez becomes the Astros’ ace. He is one of the best left-handed starters in the sport, and he’s the pitcher Houston will turn to in Game 1 of a postseason series. Valdez’s ERA continues to trend in the right direction, as it’s dropped from 3.57 to 3.14 to 2.82 over the past three years. Last year he led the AL in innings pitched (201 1/3) and complete games (three), made his first All-Star team and finished top five in the AL Cy Young voting.

Age: 24 Free agents: 2026
WAS: 3.6
OPS: .802 MR: 24 RBI: 93 SB: 13

Bichette posted a 127 OPS+ last year and showcased his special combination of speed, power and defense. He’s only 24 years old, so his prime years await. No one in the game has more swag or a better hairdo, so what’s not to like? This is the best time for Toronto to ink him to an extension as the cost will only increase in all likelihood.

Age: 29 Free agents: 2024
WAS: 6.0
WL: 11-13 ERA: 3.25 SO: 235

Nola is eligible for free agency after this season, so it’s important for Philadelphia to find a way to extend him before Opening Day. Nola is happy with the Phillies, who have built a team that should contend for the next several years, but keeping Nola at the top of the rotation — alongside Zack Wheeler, with rookie phenom Andrew Painter close to making the majors — could distinguish the Phillies from other contenders, as all three are considered No. 1 type starters.

Bobby Witt Jr. (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

Age: 22 Free agents: 2028
WAS: 0.8
OPS: .722 MR: 20 RBI: 80 SB: 30

Witt is one of those players you need to watch every day to truly appreciate his special talent. The analytics and statistics don’t capture the type of impact player he’s going to be. There is no doubt in my mind he’ll be a 40 home run, 30 stolen base type standout. At 22, Witt is in line to get a 10- to 12-year contract, and if were the royalsI’d extend him now before his performance matches his potential — because by then it could cost two or three times more to sign him long term.

Age: 22 Free agents: 2029
WAS: 1.4
OPS: .682 MR: 5 RBI: 42

Greene has a high ceiling and will likely be the face of the Tigers franchise over the next decade. He’s another player who should be signed before he breaks out and the price skyrockets. He profiles as a future All-Star, Silver Slugger and MVP-type standout. He’s an above-average defender in the outfield and has upper-deck raw power.

Age: 27 Free agents: 2026
WAS: 2.9
OPS: 807 MR: 27 RBI: 62

Reynolds’ contract value during his future free-agent years is probably somewhere between Brandon Nimmo‘s recent $162 million deal with the Mets and George Springer’s $150 million contract with the Blue Jays in 2021. The pirates and Reynolds appear to be significantly apart in their contract negotiations. However, what doesn’t make sense is that Pittsburgh’s asking price for Reynolds in trades — the value of what they want in return — is significantly higher than the contract offers they’ve made to their player. However, much could change between now and the trade deadline. Reynolds’ value to contending teams is high — he’s a switch-hitting outfielder who gets on base at an above-average rate and plays plus defense in center or left. Imagine the difference he could make for the Yanks or Mariners in left field, or the Dodgers in center field. I think a team will overpay in prospects to land Reynolds before the deadline, and with the Pirates still three years away from contending, trading him probably makes more sense than extending him. However, if they’re not going to trade him, then extend him at his market value, which appears pretty clear at this point based on the Nimmo and Springer deals.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic / Photos courtesy of Getty Images)

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