The MLB is a sports association that evolves from year to year. During this evolution, there are new trends that teams and players start to pick up. For example, teams have evolved on the field by implementing more defensive shifts that are supposed to produce more outs than the typical defensive positioning (New York Times). This evolution has also struck off the field in the form of teams signing high potential prospects to big contracts before they play a game at the major league level. But how did this happen?
This evolution can be traced back from only paying players big money when their contracts are up and once they have played several years in the majors. This goes back to the early and mid-2000s. For example, after years of good pitching in Oakland, Barry Zito signed a seven year $126 million contract with the San Francisco Giants (Comcast).
The next step in this evolution was to start signing players to long term deals after minimal playing time in the big leagues. This started happening towards the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s. The Cubs for example have done this with two of their players, signing Starlin Castro to a seven year $60 million contract (ESPN) and Anthony Rizzo to a seven year $41 million contract (ESPN). Castro played in the majors for a little less than three years and Rizzo had only played about one full season in the majors (Baseball Reference). This evolution has most likely happened because teams wanted to make sure they got the most years possible out of their players before they had a chance to leave via free agency. But the evolution has not stopped here.
This year, teams are signing, or at least offering, their prospects contracts with guaranteed money before they play a single game in the major leagues. This is evidenced by rumored contract offers to Gregory Polanco of the Pirates (ESPN) and George Springer of the Houston Astros (CBS) before either player hit the major leagues. The evolution has happened however, because Jon Singleton of the Astros signed a five year $10 million contract this season while he was playing in the minor leagues (CBS). This evolution is interesting because it carries many risks for both sides.
The positives for a team signing a player who has never played in the MLB would be that if they succeed when they come up, the team could end up paying the player less than he is worth. On the other hand, if that player gets hurt or does not live up to expectations, the team pays more than the player is worth. The positives and negatives are the exact opposite for the player. If he gets hurt or does not pay as well as expected, he has guaranteed money waiting for him. And on the flip side, if the player dominates in the majors he is leaving much more money on the table. Now that this evolution is sweeping across the entire MLB, it will be interesting to see which of these two sides will benefit more from the change.