Extension Candidate: Dylan Cease

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A few weeks back, White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease was speaking with members of the media, including Scott Merkin of MLB.com. Cease indicated that he would be open to a long-term deal with the Sox but that there were no ongoing extension talks he was aware of. “I would always be open to something that’s a fair, good deal,” he said.

It’s possible the sides have started the talks in the weeks since that statement was made. Whether negotiations are taking place or not, there would be good reasons for the Sox to try. For one thing, Cease has emerged as one of the better pitchers in the league. Over the past two seasons, he’s made 64 starts and tossed 349 2/3 innings with a 3.01 ERA. His 10% walk rate in that time is a bit above average, but he paired that with a 31.1% strikeout rate. That ERA was the 11th-best among all qualified starters in that time and the strikeout rate was fourth, trailing only Gerrit Cole, Corbin Burnes and Max Scherzer.

Keeping that ace-level performance around is obviously appealing in a vacuum, but it would also make sense for a club with little long-term certainty in their rotation. Lucas Giolito is currently slated to reach free agency after the upcoming season. Lance Lynn is also in the last guaranteed year of his contract. The club has an $18MM option over his services for 2024 with a $1MM buyout, but it’s not a lock to be picked up. Lynn is about to turn 36 and missed a few months last year due to knee surgery. He’ll have to stay healthy and effective in 2023 for the Sox to want him back at that price point for his age-37 campaign. Michael Kopech can be controlled via arbitration through 2025 but his own injury issues and opting out of 2020 have limited him to just 203 career innings since debuting in 2018, making him a bit tough to project right now. Mike Clevinger is on a one-year deal and is under investigation after domestic violence allegations were made against him.

There’s also not an obvious wave of talent coming from the farm to replace those guys in the immediate future. The club’s system isn’t terribly well regarded overall, with Baseball America recently ranking them 24th in the league, MLB.com 26th and FanGraphs 27th. Most of their top prospects are position players while many of the starters on the prospect lists are young and likely a few years away from making it to the majors.

That doesn’t necessarily create urgency around locking up Cease, since he’s still under club control for the upcoming season and two more, set to reach free agency after 2025. However, he is starting to increase his earning power. He reached arbitration for the first time this winter and agreed with the club on a $5.7MM salary for 2023, with further raises to come in the two following seasons. As players approach the open market, it usually takes more money to convince them to spurn that opportunity in favor of sticking with their current club. That might be especially true in the case of Cease, since he also got some extra financial security from the new collective bargaining agreement. The CBA that was just agreed to in March featured a new $50MM bonus pool to be dispersed to the best pre-arbitration players in the league each season. In the inaugural year of that new feature, Cease was the player who got the biggest piece of that pie, getting just under $2.5MM.

As mentioned, Cease is three years from the open market. He just turned 27 in December, meaning he’ll be a free agent between his age-29 and age-30 seasons. The most recent comparison for a player in this position who signed an extension into his free agent years is Sandy Alcantara. In November 2021, he and the Marlins agreed to a five-year, $56MM extension with a club option for a sixth season. He was also in between three and four years of service time, though he was one year younger than Cease is now, having just turned 26. That deal was somewhat similar to one signed about three years earlier when Aaron Nola and the Phillies agreed to a four-year, $45MM extension with a club option. Nola was just 25 at the time but about to turn 26 in the early parts of the 2019 campaign.

Nola had posted a 2.89 ERA over 380 1/3 innings in the previous two seasons. His 26.8% strikeout rate was below what Cease has done recently but his 7% walk rate was much better and his 50.2% ground ball rate much stronger than Cease’s 36.1%. Over 2019-21, Alcantara posted a 3.48 ERA over 445 innings, striking out 21.2% of batters faced while walking 7.9% and getting grounders at a 48.9% clip. He was worth 7.4 fWAR in those two-plus seasons, while Nola was worth 10 fWAR in 2017-18. Cease has been in a similar range recently, with 8.9 fWAR accrued in the past two years.

Getting an extension done with Cease in the next month or two would likely require a similar deal to what Alcantara and Nola got, but the price would quickly jump if the Sox wait. Jacob deGrom signed an extension with the Mets when he was between four and five years of service time. That was a four-year deal with a $120.5MM guarantee, which was on top of the $17MM salary he had already agreed to for 2019. deGrom was on another planet in terms of performance, having just produced 9.0 fWAR in 2018, but it shows how quickly earning power ramps up. For guys between five and six years of service time, recent deals include the five-year, $100MM deal for Joe Musgrove, seven years and $131MM for José Berríos, and five years and $85MM for Lance McCullers Jr.

The White Sox have done some notable extensions in recent years, but of a different flavor to these. They extended Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada not too long ago, but those were all position players who were still in their pre-arbitration years or yet to even debut in the majors. Their most notable recent extensions for pitchers have gone to Aaron Bummer, who is a reliever and was still in his pre-arbitration seasons then, and Lynn, who was a couple of months from free agency but 34 years old at the time.

Of all those extensions, the highest guarantee was the $70MM that went to Moncada back in March 2020. It’s possible they could get something done with Cease now and stay under that line, but waiting another year would push them beyond that comfort zone as long as Cease has another healthy and effective season. The club’s long-term payroll is fairly open, with Yasmani Grandal also set to reach free agency after this year alongside Giolito and perhaps Lynn. By 2025, the only players guaranteed salaries are Robert and Andrew Benintendi, though there will be club options for Moncada, Jiménez and Bummer to be considered. Taking all that into account, perhaps it’s time for the Sox to pick up the phone and start talking to Cease, if they haven’t already.

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