DETROIT — Before he signed a contract extension that puts him under the Detroit Tigers’ control for the next nine seasons, Colt Keith talked with other players who have been in a similar spot before.
Sign a long-term deal and guarantee yourself generational wealth? Or pass on the chance, bet on yourself and hope it all results in a more massive payday down the line?
Keith talked with players who had chosen both paths before he made his decision, agent Matt Paul said Tuesday morning at Comerica Park, standing off to the side after the conclusion of the press conference announcing Keith’s contract.
The decision, of course, was this: Keith inked a six-year extension that will cover his arbitration years. The deal comes with three additional team options. With a $2 million signing bonus and an option buyout, Keith is now guaranteed at least $28.6 million through his first six seasons. If all three options are exercised and Keith hits additional incentives based on award voting, he will earn $82 million over the next nine seasons.
We are talking big money here, but when the Tigers announced Keith’s deal Sunday, the broader baseball industry still reacted with skepticism. Such early-career deals have become increasingly common. But while they present immediate wealth and security for players, some agents and union figures have pointed out the drawbacks, too. By signing such a contract, Keith could sacrifice long-term gains. Perhaps tens of millions of dollars if Keith, recently ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 22 overall prospect, becomes the player those closest to him believe he can be.
So the figures of his contract — $2.5 million in 2024, $3.5 million in 2025, $4 million per season from 2026-27, $5 million per season from 2028-29, plus club options for $10 million in 2030, $13 million in 2031 and $15 million in 2032 — came with plenty of questions Tuesday.
“We feel like both parties are sharing risk here, right?” said Paul, who works for Munger English Sports Management. “We hope that Colt goes out and he’s a perennial All-Star, goes out and helps this team win a lot of games. If he does, I think he’ll be happy, the Tigers will be happy and at the end of the day, it’s a fair and equitable deal. We did our research. We did our homework, and we feel like this is fair and equitable for both sides.”
INF Colt Keith, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Tigers No. 2 prospect and No. 22 overall, signs a six-year contract extension. https://t.co/clIj7Z8xSq
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) January 30, 2024
The risks involved are these: If Keith gets injured or otherwise becomes a bust, the Tigers will have him for six years but will never have to pay him more than $5 million in a season. They can decline the team option after Year 6. On the other hand, if Keith becomes a star, the Tigers are getting him at a supreme discount.
For Keith, the guaranteed money protects against injury. It promises financial security regardless of performance. Because he will make more upfront — $10 million over his first three years compared to about $2.2 million if he were making the league minimum over that time — he can invest early earnings and perhaps make up some of the cash he could be passing on down the line. Keith also remains eligible for MLB’s pre-arbitration bonuses.
Although there are positives, Keith is ultimately now turning down the chance to cash in via a long-term free-agent deal while still in his 20s.
“Worst case for both of us, the organization and myself, is that I don’t pan out and I end up with security financially for me and my family for the rest of our lives,” Keith said. “Best case for both of us is all the options exercise, we win a couple of World Series and bring it back to Detroit, and I make myself a boatload of money and I’m still a free agent at 31.”
The “boatload of money” comment drew laughs from the gallery inside Comerica Park’s Tiger Club. But Keith followed by saying money is not what is most important to him.
To understand why Keith and Paul agreed to this contract, there is some background to cover. Paul first met Keith when he was 14 years old, already a rising star in Utah. After a move to Arizona for two years, an opportunity with his mother’s career as an attorney led the family to move to Mississippi when Keith was in high school. As fate would have it, Keith ended up living only five minutes away from Paul, who began advising Keith as he grew into a draftable player. The Tigers took Keith in the fifth round of the shortened 2020 draft, signing him for $500,000. Keith turned down the chance to play at Arizona State, where, based on what has happened since, he may have blossomed into a first-round pick.
During the offseasons, Paul hits with Keith every day. Paul said Keith’s family has become an extension of his own. “Our relationship played a big part,” Paul said of completing this contract.
“We approached the conversation with a different attitude, a different approach than some people would,” Paul said. “Put the client first. What’s most important for Colt? Provide him with the information that he needs to make a well-informed decision at the end of the day. ”
Don’t test Colt Keith with a hanging breaking ball 😤
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 16, 2023
Keith is only 22, and his views could certainly change in the next decade. But Tuesday he spoke like a player well aware of the market and the harsher realities of the game.
“There’s also negatives to it,” Keith said. “Potentially I go out and outplay the contract. And in my eyes I see that as a positive because the Tigers are going to be winning more games. At the end of the day, I got my financial security with the ability to sign the contract down the road. And the Tigers still have money to sign other players, and we’re still going to be (competing in) playoff games and World Series down the road. And that’s just what I want to be a part of.”
The deal nonetheless is a team-friendly steal on the surface. This is why some on the labor side of the game object to early career extensions. The most high-profile example is Ronald Acuña Jr., who just had an 8 WAR season. He is set to make only $17 million annually through 2028 because of an extension he signed in 2019. Juan Soto, meanwhile, has taken the more traditional path and is set to earn $31 million in his final year before free agency, where he could seek close to $500 million.
“We looked at all the situations,” Keith said. “Acuña may have cost himself some money. But also, he’s been hurt a lot. Say he didn’t take that deal and he went through the arbitration process, who knows? Anything could happen. At the end of the day, he secured himself $100 million, and he may have a chance to sign another contract. That’s the way I look at it. I look at it as a positive thing.
“I’ll be a free agent 31. And with my work ethic and my dreams and aspirations, I want to be healthy enough and mobile enough and strong enough to be able to sign another long-term deal. And that’s hopefully (for) the Tigers to extend me again.”
Acuña and other players such as Brewers prospect Jackson Chourio — one of only six other players to sign an extension before making his MLB debut — may not be the most accurate comparisons for Keith. While Acuña, Chourio and others such as Julio Rodríguez have defensive value in the outfield, Keith’s defensive future is less clear.
Last season, the Tigers began shifting Keith’s primary focus from third base to second base. For now, Keith is the favorite to be the Tigers’ Opening Day starter at second base, though Harris said Tuesday, “Colt has to show up to Lakeland and he has to earn a spot on our Opening Day roster.” Harris, though, also said he would not “close the door” on Keith playing third at various points.
— Toledo Mud Hens (@MudHens) August 13, 2023
When negotiating this deal, Paul said he looked at the extensions of other second basemen such as Ketel Marte and Ryan McMahon. But because Keith could play different positions in the future, Paul said they took other contracts into account, too.
Keith stands 6-foot-4 and weighs at least 230 pounds. He has worked with an Olympic track coach and focused intensely on agility, but there are still questions about his range. The Tigers are also moving Keith to second in part to take a load off his arm. Keith missed nearly four months with a shoulder injury in 2022, a fact that also played a role in Keith’s thinking in taking the guaranteed money.
“He’s a big, strong, physical kid, right?” Paul said. “Colt and I have these discussions all the time. He may play second base today. He may play third tomorrow. At age 30, 31, he could be a second baseman, could be a third baseman, could be a first baseman. So there was a lot of different factors and angles we attacked in these conversations. … I looked at the career earnings of different players, different styles of players, different positions. You don’t know what he’s going to be 10 years from now defensively. But I know he’s gonna be a darn good hitter.”
The broader baseball industry may not love the financial implications of Keith’s contract. But Tuesday in Detroit, Keith and his agent seemed thrilled about the future.
Let’s check back in nine years to see how it ages.
“At the end of the day, I have zero service time,” Keith said. “And I don’t have an at-bat. And for (the Tigers) to have that faith in me shows that they love me and they want me here for a long time. And that in itself really swayed my decision.”
(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)