Getty Images

Spring training is approaching and so is extension season. Generally speaking, MLB teams use November, December, and January to improve their roster. In February and March, they shift their focus to retaining their own players. Count on more than a few players forgoing free agency and signing a long-term extension between now and Opening Day.

Among the players to sign extensions last spring were Corbin Carroll (eight years, $111 million), Andrés Giménez (seven years, $106.5 million), Cristian Javier (five years, $64 million), Manny Machado (11 years, $350 million), and Keibert Ruiz (eight years, $50 million). Bobby Witt Jr. kicked off this year's extension season with his massive 11-year, $288.7 million contract, then Jose Altuve followed with his five-year, $125 million extension.

With that in mind, let's take a look at this spring's top extension candidates. Here's where I'll note we are not including Pete Alonso and Juan Soto. Mets executive David Stearns acknowledged Alonso is most likely to hit free agency, and Soto seems dead set on testing free agency after the season. Could he sign an extension at some point? Absolutely. Will he do it before Opening Day? Almost certainly not. We'll deal with Soto (and Alonso) at another time.

Here now are 10 notable non-Soto extension candidates, listed alphabetically.

1. RHP Tanner Bibee, Cleveland Guardians

Tanner Bibee
CLE • SP • #28
View Profile

The Guardians started the extension craze back in the 1990s with players like Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome. As young players, they all signed long-term deals that kept them in Cleveland beyond the usual six years of team control. The Guardians continue to be very active in locking up their young players.

Bibee, last year's AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, is a logical candidate for Cleveland's next extension. The 2021 fifth-round pick shares similarities to Shane Bieber as a command-oriented college starter who improved the quality of his stuff under pro instruction. Simply put, Bibee is one of the best young pitchers in the game, and those guys are always worth locking up.

Possible extension: Although he did not debut until late April, the soon-to-be 25-year-old Bibee was awarded a full year of service time in 2023 because he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. That puts him five years away from free agency. At that service time level, the Reds gave Hunter Greene six years and $53 million with a club option, and the Braves gave Spencer Strider six years and $75 million with a club option. Something in that range is sensible for Bibee.

2. C William Contreras, Milwaukee Brewers

William Contreras
MIL • C • #24
View Profile

The Contreras trade may have been the best move of the 2022-23 offseason. The Brewers landed Contreras and setup man Joel Payamps (plus another pitcher!) for Esteury Ruiz and ... no, just Esteury Ruiz. Contreras swatted 17 home runs and finished 11th in the NL MVP voting, and Milwaukee controls him through the 2027 season. Ruiz stole a lot of bases and that's about it.

This is a transition period for the Brewers with manager Craig Counsell leaving, Corbin Burnes being traded, and Brandon Woodruff being non-tendered due to injury. It stands to reason Contreras will be part of the new core moving forward, along with outfielders Jackson Chourio and Sal Frelick, among others. A 26-year-old catcher who can hit is a rare commodity and worth extending.

Possible extension: Contreras is four years away from free agency and few catchers have signed long-term extensions at that service time level. The last was Buster Posey in 2013 (nine years and $167 million), and with all due respect, Contreras isn't Posey. Six years and $58 million would equal what Sean Murphy, who was part of the Contreras/Ruiz three-team trade, will earn during what would have been his last four years of team control and first two years of free agency. That could get Contreras' attention. 

3. RHP Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks

Zac Gallen
ARI • SP • #23
View Profile

The D-backs made a surprising run to the World Series last year and then they did what teams that go to the World Series are supposed to do in the offseason, and that's get better. They've added Joc Pederson, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Eugenio Suárez in recent weeks and re-signed Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as well. Locking up Gallen figures to be the top priority now.

The good news: Gallen expressed a willingness to discuss an extension last month:

The bad news: Gallen is a Scott Boras client and Boras tends to drive hard bargains. This is important business but is not an urgent matter just yet. Gallen is under team control for another two seasons. It's not like he'll become a free agent after this season. That said, getting him signed long-term is surely something the D-backs would like to do sooner rather than later. 

Possible extension: Pablo López's extension with the Twins is a good benchmark. He signed his deal two years shy of free agency, like Gallen is now, and it amounted to a five-year deal worth $78.95 million. Gallen is already signed for $10.011 million in 2024 and his resume up to this point is superior to López's. Four years and, say, $80 million beginning in 2025 could work (so five years and $90 million or so total), though there is the Boras factor to consider.

4. RHP Logan Gilbert, Seattle Mariners

Logan Gilbert
SEA • SP • #36
View Profile

In Gilbert and George Kirby, the Mariners have two extension-worthy young starters, though Gilbert is a year closer to free agency, so he's the higher priority. The soon-to-be 27-year-old has been a workhorse since making his MLB debut in May 2021 -- Gilbert is 13th in innings since his debut -- and he's shown a knack for limiting walks and missing bats.

As good as he's been, it feels like Gilbert still has another level in him. He can be even better going forward and this is typically when you want to sign a player: before he breaks out and the price climbs. Seattle has a history of signing core players long-term (J.P. Crawford, Julio Rodríguez, etc.) as they would be wise to lock up Gilbert next and make sure the rotation stays together.

Possible extension: Gilbert is four years away from free agency and he's a Super Two, meaning he will go through arbitration four times instead of the usual three. That ups his earning potential and negotiating power. Only one pitcher has signed a long-term deal at that service time level in the past 12 years: Luis Severino, who received four years and $40 million with a club option for a fifth year. That was five years ago now, so adjust upward for inflation, and there's a starting point for a Gilbert extension.

5. RHP Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

Mitch Keller
PIT • SP • #23
View Profile

At long last, the Pirates have seen a young pitcher reach his ceiling in Pittsburgh. After watching guys like Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton blossom elsewhere, Keller figured things out with the Pirates, and he's been a better-than-average big leaguer since adding a sinker in the middle of the 2022 season. Best of all, he's open to an extension.

"I've only been with Pittsburgh, so it's all I really know," Keller said last summer. "I'd love to spend my whole career here, hopefully as long as possible. Having guys like (Ke'Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds) locked up, it's really cool to see some core guys getting locked in. I would love to be a part of that."

The Pirates signed Hayes and Reynolds to long-term extensions in recent years, and they have 2023 No. 1 pick Paul Skenes coming up soon to join Keller in the rotation. You can see the makings of the next contending Pirates team. With Keller two years away from free agency, the clock is beginning to tick. The closer he gets to free agency, the more tempted he'll be to see what else is out there.

Possible extension: Keller is at the same service time level as Gallen and López, though his track record as a high-end starter is much shorter. Something closer to Kyle Freeland's five-year, $64.5 million extension with the Rockies seems more appropriate. Keller is already signed for $5.4 million in 2024. Adding four years and $59.1 million on top of that gets him to Freeland's deal.

6. 3B Royce Lewis, Minnesota Twins

Royce Lewis
MIN • 3B • #23
View Profile

At long last, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft stayed on the field long enough to let his talent really shine through last season. Lewis slashed .309/.372/.548 with 15 home runs and strong contact rates in 239 plate appearances after returning from his second torn ACL last year. Then he swatted four homers in six postseason games. Still only 24, Lewis looks like a budding star.

The other side of the coin here is Lewis has a lengthy injury history that includes a twice-torn right ACL and oblique trouble in the minors and again in 2023. The good news is Lewis returned from the second torn ACL last year and performed, and he doesn't have any chronic injuries (persistent back or shoulder trouble, etc.). Still, we're waiting for his first fully healthy season.

Possible extension: Lewis is five years away from free agency, and he will almost certainly qualify as a Super Two next offseason, boosting his earning potential. Ke'Bryan Hayes was not in line to be a Super Two when he signed his seven-year, $80 million deal with the Pirates, though he was five years away from free agency and coming off a wrist injury. Adjust downward a bit, given Lewis' lengthier injury history, and maybe something like six years and $50 million is more appropriate?

7. LHP Jesús Luzardo, Miami Marlins

Jesús Luzardo
MIA • SP • #44
View Profile

At long last, Luzardo put together a full and healthy season in 2023 and pitched at something approaching an ace level. Talent has never been the question here. It was just whether Luzardo could stay on the field to make it matter, and he did last year. With Sandy Alcantara set to miss 2024 after Tommy John surgery, Luzardo will now step in as Miami's ace.

Extending pitchers is dicey because there is so much inherent injury risk, especially when the pitcher has Luzardo's injury history. The best predictor of future injury is past injury; Luzardo has had many past injuries. If the Marlins aren't going to extend someone with this much talent, who will they extend? High-end lefties are a hot commodity.

Possible extension: Luzardo is three years away from free agency and he's in his second year of arbitration as a Super Two. It has been a long time since a starter at this service time level signed an extension. Cristian Javier wasn't a Super Two when he signed his five-year, $64 million deal last spring, but he was three years from free agency. Is that a reasonable benchmark?

8. IF Matt McLain, Cincinnati Reds

Matt McLain
CIN • SS • #9
View Profile

The Reds have several young players worth extending, including Andrew Abbott and Elly De La Cruz, but we'll focus on McLain, arguably the team's best player a year ago. How the Reds will fit all these young infielders (and Jeimer Candelario) into one infield, I do not know, but that shouldn't stand in the way of a McLain extension. Sign him, then build around him.

Keep in mind the Reds have a long history of extending their best young players. It goes back to Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and others. They've spent a good deal of money on free agents like Candelario, Frankie Montas, and Nick Martinez this offseason. This team is ready to contend. It would be wise to extend McLain to ensure he's a long-term part of it.

Possible extension: Because he was called up in late May, McLain did not receive a full year of service time in 2023, and he is still six years away from free agency. Corbin Carroll's eight-year, $111 million extension is a little too rich for McLain. Michael Harris II's eight-year, $72 million deal could work though. He signed that contract at the same service time level as McLain.

9. C Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles

Adley Rutschman
BAL • C • #35
View Profile

A new ownership group is coming and the top priority should be signing Rutschman long-term. Gunnar Henderson, too. Though Rutschman is closer to free agency and has a scarcer skill set as a switch-hitting catcher with great defense. Remember when outgoing owner John Angelos said the O's would have to raise prices to afford extensions? Good riddance.

There have not been any rumblings regarding the O's and Rutschman discussing an extension, though I imagine they'll come soon. If nothing else, the team will at least check in to gauge Rutschman's interest. The Corbin Burnes trade was an excellent and needed move. If the new owners really want to win over the fan base, signing the franchise catcher is the way to go.

Possible extension: Rutschman is four years away from free agency, the same service time level as Buster Posey when he signed his nine-year, $167 million deal with the Giants. Posey had an MVP and two World Series rings by then, though that was also 11 years ago, so there's inflation to consider. Getting Rutschman to say yes to nine years and $167 million would be a win for the Orioles. Rutschman's lacking hardware, but using Posey on a contract comp is not unreasonable.

10. LHP Justin Steele, Chicago Cubs

Justin Steele
CHC • SP • #35
View Profile

The Cubs are just about ready to leap back into World Series contention, and at the top of their rotation is Steele, whose breakout season a year ago earned him an All-Star Game berth and a fifth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. With four years of team control remaining, he'll front a rotation that will soon fully incorporate high-end youngsters like Cade Horton and Jordan Wicks.

"That's something the team has to decide," Steele told The Athletic in December when asked about the possibility of an extension. "All I can do is go out and continue to perform and do what I do."

Steele, who was a good but not truly great prospect, is a major player development win for the Cubs. They had trouble developing arms for a long time -- those failures shortened their window following the 2016 World Series win -- and now they seem to have things back on the rail. That should help Steele remain productive moving forward.

Possible contract: Steele, like Gilbert, is four years away from free agency as a Super Two. Also, he turns 28 in July. Chicago already controls his age 28-31 seasons, so any extension beyond his team control years would buy his age-32 season and beyond. Those are potential decline years. Going year to year with Steele is understandable. That said, a Severino-esque four-year, $40M deal with a club option would give the Cubs cost certainty over his arbitration years and an option for a free agent year.

Other notable extension candidates: C Ryan Jeffers, Twins; RHP Michael King, Padres; LHP Tarik Skubal, Tigers; LHP Cole Ragans, Royals; 2B Bryson Stott and LHP Ranger Suárez, Phillies; OF Kyle Tucker and LHP Framber Valdez, Astros