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Tigers lock up top prospect Colt Keith with six-year contract extension

The deal, which also includes club options for years seven, eight and nine, is part of a growing trend around the league.

Colt Keith of the American League Fall Stars hits a one RBI double in the second inning during the game between the American League Fall Stars and the National League Fall Stars at Sloan Park on Sunday, November 6, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When news broke back in November that the Milwaukee Brewers had handed 19-year-old outfielder Jackson Chourio an eight-year, $80 million extension — a record number for a prospect, despite the fact that Chourio had just 24 plate appearances above Double-A — we wrote that this sort of deal was about to become baseball’s new normal.

Turns out, it wasn’t even the last one of this offseason. The Detroit Tigers announced on Sunday morning that they had locked up their own top prospect, 20-year-old third baseman Colt Keith, to a six-year contract extension that will run through the 2029 season. It also includes club options for 2030, 2031 and 2032, affording Detroit the ability to keep MLB Pipeline’s No. 22 overall prospect in town for at least the next decade.

The new contract will pay Keith $2.5 million in 2024, $3.5 million in 2025, $4 million per season in both 2026 and 2027 and $5 million per season in 2028 and 2029. There’s also a $10 million option in 2030, a $13 million option in 2031 and a $15 million club option in 2032, meaning that the maximum value of the deal could climb as high as $82 million over nine years. Of course, Detroit can also cut bait after 2029 should Keith not blossom into the star the team is clearly anticipating, in which case they’re only on the hook for less than $29 million over six years — an average annual value that’s a mere drop in the bucket of the team’s overall payroll.

As we wrote after the Chourio deal, it’s easy to see the logic for both sides, and it’s easy to see why these sorts of contracts are only going to become more common — especially for teams that are never going to be a preferred destination for free agents. The Tigers want their key players under contract for as many years as possible. Keith, meanwhile, is willing to give up those years in exchange for financial security, a way to make meaningful money without having to wait until free agency — a wait during which he could suffer an injury or dip in performance that affects his market. This is the bargain that the Brewers made with Chourio, the White Sox made with Luis Robert Jr. and the Braves have made with a number of their young stars: Give us a couple more years of team control and we’ll give you a raise, one that will fall short of market value but is still a significant improvement over what you’re making now. Plus, even if Detroit exercises all three club options, Keith will hit free agency after the 2032 season — at which point he’ll still be just 31, young enough to land a significant second contract.

Granted, Keith hadn’t established himself at the highest level the way that Robert Jr. or Michael Harris II or Spencer Strider had when they signed their extensions. And he doesn’t come with the eye-popping athleticism or five-tool ceiling of someone like Chourio, whose deal brought more than $50 million more in guarantees. Still, he is one of the most enticing offensive prospects in the Minors right now, and a player the Tigers are eager to build around as they look to shift from rebuilding mode to contention in a very winnable AL Central.

What to know about Tigers prospect Colt Keith

Drafted in the fifth and final round of the abbreviated 2020 MLB Draft, Keith wasn’t on many prospect radars as he began his professional career. That changed in a big way in 2022, when he slashed .301/.370/.544 with nine homers and 14 doubles across his first 48 games at High-A. A shoulder injury cut that breakout short, but when he returned last year, he just kept right on mashing: .325/.391/.585 with 14 homers in 59 games at Double-A, then .287/.369/.521 with 13 homers in 67 games at Triple-A, both of which came in his first taste of those levels. All Keith has done so far in the Tigers org is hit the ball hard and in the air with regularity, with enough contact skills to get just about all of his considerable power into games.

He probably won’t flirt with .300 in the Majors but something like .270 or so feels very attainable, and when you pair that with 25-30 homers, well, you’ve got yourself quite a player — something like prime Kyle Seager, who averaged 5-6 WAR a year for the Mariners for much of the 2010s. Of course, Seager was also a very good third baseman, and here’s where the question marks begin for Keith. While Chourio projects as a no-doubt center fielder, Keith’s ultimate defensive home is still up in the air; even if he does manage to stick at second or third base, the best-case scenario is that he fights one of those positions to a draw rather than truly excelling. There’s also a chance that his movement skills suffer as he continues to age and fill out, pushing him to first base or an outfield corner — which would put a lot more pressure on the bat, and make the offensive profile feel a bit less exciting.

But Keith moves better than you’d expect, and he’s not some sort of lumbering oaf out there. Even if he’s only fine, he should stick at one of the non-first base infield spots for at least the heart of this deal. Detroit has Spencer Torkelson and a bunch of question marks in its Major League infield right now, and slotting Keith in as early as this coming season will go a long way toward helping the Tigers get back into contention. With Torkelson, Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter anchoring the offense and a sneaky solid group of young pitchers in the rotation, this team could be making noise sooner than most realize.