Last July, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, a week after ranking the 50 best player assets/contract situations in baseball (Mike Trout was No. 1), turned heel and listed the five worst contracts in baseball. This was an infinitely more fascinating column. It is far more fun to jeer a horrible contract than applaud a sensible one. The next time I hear someone at the ballpark yell, "That was an excellent play, relative to salary structure! I find his average annual value quite reasonable!" will be the first time.
Before I clicked on Cameron's piece, I tried to guess who was on there. Yuniesky Betancourt... he had to have made the list, he's horrible. Adeiny Hechavarria hit .227 and played defense that looks poor by most metrics, though scouts seem to love it; he's a lock. B.J. Upton? Oh, B.J. Upton is a lock.
None of those players made it. Here were the five:
5. Prince Fielder
4. Josh Hamilton
3. Ryan Howard
2. Alex Rodriguez
1. Albert Pujols
So, basically: Five of the most marketable, famous and beloved players in the game. Between them, they've made a total of 36 All-Star game appearances, won eight MVPs, won four World Series. If you go to a ballpark in baseball, any ballpark in baseball, the odds are excellent you will see several kids wearing one of their jerseys, whether it's the players' home park or not. If you stopped a random person on the street and asked them to name you 10 baseball players, they will likely say at least four of these five players. They are in many ways the faces of the game. And their contracts are horrible -- fiascos.
And here is when these wretched, franchise-crippling contracts were signed:
December 2007 - Rodriguez
April 2010 - Howard (though contract didn't kick in until April 2012)
December 2011 - Pujols
January 2012 - Fielder
December 2012 - Hamilton
Now, that's somewhat of a weighted sample: The more years a bad contract has left to go, the worse it is, which is why there are so many recent contracts on there. (Rodriguez's contract, one that's so terrible that the Yankees changed their entire cost structure once they realized a season of it might be voided, is second-worst to Pujols' only because it was signed so long ago.) But that's sort of the point: The excitement the Angels generated upon signing Hamilton and Pujols, or the Tigers did when they signed Fielder, evaporated almost immediately. Detroit's went away so quickly that when they traded Fielder only 22 months after signing the nine-year deal, their fans were elated. The Angels' fans might be, in regard to Pujols and Hamilton, but no one would take either one of those guys off their hands, ever, not at those prices. These deals were disasters. Instantly.
And this week, as the winter meetings begin, we are meant to be excited. Robinson Cano to the Mariners! Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees! Brian McCann to the Yankees! Megadeals! It is beginning to look like the signature highlight of every major free agent signing is the actual signing of the contract document. It's all downhill from there.
The number one thing intelligent analysts, from Joe Sheehan to Jonathan Bernhardt to Emma Span to Dave Cameron to Sam Miller to Jay Jaffe, keep telling me this year is to not think so much about the money. Major League Baseball and its teams are flush with cash, so the contract amounts are going to be out of whack with reality, by nature. The overpaying is a feature, not a bug. Cameron made this argument on Friday by looking at the Carlos Beltran contract. Two years ago, the Cardinals signed Beltran for two years, $26 million; this year, with Beltran an older, less mobile, worse player, the Yankees gave him three years, $45 million. "There is just so much money in baseball right now that we have to be careful when comparing deals being signed now to deals signed in the past, even the recent past," Cameron writes. "Even with the wage suppressing mechanism of delayed free agency in place, MLB's spending on player payroll is going to double in less than 20 years. Baseball is in an economic boom."
We saw this with my Cardinals, who, rather than trade one of their stud young pitchers for a shortstop, decided to sign Jhonny Peralta for four years, $52 million. Even though just a week before Jon Heyman had predicted two years, $18 million for him, and FanGraphs had forgotten to include him on their crowdsourced predictions list entirely, the Cardinals were widely praised for the contract. The central premise of the praise seemed to be that the Cardinals had paid for Peralta, rather than traded for him. Getting Peralta and keeping those prospects gave Cardinals general manager flexibility. The consensus: It's only money.
Now, I know that baseball is in a boom period, thanks largely to massive television contracts and increased revenues across the board. (MLB Advanced Media, part-owner of Sports On Earth, is doing its part too, though I'm pretty sure I'm not personally responsible.) These are heady days in baseball, and the contracts are reflecting that.
But, of course, they always reflect that. Here's what Baseball Prospectus said after the Pujols' contract -- now considered the worst in the game -- was signed:
The odds of Pujols collapsing are low, but make no mistake that this is a risk-even if you dismiss the accusations of falsified age out of hand. A lot of years and a lot of money means a lot can go wrong. But this is the cost of doing business. With a potential new television deal in hand and an aggressive owner at the top, the Angels can afford to gamble on the league's finest batter.
Here's B-Pro on Fielder's deal a couple of months later:
That is the cost of business. Every general manager would like to acquire one of the best hitters in the game without paying him like so, but those dream situations rarely present themselves in reality, and that means someone will pay the players.
Here's the Hamilton deal, from B-Pro:
From a surplus-value calculation, the Albert Pujols deal alone threatens to undo all the other small, savvy moves Dipoto has made. Yes, the Angels have the money to outrun that mistake, and they have the money to outrun the Josh Hamilton mistake, if it is one. But avoiding the mistake in the first place would be best.
Now, everyone hated the Ryan Howard extension when it happened, and the A-Rod contract seems to exist on a different plane of reality, so we'll ignore those. The point is that every time someone signs for a massive amount of money and, more crucially, for a huge number of years, much of the analysis ultimately comes down to: This is the cost of doing business. If you want a player like Pujols/Hamilton/Fielder/Cano/Ellsbury/etc., you have to be willing to pay up. Baseball has tons of money. These teams can afford it.
Well, maybe. But ask the Angels how they can outrun the Pujols and Hamilton mistakes now. The Tigers couldn't get out from under Fielder's contract fast enough. The Yankees are spending, but only because they think A-Rod's 2014 salary is going to magically evaporate from their books. Sure, baseball is flush with cash right now. But money is still money; those teams, as supposedly flush as the rest of the game, are still feeling the pinch. Robinson Cano is going to make $24 million a year for the next 10 years no matter what happens. (Well, unless he angers the wrong guy.) The contract doesn't go away.
And what if baseball doesn't keep making fistloads of cash more every year? What if there's a year where it just breaks even and is steady, or even if, gasp, profits fall for a year or two? (Considering the television rights bubble many financial analysts believe we're living through, it's not that crazy.) Those contracts will still have to be paid. Look at the highest-paid players in the game right now: Two of those top 10 are close to worth it, at least for this second (Lee, Greinke); two are close or have been (Sabathia, Mauer); the other six are catastrophes... are are getting worse.
But, we're told, that's the past: Baseball is rich now! It's just what you have to pay to get those guys. Don't believe it. Right now maybe we shouldn't focus on the money. But eventually we will. Eventually we always do.