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BLOG #10: Are Mega-Contracts Worth It?

There is no question that MLB contracts are reaching an outrageous level of expensive. Due to revenues skyrocketing the past couple decades both within Major League Baseball and its teams, money has never been more plentiful. Teams all around the league are making billion-dollar television and broadcast deals, and with no salary cap in the near future, mega-contracts are not going anywhere.

This past week, another deal took place between the San Diego Padres and Fernando Tatis Jr. The flashy 22 year-old SS agreed to a 14 year $340 million dollar deal, further proving that MLB teams are doing whatever they can to lock up their stars for the future. I find myself conflicted on how to approach these mega-contracts, as paying for a player for their whole career is a ridiculously high-risk investment. I do have to commend organizations, however, for realizing how valuable certain players can be to their team and their fan base.

In terms of evaluating mega-contracts, I am sure most franchises start with asking themselves these three basic questions:

  • Will this player stay with the organization throughout the entirety of the contract?
  • Will older players who have proven they are worth the mega-contract play up to that standard in the future?
  • Will young players who have yet to prove their worth live up to their expectations and expense of their new contract?

The first question is a very important one. Time and time again players sign a massive deal and things don’t work out, so they get shipped out to a big-market team that can afford the contract and the risk. Listed below are six notable players who received their mega-contract, and finished it or currently are finishing it in another uniform.

Get Paid and Get Traded
** WAR: Wins Above Replacement; it measures a player’s value in all aspects of his game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (the higher the better).

PlayerContractPrior TeamNew TeamWAR**Years Completed
Nolan Arenado8 yrs/$260MColorado RockiesSt. Louis Cardinals6.92/8
Robinson Cano10 yrs/$240MSeattle MarinersNew York Mets22.78/10
Zack Greinke6 yrs/$207MArizona DiamondbacksHouston Astros17.65/6
David Price6 yrs/$185MBoston Red SoxLos Angeles Dodgers10.74/6
Alex Rodriguez10yrs/$252M*Texas RangersNew York Yankees56.17/10
Giancarlo Stanton13 yrs/$325MMiami MarlinsNew York Yankees18.16/13
*opted out in 2008, only played 7 years of the 10

Nolan Arenado:
Arenado, who many thought would forever be a Rockie after his extension back in 2019, was finally traded to the Cardinals after countless years of rumors before its eventual completion. After a successful first two years of his deal with the Rockies, I expect the same going forward with no eye-popping discrepancies looking at his numbers up to this point in his career. People can argue his numbers may decrease by leaving Colorado and the Coors effect, but Nolan has a high chance to improve his game in a currently weak N.L. Central for the remaining six years of his contract.

Robinson Cano:
Cano, who had six seasons with a WAR of 3.7 or higher prior to his deal, has had only two such seasons since signing his mega-contract in 2014. How much of that had to do with playing less-meaningful baseball in Seattle over New York? Who knows. There were rumors of him being unhappy in Seattle and he was no longer enjoying a hitter friendly ballpark in Yankee Stadium. Nevertheless, he did not live up to his contract and got caught cheating with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) twice! For someone who had a very high chance at a hall of fame induction, his suspensions and underwhelming performance as of late has made that chance impractical.

Zack Greinke:
Greinke, who signed his contract at age 32, pitched relatively well over the course of the last five seasons. In that stretch, he won a total of 70 games, received 4 gold gloves, earned three all star selections, and a silver slugger (got to love pitchers who rake). He also won 13 or more starts in each season and carried an average WHIP of 1.108. Despite a 2017 campaign in which he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, no other season Greinke really stood out as a top pitcher in the league. Since 2016, however, Greinke’s consistency helped rank him tenth amongst all pitchers in WAR while also pitching the fourth most innings in that span. That being said, it would be unfair to categorize his contract as a complete failure, but I do not think it should be categorized as a very successful one either.

David Price:
Price, who helped Boston win a World Series in 2018, was 46-24 with Boston before getting packaged in a blockbuster trade that sent him and Mookie Betts to Los Angeles prior to the 2020 season. The former 2012 Cy Young winner is set to be the seventh-highest paid pitcher in the league next season, despite potentially being the fourth best starter on his team! After sitting out the 2020 campaign due to COVID, it will be interesting to see how he performs with the change of scenery. During 2016-2019, Price ranked 29th in WAR and 49th in innings pitched amongst all pitchers. It is safe to say, although he was a solid starter for Boston, he can be added to the list of players who have not earned their share of their mega-contract.

Giancarlo Stanton:
Stanton, after posting a 2014 campaign with a 6.8 WAR, earned a massive deal with the Marlins and went on to have a combined 5.7 WAR for the next two seasons. In 2017, after posting 59 homers and a 7.3 WAR, Stanton was rewarded with a trade to the Yankees the following offseason. His first year in New York was commendable – compiling 38 home runs with a 4.3 WAR. Unfortunately he also had 211 strikeouts that year, which tied him sixth all time for most strikeouts in a season. To make matters worse, he has only played 41 games the last two seasons due to injuries. Regardless, injuries are something teams have to take into account when dealing with mega-contracts, as all money in the MLB is guaranteed. With seven seasons remaining on his deal, Stanton looks to return to his former self and more importantly stay healthy.

Alex Rodriguez:
Of these six players, Rodriguez is the only one who lived up to his contract, but who knows how much of that was due to PEDs. From 2001-2007, he ranked first among all active hitters in HRs, Rs, RBIs, and WAR. He was also a 3x MVP, 7x all star, and 2x gold glove winner. Not only did Rodriguez perform in the games he played in, but Rodriguez played A LOT. In six seasons, he totaled 1,114 games – ranking him behind only Ichiro and Juan Pierre during that span. Near the end of his first contract in 2008, Rodriguez opted out to sign another mega-contract (making him the only player to have two in MLB history), signing a deal with the Yankees for 10 years $275M at age 33. While I praise Rodriguez and use him as an example for being one of the few players to live up to a sizable deal, I will also use his second deal as an example of the downsides on mega-contracts.

What exactly are the negatives? Here is a question for thought. What about the players who underperform on their contract that aren’t lucky enough to be traded? Do these players just get paid like an all star without playing like one? Well, the short answer is yes. Some have their contracts bought out, others retire before their legacies are ruined, and the rest cash each check and tread on. Listed below are those players, and while a lot of these names are very good baseball players – some even future hall of famers – there is no debating that these mega-contracts were nothing short of disastrous.

“Get Paid and Please, Just Get Out”
WAR A: WAR the season before signing deal
WAR B: Total WAR during entire duration of contract

PlayerDate Signed (Age)WAR AContractWAR BYears Completed
Homer Bailey (CIN)2014 (28)4.16yrs/$105M5.96/6
Miguel Cabrera (DET)2016 (33)4.68yrs/$248M5.25/8
Yoenis Cespedes (NYM)2017 (31)3.74yrs/$110M6.04/4
Carl Crawford (BOS)2011 (30)7.77yrs/$142M4.66/7*
Chris Davis (BAL)2016 (30)5.47yrs/$161M-2.94/7
Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY)2013 (31)4.67yrs/$153M8.14/7*
Prince Fielder (DET)2012 (28)4.79yrs/$215M7.55/9*
Josh Hamilton (LAA)2013 (32)4.95yrs/$125M2.83/5*
Jason Heyward (CHC)2015 (27)5.68yrs/$184M8.05/8
Eric Hosmer (SD)2018 (29)4.08yrs/$144M0.53/8
Ryan Howard (PHI)2010 (33)4.45yrs/$125M-1.75/5
Albert Pujols (LAA)2011 (32)3.910yrs/$240M5.99/10
Vernon Wells (TOR)2006 (29)5.87yrs/$126M6.77/7
David Wright (NYM)2013 (31)6.68 yrs/$138M8.95/8*
Jordan Zimmerman (DET)2015 (29)3.15 yrs/$110M5.25/5
Barry Zito (SF)2007 (29)2.28 yrs/$126M6.08/8
*retired before completing contract
Albert Pujols (left) and Miguel Cabrera (right)

It is hard to disrespect a list of players when they boast names such as Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera – I know. I just question what motivated teams to offer these contracts listed above in the first place. Some players just didn’t pan out, others dealt with injuries, and a couple contracts were given to thank the player for their prior service to the league. What contributed to these players having high WAR seasons before landing these deals? My guess involves the appeal to play well before hitting free agency and increasing the chance at a lucrative deal. Considering the probability to reciprocate one’s prime near the end of a career is few and far between, these deals were all a product of two things:

  • Misconception that the player will continue to perform at that level
  • Raising the player’s value by trying to outbid other interested teams

Do I blame the players for underperforming? No.

Do I blame teams for wasting money on some of the aforementioned players who had no chance of living up to their contract? 100%.

On the flip side, there are only two players that come to mind who have thrived under their mega-contract up to date while managing to stay with the same team throughout the process. Listed below are the rare ones – the ones who stayed and delivered what their contracts asked of them.

“Get Paid and Prosper”

PlayerDate Signed (Age)ContractWARYears Completed
Max Scherzer (WSH)2015 (29)7yrs/$210M34.46/7
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)2014 (26)7yrs/$215M33.87/7

Max Scherzer:
Ah, Mad Max. Where do I even begin? Since signing his contract in 2015, Scherzer has secured five all star appearances, two Cy Young awards, and a World Series. In that span, he ranks first in WAR (34.4), strikeouts (1,463), innings pitched (1,118.0), and batting average against (.201) amongst all starting pitchers. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015 he threw two no-hitters in the same season, an achievement only four others in MLB history have reached. Then in 2016, he made history again by throwing a 20 strikeout game, a feat that (in 9 innings) has only been completed by the likes of Roger Clemens (twice), Kerry Wood, and Randy Johnson. It is a no-brainer Scherzer lived up to his contract, and when he hangs up the cleats I expect a first-ballot HOF is almost a given at this point. 2021 was the only season in which he wasn’t a top pitcher, so at 36 years old with one season left on this mega-contract, I wonder what the future holds for one of the greatest pitchers of my lifetime.

Clayton Kershaw:
When you hear the name Clayton Kershaw, no doubt the first thing that comes to mind is greatness. After singing his mega-contract in 2014 to remain in Los Angeles, Kershaw has only further proved he is one of the greatest starting pitchers of all time. Since finalizing his deal, he ranks first in WHIP (0.91), ERA- (58), ERA (2.27), and shutouts (8). Further, he also made five all star appearances, won an MVP, Cy Young, and World Series, and earned two ERA titles in that span. It is clear that along with Scherzer, Kershaw will be a first ballot hall of famer and without a doubt will be talked about for many years to come. So, safe to say he lived up to his contract as well.

For many others, however, there is still plenty of time for things to unfold and determine where they rank amongst those who have also received mega-contracts. Listed below are the notable players who are at the beginning stages of their contracts, and hope to be remembered for their play rather than their contract.

Get Paid and TBD

PlayerDate Signed (Age)ContractWAR*Years Completed
Fernando Tatis Jr.2021 (22)14yrs/$340MN/A0/14
Trevor Bauer2021 (30)3yrs/$102MN/A0/3
J.T. Realmuto (PHI)2021 (30)5yrs/$115MN/A0/5
George Springer (TOR)2021 (31)6yrs/$150MN/A0/6
Mookie Betts (LAD)2021 (28)12yrs/$365MN/A0/12
Stephen Strasburg (WSH)2020 (31)7yrs/$245MN/A1/7
Gerrit Cole (NYY)2020 (30)9yrs/$324M1.51/9
Anthony Rendon (LAA)2020 (29)7yrs/$245M2.71/7
Mike Trout (LAA)2019 (28)12yrs/$426M11.02/12
Bryce Harper (PHI)2019 (27)13yrs/$330M6.22/13
Manny Machado (SD)2019 (27)10yrs/$300M5.72/10
Jose Altuve (HOU)2018 (28)7yrs/$165M8.73/7
*during contract

So where does that leave us? With more high-priced deals being finalized the past couple seasons, all the data above exhibit these mega-contracts are excruciatingly unpredictable. Some players last a season, others too many; some players perform, others disappear. One thing is for certain, major leaguers all get guaranteed money as long as they play. So with future 2022 free agents like Trevor Story, Freddie Freeman, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Gleyber Torres, and Javier Baez on the table, I anticipate more shocking and high-priced mega-contracts to develop in the future.

Interesting Notes:

High-Paid DuosTotal Length of DealsTeamTotal Money Due
Mike Trout
Anthony Rendon
19 yearsLos Angeles Angels$671,000,000M
Fernando Tatis Jr.
Manny Machado
24 yearsSan Diego Padres$640,000,000M
Bryce Harper
Zack Wheeler
18 yearsPhiladelphia Phillies$448,000,000M
Giancarlo Stanton
D.J. Lemahieu
19 yearsNew York Yankees$415,000,000M
Ronald Acuna Jr.
Ozzie Albies
15 yearsAtlanta Braves$135,000,000M
Ronald Acuna Jr. (left) and Ozzie Albies (right)

Ozzie Albies may not be as high-profile as the rest of the list, but what the Braves pulled off in locking up two young stars for that amount of money deserves recognition. This allows flexibility to sign other stars in the future, and eliminates having to cut payroll going forward because of mega-contracts. Ronald Acuna Jr., who ranked 7th in the recent release of MLB’s Top 100 players (and has an MVP caliber ceiling), easily deserves to be paid like his fellow stars listed in the table above. While I am against him missing out on the massive deal he deserves, I hope that his pay cut leads to other star players coming to Atlanta to help lead them to a World Series win sometime in his career.

Oh, and before I forget, the San Diego Padres still owe their infield $705M going forward.

  • Tatis: $340M
  • Machado: $256M
  • Hosmer: $81M
  • Kim: $28M

And that isn’t even mentioning their rotation. Makes me wonder how good my Cubs could be if they spent their money like that. Let’s just hope for good things in 2022 FA.

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