MLB: Smart Spending Increasingly Vital Due to Influx of $100 Million Deals

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MLB: Smart Spending Increasingly Vital Due to Influx of $100 Million Deals
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There have been 46 contracts in baseball history worth $100 million or more.

At the turn of the century, there had been one. Just six years ago, there were only 10. Now, the nine-figure deals are the new four-year, $40 million deal.

Forty of those 46 have already begun, with players like Dustin Pedroia, Joey Votto, and Evan Longoria set to earn nine-figure extensions once their current deals expire.

Such is the growing trend of baseball that a budding superstar be given a $100 million deal, to the point that some teams know they have no chance of a player unless they overpay for him.

The St. Louis Cardinals surely wanted Albert Pujols back after 2011; after all, he had led the club to two World Series, won three MVP awards, and accumulated a ridiculous 56.4 wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) during that span. But that would mean shelling out an almost impossible sum of money, and thus the Cardinals let Pujols walk.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were willing to dish out $240 million for Pujols, a ridiculous deal that will pay Pujols $30 million when he is in his age-41 season.

It’s absurd to expect Pujols to fulfill that deal, but the Angels know that and they’re paying more for the immediate dividends than the results at the end of Pujols’ deal. A couple of World Series championships early on will soften the blow of having to pay DH Pujols one of the highest annual values in the game when he is likely relegated to that of a power bat off the bench.

Likewise, the Angels gave Hamilton a nine-figure deal, and already they have to be looking for a way to get out of each of those contracts. Similarly, the Philadelphia Phillies with Ryan Howard, Los Angeles Dodgers with Matt Kemp, and Detroit Tigers with Prince Fielder are committed many years in the future for players that look scarily on the decline.

It’s even more tricky for pitchers.

Aside from the senseless Mike Hampton contract, many pitchers have performed surprisingly well on their long-term deals. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee have remained aces well into their contracts, and even Johan Santana and Kevin Brown performed well aside from injuries.

The following is a breakdown of all the 40 $100 million contracts that have already started, along with a look at the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) the player has generated. The “Total WAR” column indicates how many wins above that of a replacement player the player brought in (per FanGraphs), and the ensuing column breaks that down to an average WAR per year. With 2013 just over two-thirds completed, it’s written as 70 percent of a season, or 0.7 seasons for a deal that started in ’13.

The “$M/1 WAR” is how much the team was paying the player for every one win he produced. So a five-year deal for $100 million that resulted in 20 total WAR means the player was paid $100 million for 20 WAR, which is $5 million per win.

The last two columns show how much WAR the player accumulated in his five seasons prior to the contract (or three years in the case of a player like Buster Posey, who didn’t have five years of experience before he got paid). The final column is how much WAR the player averaged per season before his contract.

The contracts are sorted by highest total contract value; thus, A-Rod is at the top by virtue of his two separate mammoth deals (the first was essentially restructured, as was the case for CC Sabathia later on the list).

For those unfamiliar with WAR, FanGraphs uses the following barrier for WAR: eight or more is an MVP season, five is an All-Star, two is an average starter, and zero is comparable to that of a replacement-level player in the minor leagues that can be called up at will.

It’s difficult to expect a $100 million player to average a total of six or seven WAR per season simply since that’s such a high standard. Players will naturally decline as they age and most $100 million dollars start around the player’s sixth to seventh season, which means they can go until the player is entering his mid-thirties.

Obviously, players like David Wright and Felix Hernandez—just starting their new deals—have a high WAR given that they’re still in the prime of their careers. It’s unfair to compare their high WAR/season totals to that of players like CC Sabathia, who’s well into his $100 million deal. But that’s why I will break down the contracts into those that are finished and those that are not finished.

The following shows a list of the 13 completed $100 million deals in baseball history, and the total WAR the player produced. A last column shows the average amount the team paid for one WAR from the player. (Johan Santana is included on the list since he will not pitch again in 2013).

This column, sorted by the year the contract started, shows there has been about one $100 million deal handed out on average over the 10 years from 1999-2008.

This next picture ranks the finished contracts in order from best financial value based on production to worst value.

Albert Pujols proves to be by far the best financial deal, twice as efficient as the next-best (Carlos Beltran). Pujols was signed for exactly $100 million and averaged a ridiculous 8.06 WAR per season, meaning he was an MVP candidate every year during that span. In fact, he won the award three times and finished second twice more.

Carlos Beltran is next, followed by (surprisingly) Kevin Brown, who was putting up seven to nine WAR per season in his prime. A-Rod is just fourth; despite averaging nearly seven WAR per season, his $25 million per year rate drops him down the list.

Players like Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter (whose value is more than just WAR), and Todd Helton gave their teams very solid results for the money spent.

Johan Santana was terrific when he pitched, but that wasn’t as frequently as it should have been. Carlos Lee was a good player, but not great, and he doesn’t justify the $100 million he got.

The last two fell far below expectations (bet you were surprised to see Griffey accounted for as little WAR as he did). These teams were paying nearly a year’s salary for one WAR, which really does nothing for the team since the average starter can put up about two WAR per season.

Here’s a comparison of the difference in WAR among those players from the five seasons prior to their contract to the duration of the contracts.

Looking at this, Pujols wins again, as he far exceeded his pre-contract numbers. He averaged 0.62 more WAR per season during his contract than the five before (actually three in Pujols’ case since he got his extension early). A-Rod is the only other player to have exceeded his pre-contract numbers, although Jeter is very close.

It’s roughly the same order of players, although Griffey is much worse than any other player. He went from being a perennial MVP candidate to being a player that struggled to stay healthy and hit above .260.

The next table is the contracts that aren’t yet finished but are far along to get an accurate view of the player’s production. That means contracts that have started 2011 or before are on the list.

Cliff Lee stands out from these contracts as the clear-cut best so far, which is surprising because he was openly shopped around all July. The Phillies have gotten Cy Young caliber production from Lee during his contract, and he has just two more full seasons. That one will go down as one of the better $100 million contracts.

Similarly, his teammate Ryan Howard is the only player on the list to have accumulated negative WAR since signing his deal, and it’s doubtful his production gets much better.

Teams like the Seattle Mariners (Felix Hernandez), New York Yankees (CC Sabathia), and Minnesota Twins (Joe Mauer) have to be feeling good about the results they’ve gotten so far. Then again, a lot can happen in a few years, and there’s no telling how productive a catcher like Mauer will be by the time 2018 rolls around.

For a team like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with both Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, they have to be panicking. Pujols is still a talented player when healthy, but he’s possibly out for the rest of 2013, and then he has eight years to go. Hamilton has regressed to the point he should probably be platooned to face only righties, and the Angels still have to pay him over $100 million.

It just goes to show the uncertainty teams face when locking up a player to a $100 million deal. Even the surefire players like Pujols regress quicker than one might expect, and a National League middle infielder like Troy Tulowitzki being signed for a decade at a time is downright foolish.

The following table shows the production of the player pre-contract and post-contract, showing a comparison of his average WAR for the five seasons immediately preceding his deal compared to his WAR thus far in the contract.

As you can see, Miguel Cabrera’s 2008 deal will likely go down as the best of all the $100 million deals, seeing as he’s outperforming even the production he was putting up prior to his deal. Cabrera is at a full 1.5 WAR above his ’03-’07 numbers, beating the second-place player (Albert Pujols) by nearly one full WAR.

Just three of the contracts (A-Rod’s first deal is the other) are in the plus, meaning the player performed better during the contract than before he signed the deal.

Some are alarmingly in the negatives, highlighted by Griffey, Jr.’s mega deal with the Cincinnati Reds and A-Rod’s renegotiated contract with the New York Yankees.

The next table shows a breakdown of the contracts that are still too early to judge, seeing as they’ve started since 2011.

David Wright is the easy winner so far, although it’s been just 70 percent of his first year and a lot can change between now and 2020.

What’s disappointing about the new deals is how many players are significantly under expectations; a full 16 of the 20 players are underperforming by at least a half WAR, with players like Howard, Hamilton, Carl Crawford, and Pujols substantially in the negatives. And all of these players have at least three more full seasons to go, with Pujols at another eight.

It’s still early as mentioned, so a player like Zack Greinke (-3.97 WAR) can certainly pick up the slack. He’s missed extensive time due to injury this year, so his 1.0 WAR isn’t reflective of his true abilities.

That’s part of the problem of a $20 to $25 million per deal contract; there’s not a lot of room for injuries, inconsistencies, or underachieving. It’s a double-edged sword in that teams have to know they’re going to overpay players but if they don’t overpay, they won’t get top talent and therefore be able to win ballgames.

The ideal scenario for every team is getting the pre-arbitration results the Angels are getting from Mike Trout or the Washington Nationals have gotten from Bryce Harper. Team-friendly contracts like Andrew McCutchen’s six-year, $51 million deal through 2017 give the Pittsburgh Pirates a perennial All-Star at an extremely reasonable price. And any team that can find a Yasiel Puig for $7 million per year (six years, $42 million total) is in luck.

The point of this shouldn’t be that teams should never dish out a $100 million deal. After all, that would mean never getting a top free agent. But it may mean taking a closer look at a player’s pre-contract production before giving him a maximum deal.

Look at the Chicago Cubs with Alfonso Soriano for example. Soriano was a very good player with the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers averaging 3.92 WAR per season from 2002 through 2006. But a four WAR per season player should in no way justify a $126 million deal. Likewise, the Nationals drastically overpaid a talent like Jayson Werth, while the San Francisco Giants’ contract to Barry Zito was downright perplexing.

It will be interesting to watch the future of these contracts, as teams are already looking to get out of deals that were just signed. The Boston Red Sox traded away Crawford very early in his $142 million deal, and there has been speculation about the Dodgers taking offers for Kemp's $160 million deal.

Players like Robinson Cano (free agent after 2013), Clayton Kershaw (after ’14), and Cabrera (free agent again after ’15) will push for record contracts at their position, this locking their team up to massive deals through at least 2022. It’s part of the free-agent game; if the Dodgers want to keep a talent like Kershaw, arguably the best left-handed pitcher since Sandy Koufax, they’re going to have to pay ridiculous money for his services.

Likewise, the Yankees with Cano and the Tigers with Cabrera can’t possibly expect to keep their stars for three year deals at $15 million per season.

And it’s way too early but a look ahead at the future suggests the new crop of 20-year old phenoms (Trout, Harper, Manny Machado) will all warrant contracts well over $200 million, with someone likely gunning for the first $300 million deal ever.

The obvious correlation between WAR produced and the size of the contract means if these players keep producing, they will have their choice come free agency time. There’s no trick to dishing out a $100 million deal; after all, the Reds probably thought they had themselves a tremendous catch with Griffey, and his injuries and age backfired that deal. Likewise, the Tigers assuredly were thrilled to get Cabrera before '08, but it’s doubtful even they thought he would turn into the modern-day right-handed Babe Ruth.

It’s tough to know just how many wins above replacement a player has to accumulate to justify his contract. Pujols definitely came through, averaging over eight WAR per season for seven years. That puts him as the best for average WAR among these contracts, whereas Howard is the worst (so far).

Of the 40 contracts, the median performance is right between Prince Fielder’s 3.35 WAR/season and Todd Helton’s 3.33 WAR/season. Fielder’s contract is just in its second season, and Helton’s contract is complete. Of the 20 contracts with at least three full seasons in the books, the median falls right between A-Rod’s 3.51 WAR per season (A-Rod’s current contract) and Helton’s 3.33.

Of the 40 contracts overall, the average performance is a WAR of 3.43 per season, while the average of the 20 older contracts is a WAR of 3.54. So any way that you spin it, players under $100 million deals are producing about 3.3-3.5 WAR per season. Those are solid, productive totals, but nowhere near what owners and GMs expect from franchise players.

Here’s a list of players that produced between 3.3 and 3.5 WAR in 2012: Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla, Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Beltran, Adrian Gonzalez, A.J. Pierzynski, Desmond Jennings, and Carlos Santana.

Two of those players (Beltran and Gonzalez) have $100 million deals. The rest are good players that would never touch a $100 million deal for the simple reason that their peak is maybe four WAR, while a guy like Espinosa (3.4 WAR a year ago) is currently hitting .208 in Triple-A.

I took a closer look at the 20 older $100 million deals, removing the three best and three worst WAR players to remove any possible outliers. What that does is actually reflect the top-heavy dominance of the big three in Pujols, A-Rod, and Cabrera. The average WAR per season drops to a mediocre 2.35, a level on par with ’12 players like Zack Cozart, Cameron Maybin, Darwin Barney, and Cody Ross.

None of those players would even get a $40 million deal if they hit free agency now. So what does this all mean? That GMs shouldn’t sign players to long-term deals?

Of course not. Not signing players means not winning games, unless a team can manufacture Trouts and Machados at will. What it means is owners should definitely think twice and even three times about giving a $100 million deal to any future free agent. Extending a player five years before his deal expires (Ryan Braun) probably isn’t necessary, especially when unforeseen circumstances can arise.

There may come a time when $100 million contacts will be the norm for any player that is under 30 years old and ranks in the top 10 at his position. And that will be a drastic change from the turn of the century when only the cream of the crop even sniffed nine-figure deals. If that’s the case, smart spending will be even more essential because no team wants to owe $98 million to an aging has-been that still has four years remaining on his record deal.

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