The Designated Hitter's Role in Creating Albatross MLB Contracts

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 18, 2014

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To create an albatross MLB contract, you'll need a team willing to live dangerously, a player with an amazing track record and around 30 years of age on him, and—of course—a huge bundle of cash.

Another ingredient that helps: the designated hitter. 

Consider Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, for example. They and their roughly $500 million in guaranteed money will be sharing first base at Comerica Park this weekend, and you might find yourself feeling queasy at the thought of how much of that green is ticketed for the drain.

Feel free to blame at least some of that queasiness on the DH, as there likely wouldn't be as much down-the-drainage money at risk without it.

Pujols' contract was the third-biggest in MLB history at the time. Now that honor belongs to Cabrera's contract.
Pujols' contract was the third-biggest in MLB history at the time. Now that honor belongs to Cabrera's contract.Alex Gallardo

You can look back to when Pujols signed his 10-year, $240 million pact with the Angels and find an article acknowledging that the then-31-year-old was likely to spend more time at DH as he got older. After the Tigers signed Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million extension last month, Chris Iott of likewise acknowledged that more time at DH is likely in the 31-year-old's future.

On paper, the DH exists to strengthen American League lineups and, by extension, spare AL fans from having to watch pitchers hit. But here we behold the DH characterized as a safety net for the justification of investing in a hitter's late 30s and/or early 40s.

And from a negotiating standpoint, at least, that puts National League teams at a disadvantage.

After Pujols and Prince Fielder signed megacontracts in the winter of 2011-2012, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated summed it up:

Prince Fielder (nine-year contract) and Albert Pujols (10 years) jumped to AL clubs as free agents in part because AL teams can afford to offer longer contracts because a player can transition to the DH role as he ages. Eleven of the 13 richest contracts ever given to position players have been bankrolled by AL teams.

For the record, AL clubs have now handed out nine of the 10 richest contracts to position players. Via Cot's Baseball Contracts:

10 Richest Contracts Ever for Position Players
Alex Rodriguez10$275MNYYAL
Alex Rodriguez10$252MTEXAL
Miguel Cabrera8$248MDETAL
Albert Pujols10$240MLAAAL
Robinson Cano10$240MSEAAL
Joey Votto10$225MCINNL
Prince Fielder9$214MDETAL
Derek Jeter10$189MNYYAL
Joe Mauer8$184MMINAL
Mark Teixeira8$180MNYYAL
Cot's Baseball Contracts

Joel Sherman of the New York Post made the same observation as Verducci last winter, but it's not just outsiders who are aware of the negotiating advantage that the DH gives American League clubs.

Here's what Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin told ESPN's Jayson Stark after losing Fielder in 2012:

Just having the DH gives a definite advantage to an American League club in signing one of those guys. If you're in the American League and you're signing him past age 35, you say, 'He can DH in a couple of those years.' But you can't do that in the National League.

The caveat to Melvin's point about NL clubs not being able to sign players past the age of 35 is that they don't seem to have a problem doing it with their own players.

A search for extensions of at least five years since 2000 on MLB Trade Rumors reveals 14 deals that have been guaranteed through at least a hitter's age-36 season. The AL and NL are each responsible for seven. And of the 22 extensions guaranteed through at least age 35, the NL is responsible for 12.

Regarding free-agent contracts, however, Melvin's gripe is legit.

If we go searching for post-2000 free-agent contracts of at least five years that have been guaranteed through at least a hitter's age-35 season, we find this:

Free-Agent Contracts for Aging Hitters
PlayerYearsDollarsTeamLeagueStart AgeEnd Age
Alex Rodriguez10$275MNYYAL3241
Albert Pujols10$240MLAAAL3241
Robinson Cano10$240MSEAAL3140
Prince Fielder9$214MDETAL2836
Mark Teixeira8$180MNYYAL2936
Manny Ramirez8$160MBOSAL2936
Jacoby Ellsbury7$153MNYYAL3036
Carl Crawford7$142MBOSAL2935
Alfonso Soriano8$136MCHCNL3138
Shin-Soo Choo7$130MTEXAL3137
Jayson Werth7$126MWASNL3238
Josh Hamilton5$125MLAAAL3236
Jason Giambi7$120MNYYAL3137
Matt Holliday7$120MSTLNL3036
Carlos Lee6$100MHOUNL3135
Torii Hunter5$90MLAAAL3236
Adrian Beltre5$80MTEXAL3236
J.D. Drew5$70MBOSAL3135
Gary Matthews Jr.5$50MLAAAL3235 (ages) and MLB Trade Rumors

Note: Those are seasonal ages, not actual ages.

There are 19 contracts pictured above, and 15 have been handed out by American League clubs. That includes the eight biggest contracts.

In all, there's solid support for the notion that NL clubs are—on the open market, at least—at a disadvantage thanks to the DH. Maybe they can match the dollars, but it's really the years that count and there's clearly something to NL clubs being hesitant to sign up for more of a hitter's twilight years than they have to.

Now, I imagine that some of you might be sitting there thinking: "Who cares?! Clearly NL teams not having the DH is a blessing in disguise!"

Indeed. The older the player and the longer the contract, the bigger the bust potential. And among the four National League contracts you see up there, two are panning out very well and the other two could have been worse. Matt Holliday's been awesome for the Cardinals, Jayson Werth has come around after a rough first year with the Nationals, and Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee both had some solid years and at least made it to the end of their deals in one piece.

And while some of the AL deals pictured above worked out or are working out, it's the busts that stand out.

A-Rod through 2007: average of 136 games played and .967 OPS. Since 2008: average of 111 games played and .867 OPS.
A-Rod through 2007: average of 136 games played and .967 OPS. Since 2008: average of 111 games played and .867 OPS.USA TODAY Sports

Injuries and age rendered A-Rod a mess right away. The same fate has struck Pujols. Fielder appears to have started his own decline. Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton and Gary Matthews Jr. are examples of big contracts going south pretty much from day one.

It's situations like these—especially those of Rodriguez, Pujols and Fielderthat highlight not just why there's so much fear about Cabrera's megadeal turning into a megabust, but also the fundamental danger of American League clubs thinking of the DH as a safety net.

Teams can draw up plans to give their expensive hitters more at-bats at DH down the line, but that's not preventing injuries and/or ineffectiveness from happening first and ruining everything.

Then there's the reality that AL clubs signing an aging hitter to a long-term contract and then giving him more regular DH duty is still really more of an idea than a practice at this point. As far as precedent goes, the only two case studies that really stand out are those of Jason Giambi and Michael Young.

And neither is very encouraging.

According to FanGraphs, Young had only a .744 OPS across 592 plate appearances as a DH between 2011 and 2012. This was after posting an .827 OPS in 2009 and 2010, the first two years of a five-year, $80 million deal that would last through his age-36 season.

The message here: It's not as easy for a guy to be a DH as it is for him to make the move to DH.

On the surface, Giambi's story is more encouraging. The Yankees gave him over 1,300 plate appearances at DH between 2003 and 2008, the last six years of his seven-year, $120 million deal. In those, he had a solid .832 OPS. You also wonder if he would have been able to average 124 games in those seasons if he hadn't gotten the time at DH.

The catch, however, is that Giambi was worth only 2.4 WAR per season between 2003 and 2008. Though the Yankees were paying for star-level production, they were getting merely solid production.

Another thing: Giambi's OPS as a first baseman between 2003 and 2008 was .951.
Another thing: Giambi's OPS as a first baseman between 2003 and 2008 was .951.Chris O'Meara

That's largely a function of how being restricted to a hitting-only role limits a DH's ability to provide value. If a player can't play defense or run the bases, his value can only go so high even if he is hitting.

Thus are we looking at the Catch-22 of salvaging a long-term contract by making a DH out of the guy it belongs to? It may prove successful to the extent of keeping him on the field, but it's either going to be a role he's not cut out for or a role from which he can only provide so much bang for a team's buck.

Which leaves us to ponder the most obvious potential solution: Maybe MLB should take the DH out of the American League, thus putting the AL and NL on even negotiating ground and perhaps ultimately cutting down on the number of huge contracts for aging hitters.

It's possible that would do the trick...but I wouldn't count on it. Instead, the outcome we're much more likely to see in the coming years is the opposite: the DH in the National League. 

I don't have anything new to add to the main points you've already heard before. No, it doesn't make sense to have the AL and NL playing under different sets of rules now that interleague play is a yearlong thing. And yes, adding the DH to the NL would probably give baseball a needed boost in offense. And yes, the union will protect the DH as long as it's a legit money-making position.

And while adding the DH to the National League would inevitably lead to NL clubs viewing it as a safety net like AL clubs do, indications are that NL owners would now rather have this safety net than not have it. It may only be useful in keeping a guy on the field, but that's better than nothing.

"You look at Cincinnati and the [12-year] deal they gave Joey Votto. If you don't have the DH, what do you do?" one NL executive posed to Stark last year. He added: "Or what about Philadelphia with Ryan Howard? They'd probably love to DH him right now, because he still isn't healthy after his injury. They're another team that's always been anti-DH. But you wonder if that could start to change."

As long as the DH at least remains in the American League, you can expect to see the AL's 15 clubs continue to view it as a safety net for long, expensive contracts for players who are getting up there in age. Maybe they know they shouldn't do it, but they do because they can.

But just wait. If the NL gets the DH too, then things could really get bonkers.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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