The Miami Marlins have inked a 13-year, $325 million contract with Giancarlo Stanton, who finished second in MVP voting this week. Stanton had an outstanding season in which he hit .288 with 37 home runs. He is 25 years old. He could be 37 years old when he finishes the contract. Is the practice of signing free agents, or extending current contracts for ten years or more a rational business and baseball decision?
MLB contracts are totally guaranteed for skill and injury. This means that even if the player's productivity has dropped dramatically and the club no longer wants him at premium numbers, they are obligated to pay every last dollar through the final season. If a player becomes injured during the term of the deal and can never play again, the club must pay the remaining salary. So a team is taking a significant risk signing a player in this manner.
History shows that many players who are signed to these long term deals under perform at some point with years remaining on their contracts. Teams signing these players often look at past performance and project that same output from a player in the future. Realistically, time takes its inevitable toll on players. An everyday player will lose foot speed and bat speed and potentially strength. An aging pitcher will lose velocity. Because baseball does not involve direct collision as an inherent part of the game, like football, teams can underestimate the injury factor in baseball. But, older players are more susceptible to strains and pulls that keep them out of the lineup.
The Los Angeles Angels have learned some of these lessons the hard way. Albert Pujols, was once the most dangerous hitter in baseball. In the last four years with the Cardinals, his home run totals were 37, 47, 42, and 37. In his three years with the Angels, he has hit 30, 17 and 28. In his last four years with the Cardinals, his batting averages were .357, .327, .312 and .299. In his three years with the Angels he has hit .285, .258, and .272. Pujols is signed for seven more years at roughly $27 million a year, and he will be 42 when the contract ends.
In his last year with Texas, Josh Hamilton hit .285 with 43 home runs and 128 RBI's. In his two injury-plagued seasons with the Angels, Hamilton batted .250 and .263. His home run totals were 21 and 10. His RBI totals were 79 and 44. His contract has three more years to run at salaries of $23 million, $30 million and $30 million. Owner Artie Moreno has been passionate about trying to assemble the most productive team possible, and has been a fan-friendly owner, but these signings illustrate the danger.
It is an intelligent strategy to take productive players who are younger and tie them up contractually with their team. When past performance motivates a team to sign a player to guarantees for years in which the player is likely to be diminishing dramatically on the field, it can be a major detriment to the franchise. New York Yankee fans will writhe in frustration just thinking about the years of A-Rod non-productive salaries ahead.