Nearly every season someone in the game of baseball gets a mega deal. This season in particular three players named Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon bet on themselves, played the last year of their contracts and cashed in.
As I write this column it’s early December and we have seen Mr. Strasburg set a record for average annual value (AAV) that lasted for all of a day and a half so Mr. Cole could assume the mantle with his own record setting figure. Gerrit agreed to a 9-year $324 Million dollar offer from the Yankees, that’s an AAV of $36 Million dollars. We learned yesterday that Rendon signed a deal just under Cole's at 7 years, $245 million (AAV $35 million).
I’m all about athletes getting as much as they can, more power to them, and I’m certainly not upset for Gerrit, he earned the attention and money he received for performing the way he did in a contract year. At 29 years old Gerrit will be 39 when this contract expires from the Bronx Bombers and while he has been supremely healthy in his first stint of his career, nine years is a long time to expect health to follow you.
The Pirates could have easily paid this contract. No, I’m not trying to be funny. The Pirates could have signed a player like this to a record-setting deal and still not touched even the payroll they amassed in 2016. A contract like this would put the Bucs around 105 Million and even the staunchest of Bob Nutting haters would have to admit he has done that before. That’s without trading Marte or Frazier or Bell or anyone.
The reason I bring this up is simple, the Pirates and other teams like them can afford to sign players to mega contracts like this, but they can’t afford the length. They can’t afford to pay a player like Anthony Rendon an AAV of 30 Million only to see him fall off the table 4 years into the contract and eat the last 5 with him playing a bit role or worse a starting role when he isn’t the player he was. See that’s the main difference between the small and big market clubs, some can afford the known dead money coming their way, others can’t.
Take the Reds for instance, they signed Joey Votto in 2014 to a 10 year 224-Million-dollar extension. Nobody would argue that Votto is one of the most talented pure hitters the league has seen in his time, but last season saw a drop off. Maybe he rebounds and puts together a nice season next year with some pressure of being ‘The Man’ taken off his plate, but let’s face it, that contract for a small market club says this is "The Man" no matter what. He will make $25 million each of the next four seasons and the club will undoubtedly exercise their buyout of $7 million for 2024. During this time, he won’t contribute anywhere near what that paycheck suggests and, unless he does something like retire out of the goodness of his heart, the Reds will most likely end up spending that money on a pinch-hitter and/or spot-starter.
I don’t write this to paint the Reds in a bad light or say the signing was stupid, I’m simply pointing out that, if this were the Yankees or the Dodgers, they can afford to bury him, or even cut him and eat the loss, the Reds can’t. So much like buying a car with a six-year payment plan and a four-year warranty, you better hope it keeps running all six years.
What’s that? You want Pirates examples instead of the hated Red Legs. Yeah, that might be an issue. See the Pirates don’t do this, EVER. Never have. Sure, they’ve signed some bad contracts and needed to escape them, Liriano comes to mind, although they surely would have been further ahead just eating that money as opposed to what they did to drop him, but I digress. There’s a reason for that though, it’s the structure of MLB and at least for these types of mega deals there are unfortunately haves and have nots.
The Pirates tend to sign long deals with kids, like Polanco and Marte. Now you can’t mention them without also tossing in the Tabata’s and J-Hay’s of the world. Some of these work out, and some don’t as with any contract, but the Pirates are betting on potential based on a fraction of proof. The Yankees are betting on longevity based on a mountain of proof. Neither are fool proof and many times neither will finish their contract with the club.
You see for the Pirates when that long extension that bought out arbitration plus a year or two is close to expiring, it typically means its time to look for a trade partner. The Yankees on the other hand might look to have Gerrit move to middle relief as a 37-year-old pitcher, or maybe they’ll eat most of his contract and move him for a prospect or two. Hey maybe the Bucs could reacquire him like AJ Burnett late in his career?
Again, I don’t begrudge the Yankees or Mr. Cole, this is the system baseball employs and they are using it exactly how it was intended. That said, it's impossible to pretend teams around the league are on an even playing field, they just aren’t.
I do, however, think there is a middle ground, and one that the Pirates don’t often explore. Play out this scenario with me if you will because we all know it’s coming up. Bryan Reynolds has a solid sophomore season in 2020, similar to last season with a bit more power, maybe he hits 20. The Pirates will most likely look to buy out his arbitration years, right? When that happens, I’d imagine he gets locked in through say 2026 or so. What I propose is when you see that you were right with a guy like Bryan, say in 2023, go offer him a four- or five-year extension with solid money and a raise on what he was making for an AAV on his current deal. It avoids the “Mega Deal” conundrum in that you most likely won’t have dead money, but you keep a guy closer to his prime ending, not all his serviceable years, but most. This is how these waters can be navigated.
One thing Neal Huntington used to say that aggravated me to no end was his insistence that no player should make above a certain percentage of payroll. Why? Why not? As the Bucs are currently constructed, they are in my mind a catcher and solid number 1 starter away from real contention. If the whole team is cheaper than a casino buffet save one player and you can win, do it.
Unless MLB changes their rules and inserts a salary cap, this is the way baseball will be structured. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but one thing is for sure, the longer MLB stays on this course the more apparent the tale of two cities becomes.
While 2/3 teams are trying to set up all the right conditions to have lightning strike, 1/3 have the ability to make their own electricity. As the gap grows wider it becomes less and less palatable for the masses that don’t live in the traditional powerhouse cities. The commissioner can spend all the time he likes trying to speed up a game that many of us don’t mind being at its own pace, but this growing divide must not remain ignored by the Commissioner’s office or, for that matter, the owners of the small market clubs.
I love baseball and I’ll always watch it regardless of this issue, but I’m equally aware I’m a dying breed. Killing off minor league affiliates and refusing to attempt to, at least more closely, even the playing field will be at MLB’s peril I fear, but the Pirates shouldn’t wait for things to change to try something new themselves.