So I wrote last week about this trend of long-term contracts we’ve seen this season, how teams are content to stick an extra year or two on the end of a deal to lower CBT hits. Over at FanGraphs, Ben Clemens wrote about the financial benefits to teams of stretching out large payouts over more seasons. I think there’s still one more element to this whole trend though, and one guy really made me think about it: Nolan Arenado.
Arenado had a really compelling MVP case this season, being pretty much as good as Paul Goldschmidt but doing more defensively, which is its own kind of value. Moreover, Arenado didn’t opt out of his deal with the Cardinals — the deal that, crucial to the point of this post, was initially signed with the Rockies.
Whether or not Arenado cost himself money on the market isn’t really relevant right now, what’s relevant is he’s wearing a different uniform than the one he was wearing when he inked his eight-year, $260 million extension. When the Rockies made that deal, everyone kinda figured that Arenado would end up in another city by the end of the contract, but even for the Rockies, they were pretty brazen about how they did not care about the optics of getting Nolan, and a good chunk of his contract, off their books.
And in the way that an idiot might learn about clocks by smashing them together to see what’s inside, the Rockies may have learned something about long-term contracts in the end of the Nolan Arenado days: when you sign a long-term deal, odds are, by the time the player is in their decline phase they’re either working for a different team, or you are.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s just look at 10-year contracts, the ones signed before this trend really exploded this season:
Credit to the new guy, Alex Eisert, for the visualization help.
Note that this is only 10-year deals. It doesn’t count Miguel Cabrera, who’s seen a new GM, or David Price, who was traded. Basically, if you sign a guy to a long-term contract, there’s a very good chance that the last few years of that deal is someone else’s problem. Manny Machado is probably going to opt out next year, and it would surprise me if Wander Franco spent his entire career as a Ray. There have been rumors about trading Fernando Tatis Jr., and whether or not those materialize, it hasn’t been a particularly smooth experience for him since agreeing to his extension.
The only two guys inked to 10-year deals that have avoided unnecessary drama, expected movement or firings are Derek Jeter, Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts. On the one hand, you might say this is exactly why a team shouldn’t go into the double-digit years when it comes to contracts — a player is going to be in house for so long, there’s bound to be some issues arising.
From a team’s perspective, and more importantly a GM’s perspective, it's the exact opposite. Eight, nine, ten years from now, the landscape of baseball will be radically different. A GM will likely have another job, or no job at all. In the case of Giancarlo Stanton, there’s an entirely new owner running the original signing team.
Teams are learning that they will never get full value in every year of a long-term deal: you get excess value in the first couple seasons, and you hope that that outweighs the liability a contract can be in the last season or two. However, I think it’s at least possible that GMs are learning that long-term contracts are almost never single-team, single-admin affairs. By the time that Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper, or Trea Turner, are old decrepit ballplayers, either you or he are working for a different team. Long-term contracts become someone else’s problem tomorrow, so why not do what it takes to land a star today?