Dan Quisenberry said many wonderful things in his too-short life, but probably the most famous is his line about the future. “I’ve seen the future,” he said, “and it’s much like the present only longer.”
A version of that quote kept popping up in my mind throughout the first round of the playoffs. It was more like: “I’ve seen the future, and it’s much like the present in that Alex Rodriguez strikes out a lot.” Or Ryan Howard.
Here, best I can tell, are the 10 contracts with the most money remaining on them:
1. Joe Mauer, 7 years, $161 million.
2. Troy Tulowitzki, 10 years, $152 million.
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 7 years, $148 million
4. Alex Rodriguez, 6 years, $143 million
5. Ryan Braun, 9 years, $128 million
6. Ryan Howard, 5 years, $125 million
7. Carl Crawford, 6 years, $122 million
8. Mark Teixeira, 5 years, $112.5 million
9. Jayson Werth, 6 years, $112 million
10. Cliff Lee, 5 years, $109 million
Now, I’m going to point out something about this list that strikes me — something that I think could shape the next era of baseball contracts — but first I should say that this list will get scrambled during the off-season. Albert Pujols will obviously get a lot of money for many years. Prince Fielder too. Jose Reyes. The Yankees might pay a lot of money to lock up Robbie Cano. C.C. Sabathia will probably rework his deal — right now he’s getting $92 million over the next four years — and who the heck knows what the Yankees might offer to C.J. Wilson, or what the Cardinals might offer to Mark Buehrle and so on.
But based on what we have now — there are some scary numbers on that list, no? Start with the top guy, Joe Mauer. He played only 82 games this year, he has hit a total of 12 home runs the last two seasons, and people inside baseball seem pretty confident that the Twins will have no choice but to move him from behind the plate to have any chance of keeping him healthy. I love Mauer as a player. Love him. There was a time when I thought about renaming this whole blog after him (“The Mauer Power Hour”). From 2006-to-2009, he has a good argument as the most valuable catcher in baseball history, right there with early 1970s Johnny Bench or mid-1950s Yogi Berra. But how much do I love Joe Mauer as a 10-home run a year first baseman/designated hitter? No, not quite $161 million much.
After that, I think of the guys we saw in the playoffs. There’s nothing especially surprising left to say about Alex Rodriguez. He’s 36 years old, and he played a lot of innings at shortstop, and his body’s beat up, and there’s no compelling reason to believe he can ever play 150 games in a season, much less be a dominant player. And he has SIX YEARS left on that deal. The thing about sports it that when a player starts regressing, the way A-Rod did two or three years ago, people quickly adjust to the new reality. OK, so A-Rod is not a 40 or 50 home run guy anymore, he’s more like a 30-homer guy. But that’s not how regression works. It doesn’t stop at the level of choice. It just keeps on, you know, regressing. Thirty homer guys become 20 homer guys become 12 homer guys.
If A-Rod could even remain the player he was in 2011 — assuming he could stay healthy long enough to play more than 99 games — then the Yankees would be OK. Sure, a third baseman hitting .276/.362/.461 isn’t worth $30 million a year or anything close. But he’s a good player. He’s about as good as any other third baseman, save a Longoria here, a Beltre there. But he won’t stay at that level, certainly not for another six years, maybe not even for another two years. And the Yankees will be stuck.
The Ryan Howard deal is a looming disaster, and it hasn’t even started yet. He turns 32 in November, and players with his skill set sometimes take a precipitous fall in their early 30s. The truth is, with Howard, the decline started a while ago. For four years — from 2006-2009 — he crushed a lot of home runs. This fed his whole game. It gave him impressive RBI numbers. It sparked teams to intentionally walk him a lot, puffing up his on-base percentage. The last two years, his home runs have dropped, he didn’t even slug .500 in 2011, and managers no longer fear him as much. His inability to hit lefties has become a defining quality. The Cardinals in these playoffs intentionally walked the perfectly fine but hardly intimidating Hunter Pence in order to FACE Ryan Howard.
The last game of the Cardinals-Phillies series, the announcers kept making a big deal about how St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter needed to get a succession of outs so that he would not have to face Ryan Howard in the ninth inning. Carpenter did not quite get those outs, and so the announcers went on and on about how this meant Ryan Howard would come up one more time, there was no avoiding it, Mighty Casey would get one last at-bat. And all I could think of was that those words — Ryan Howard would get one more at-bat — would make me happier if I was a CARDINALS fan than a Phillies fans. Howard ended the game by hitting routine ground ball and he blew out his Achilles going to first base.
Howard has been a fun player, a marvelous slugger, the sort of player that Philadelphia could rally around and there’s a lot of value in that. But he’s basically becoming a one-tool slugger who can’t hit lefties. That contract — even if Howard can somehow get and stay healthy and regain his power — is like that Robert DeNiro attempt to bring “Rocky and Bullwinkle” to the big screen. Even before it begins, you know it has no chance.
But the truth is, if you look at those 10 most expensive contracts, well, would you want ANY of them? Ryan Braun just signed his deal, so if he stays healthy I suspect that one will look good for a good long time. But that’s NINE YEARS. We don’t know who is going to be running for president in six months, how the heck are we going to know about Braun in nine years? The Crawford deal looks like a catastrophe. The Werth deal looks like a catastrophe.
OK, here you go, my list of the 10 worst contracts in baseball at the moment (and what’s left on those deals):
1. Vernon Wells, 3-years, $63 million.
— I love that in order to get their hands on this death-defying contract, the Angels traded away Mike Napoli, who ended up getting traded back into their division where he might have been the most valuable player on the division winning Texas Rangers. There is just layer upon layer of madness here.
To be fair: Wells has shown the ability to lift his game up during even-year seasons, and he does have two of those left on the deal. But let’s not kid anybody. Wells had a .248 on-base percentage in 2011. That’s two … four … eight. The last qualifying outfielder to have an on-base percentage that low? I’m sure you already know: George Barclay. Yeah. Oh, wait, you didn’t know that? Right: That was 1904. Wells’ was the lowest on-base percentage for an outfielder in more than 100 years. Wells from what I’ve heard is a good guy, people love having him around the clubhouse, and he’s had some superb years. But this is the worst contract in baseball, perhaps the worst ever offered.
2. A-Rod, 6-years, $143 million.
— I could be wrong, certainly. He looked good enough in spring training this year that some people were actually predicting an MVP type season from the guy. But I’ve thought for a couple of years, and think even more now, that it looks all downhill from here. I’ve been on record for a while now saying that he will not set the all-time home run record.
3. Carl Crawford, 6-years, $122 million
— Crawford could rebound. You might even say he SHOULD rebound. But at the moment, because of the big number tagged to it, this contract surpasses the Zito debacle, the Soriano debacle, the Lackey debacle, even the Dunn debacle. There was something about this deal that bugged me from the start. Oh, don’t misunderstand, I thought Crawford would be a dynamic player for the Red Sox — heck, I named the guy the 22nd-best player in baseball in my preseason poll.
No, what bothered me was that Crawford has always been more EXCITING than GOOD. This is a sports theme I’ve been thinking a lot about. Ask yourself this: Which statement is more true?
1. Michael Vick is a great quarterback.
2. Michael Vick is an exciting quarterback.
Both statements might be true. But i would think the second statement rings truer. I’ve taken some heat from Verlander fans, and I think this topic fits him too. I think Verlander is a great pitcher. And I think Verlander is an exciting pitcher — all those strikeouts, the 100 mph fastballs in the late innings, the amazing breaking balls, are you kidding? Thrilling. And I think the thrilling part of the equation sometimes puffs up the great part.
Carl Crawford has always been a thrilling player. He hits triples. He steals bases. But we are talking about a left-fielder with a lifetime .333 on-base percentage and a lifetime .441 slugging percentage. I remember when I was going out to buy my first car, they showed me all the extras you could get on a Ford Escort. Sunroof. Leather seats. Automatic locks and windows*. And even then it struck me: No matter how you dress up this car, it’s still a Ford Escort. I don’t think Crawford is a Ford Escort. But his lifetime on-base and slugging percentage match up frighteningly close to Aaron Rowand and Eric Hinske. So you could argue he’s Aaron Rowand with a sunroof.
*Yeah, there weren’t as many cool gadgets for cars then; automatic locks and windows felt futuristic.
4. Ryan Howard, 5-years, $125 million.
— If he can get healthy, and if the Phillies keep him in the middle of the lineup, he will keep driving in 100 RBIs. And maybe that will postpone the inevitable realization that Ryan Howard is become a less and less useful player all the time.
5. Barry Zito, 3-years, $46 million
— The Giants are paying down that contract — they’re still upside down on the deal, but there will come a time when they pay it off. It’s amazing to think that time is still three years from now.
People often say — I often say — that Scott Boras does a great job for his clients. And it’s undeniably true: But by “great job” what we really mean is “he will get his client more money.” That’s a perfectly reasonable definition of what you want in an agent; you want someone who will get you the most money. But, not to go all Jerry Maguire here, isn’t there something more? It’s interesting how many Boras clients seem to be in miserable spots. A-Rod seems doomed to declining years of boos. Carlos Beltran didn’t exactly fit New York. Zito was on the decline anyway, but he seems entirely destroyed by the pressures of his contract. There are a lot of stories like that. I’m not saying that anyone should feel sorry for a player who will make all that money. I’m just saying that there probably are other things that are important too.
6. John Lackey, 3-years, $45.75 million
— In some ways, this contract might be even worse than the Zito deal because the Giants at least have made their peace with the idea that Barry Zito never again will be an effective pitcher for them. The Red Sox haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and before they cross it there will likely be a lot more pain for everyone. Lackey had a very difficult year off the field, and so there’s hope that with a fresh start at spring training, with his mind refocused, he might still be at least a fourth or fifth starter for them.
But looking back, Lackey wasn’t an especially healthy or great pitcher the two years BEFORE the Red Sox signed him — he threw 163 and 176 innings those two years — and now he’s 32, and last year was so miserable in so many ways that the Red Sox may be forced to just eat this contract. And that will be hard because of the No. 3 on this list.
7. Alfonso Soriano, 3-years, $54 million.
— According to Baseball Reference WAR, Alfonso Soriano actually contributed more defensively (0.7 dWAR) than offensively (0.6 oWAR). And I think that pretty much says it all.
8. Adam Dunn, 3-years, $44 million.
— I’m making this crazy call: I think Adam Dunn will have a rebound season in 2012. In some ways this is a pretty easy call because it is all but impossible for him to be worse than he was in 2011. People years and years from now will look back at Adam Dunn’s 2011 season and wonder: “Did someone really hit .159 in Major League Baseball?”* The man slugged .277. Adam Dunn!
*Dunn — and I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but I suspect it was — did not get the necessary 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. You know how many he got? Right: 496. That way he won’t show up when you look up qualifying players.
This isn’t unprecedented — well, the batting average actually is unprecedented, at least in modern times — but the collapse of a power hitter in his early 30s is hardly new. Richie Sexson just stopped hitting. Gorman Thomas just stopped hitting. Carlos Pena just stopped hitting. And so on. All signs point to Dunn being unplayable from here on out. And that’s probably where the smart money goes, but I just have this feeling that he will rebound a bit. I think the last couple of years, he has lost his once-impeccable plate discipline, he’s swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, which is spurring pitchers to simply not throw him strikes. I suspect Dunn will work hard this off-season watching video, working on his swing, and, well, maybe I just feel for the guy but I think he makes a moderate comeback in 2012.
Which is to say I think he will hit at least .200, if given the chance.
9. Jayson Werth, 6-years, $112 million.
— A terrible contract, of course, but I have it this low because, well, I’m not sure what the Nationals really could have expected when they signed Werth in the first place. He was a perfectly good player in Philadelphia who had a very good 2010 season, mainly because he killed it at home. In a new park, with new surroundings, his slugging percentage dropped almost 150 points. I suspect he will bounce back and have two or three serviceable to good years for the Nationals before he’s done. Then again he might not — the similar batters through age 32 (Jeff Hammonds, Trot Nixon) do not tell a happy tale.
This was one of those contracts that was terrible when it was signed … and only figures to look worse every year.
10. Mark Teixeira, five years, $112.5 million
— A lot of Yankees fans were focusing on the decline of A-Rod because, well, that’s an easy one to wrap the mind around. But, honestly, I’d be nervous about Teixeira. Sure, it was only five games, but he really looked old during the playoff series with Detroit. He will turn 32 years old in April, he’s got five years left on his contract, and he too seems to be in clear and present decline. The last two years, Teixeira has hit .239/.326/.452 on the road. Overall, he’s hit .252 the last two years, and his .487 slugging percentage is about 50 points off his career numbers, and ranks eighth among first baseman.
He’s still a good player. Hey, he hit 39 homers in 2011. He’s a fine fielder. If he stays right here, plays like this, it will be disappointing but not unmanageable for the Yankees. But, yeah, there’s a reason they call it regression. in an era where many of the best teams load up with a truly great hitter at first base — Detroit with Miggy; St. Louis (for now) with Pujols; Milwaukee (for now) with Fielder; Boston with Gonzalez and so on — the Yankees have Teixeira for a long time. It’s become a familiar Yankees story: They’ll be hoping for someone to fight off the years. Five more of those years.
And that brings me to my final point. I wonder if we will ever see a real restructuring of baseball contracts. That is to say, I wonder if teams will start trying to pay players huge YEARLY sums, but cut down on the number of years. I’m sure there are financial reasons that teams don’t want to do this — that seems to be why so many contracts are backloaded — and I’m sure there are financial reasons players don’t want to do that. But it sure seems to me that purely as a baseball question, you would much rather give a guy a bigger and shorter contract than stretch it out over six or seven or eight years, where everyone finds themselves facing an awkward ending when the player isn’t worth the money anymore and the team has to figure out how to handle it, the player has to deal with the abuse and so on.
Honestly, in some cases, I’d rather give a guy four years at $100 million than six years at $100 million.
Of course, I suspect if you as an owner said you would never give anyone a deal longer than three or four years, you probably just wouldn’t be able to sign the biggest free agents, even if you offered them $30 or $35 million a year. (I’m sure Albert Pujols wouldn’t take a four-year, $140 million deal, even though that would make him, per year, the highest paid player ever).
But I think at some point that it could go in that direction. Every now and again you will have a long contract that works for everyone, like Derek Jeter’s ten-year deal. But there are a lot more deals like Vernon Wells … Mike Hampton … A-Rod … Jason Giambi … Ken Griffey Jr. … on and on … deals that that bring with them a whole lot of misery. Todd Helton just finished a long deal in Colorado, and Todd Helton stopped being a great player quite a long time ago.
In the end, it evens out I suppose. The system works so that players get paid later in their career for what they did earlier in the career (and often for a different team). But it creates painful situations for the teams and players, and no win-situations for managers and teammates. I do think it would be better for everyone if the big money contracts were shortened and pumped up per year. Then again, I failed out of accounting.