Fans always seem to act as if their favorite team is spending their own money when they sign players to lucrative long-term deals. In a way, that’s not crazy, because bad deals, like those we examined Friday extended over a period of years can cripple franchises from pursuing more talent or locking up their own players. It’s someone’s money, and there’s always a limit to it.
So we have here, in this week leading up to the All-Star Game, a look at some of the “best” contracts in baseball – in a world in which “best” is loosely defined as “team-friendly,” because a good player signed for cheap allows that team to pursue more good players.
This isn’t a science, and we’re not just picking the lowest-salaried, good player at each position. Venturing into these waters requires some understanding of baseball’s salary structure. Generally, during a player’s first three years in the majors, the team simply assigns a player his salary – usually the minimum of $500,000, with slight bumps for service time each year. Players are eligible for arbitration in years four through six, and barring signing a long-term deal can become free agents after six major league seasons.
So the choices here are skewed toward those players who signed long-term deals long before they were eligible for free agency – and in some cases, long before they were even eligible for the major raises that come through the arbitration process, when players are paid salaries directly in line with those who have comparable stats and service time. The players listed here generally traded the potential for millions of (more) dollars in the future for security, protecting against injury and poor performance. And their teams have enjoyed plenty of bang for their bucks.
C Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Milwaukee signed its 28-year-old backstop to a five-year, $10.28-million deal following his first full season in the majors. Now, given that Lucroy has 30 doubles in 2014 and leads all catchers with a .333 average and .924 OPS, it looks like a steal for the Brewers. Lucroy is making $2 million this year, will make $3 million in 2015 and $4 million the year after that. Then the deal becomes particularly club-friendly. In 2017 the Brewers can pick up a one-year, $5.25-million option in what would have been Lucroy’s first year of free agency.
1B Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Goldschmidt is making $1.1 million in the second season of his five-year, $32-million deal, signed following his rookie year. For this Arizona gets a league-leading 32 doubles, a .306 average and a .938 OPS that is tops among N.L. first basemen. Even when the deal maxes out – Goldschmidt will make $11.1 million in 2017, his sixth full major league season – it figures to be a bargain for the Diamondbacks, as long as Goldschmidt remains healthy. By comparison, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman will make $20.5 million in his sixth full season, part of Freeman’s eight-year, $135-million contract.
2B Jose Altuve, Astros
Houston has been at the forefront of trying to tie up prospects to long, club-friendly deals that offer, in return, security for players even if they get injured or don’t produce. Their four-year, $12.5-million pact with Altuve, signed last July, led the way. Now, the 24-year-old leads the AL with a .338 average and 38 stolen bases in a season in which he’s making $1.25 million. Yes, that’s two seasons before he would have become eligible for arbitration had he not signed his deal. But he is due to make just $3.5 million in 2016, what would have been his first year of arbitration – a reasonable number given his current trajectory. And the Astros have a chance to pick up two options – for $6 million and $6.5 million in what would be his final year of arbitration and his first year of free agency – that could really make the contract a steal.
3B Todd Frazier, Reds
The best young performers at this position – Frazier, the Athletics’ Josh Donaldson, the Indians’ Lonnie Chisenhall – haven’t yet signed extensions, so this is a bit of a cop-out. Frazier is making $600,000 on his one-year, team-dictated contract and won’t be eligible for arbitration until next season. But he’ll be due a big raise then. His .854 OPS leads all NL third basemen, as do his 17 homers. Donaldson, an MVP candidate a year ago, is similarly making $500,000 for his 19 homers and 62 RBIs, tops at the position.
SS Starlin Castro, Cubs
Given Chicago’s trade with Oakland for shortstop prospect Addison Russell, how long Castro remains a Cub may be up for debate. But why would he be tradable? Because he is owed $43 million from 2015-2019, with a club option of $16 million for 2020, when he’ll be just 30. That’s a reasonable price for a player who appears to have bounced back from a subpar 2013 (.245/.284/.347) with 50 RBI already, having moved lower in the lineup. The only shortstops with higher OPS marks than Castro’s .807: Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. Should Castro play like that for the rest of the contract, whether it’s in Chicago or not, his team will get great value.
LF Nelson Cruz, Orioles
Yes, he serves as the designated hitter a lot. But this is actually an easy choice. (Sorry, John Lackey.) Cruz received his one-year, $8-million deal from Baltimore only because he was damaged by his 50-game suspension following the Biogenesis fiasco last year. The return on that investment: an AL-leading 27 homers and 70 RBI. Think it’s a bad contract because Cruz will walk after this season? “I wish they were all one-year contracts,” one GM said. The reason: Flexibility. Maybe Cruz stays beyond this year, maybe not. But there’s little arguing this is one of the best deals for any club this season – and it costs them nothing in the future.
CF Mike Trout, Angels
It is a measure of the respect Trout has engendered in just his third full major league season that he could be scheduled to make $33.25 million annually over the final three years of his contract – and people could still believe he will be underpaid. The full package: six years, $144.5 million. It sounds like a lot, and it is. But in his first two major league seasons, he has been the runner-up for the MVP award – to the dismay of the SABR community, who believe his 2012 and ’13 were nothing short of historic. But had Trout not signed this deal, he would have been a free agent after 2017 – at age 26. What might that contract have looked like? As it is, the Angels bought out three of the seasons after he would have been a free agent and have him locked up through 2020.
RF Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
This is a bit of an interesting one, because Los Angeles paid Puig $3.7 million to play in the minors for all of 2012. But Cuban free agents, of which Puig is one, are a different commodity. Unlike those from the rest of Latin America, they don’t sign at age 16. They are more fully formed, and when Puig defected to sign his six-year, $42 million deal, he was 21. Now, the most the Dodgers will pay him in any single season is $9.2 million for 2018. It’s hard to imagine that not being the best deal in baseball for a player who will be in his prime – and then they’ll still have a year of arbitration remaining for a player whose OPS in his first 187 major league games is .918.
SP Johnny Cueto, Reds
Cincinnati signed the unique right-hander to a four-year, $27-million deal in 2011, buying out all three of his arbitration seasons and one year of free agency, which happens to be 2014, when he is earning $10 million. Considering he is leading the NL in innings pitched and WHIP (0.868) to go along with a 1.99 ERA that is better than everyone not named Adam Wainwright (2014 salary: $19.5 million), this is a good deal for the Reds. But even better: Cincinnati holds a club option for 2015 at the same number, $10 million. Cueto would appear to be over the injuries that limited him to 11 starts last year. If he is, there’s no way the Reds won’t pick up that option and have a real bargain.
RP Sean Doolittle, Athletics
There is no more volatile commodity in baseball than relief pitching, and there may be no more complicated deal than Doolittle’s five-year extension signed before this season. When that happened, Jim Johnson was supposed to be the closer in Oakland. But Johnson flamed out, and left-hander Doolittle now has 12 saves for one of baseball’s best teams. He also is guaranteed just $10.5 million from 2014-18 – a number that would go up if he qualifies for “Super Two” status, essentially meaning he had enough service time that he would have been granted an extra year of arbitration had he not signed his extension. As it is, Oakland holds a $6 million option for 2019 and a $6.5 million option for 2020. Should Doolittle be closing then, the A’s would have had an incredibly cost-effective deal for seven years.
More on the 2014 All-Star Game