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MLB teams can buy hope easier than championships

The 10 players most historically similar to George Springer, the priciest position player of the offseason, averaged just 1.6 wins above replacement per year the next six seasons. (Michael Wyke/AP)
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This baseball offseason, like the 45 before it in the free agent era, has shown again that nothing, not even the economic damage of a pandemic, can keep team owners from falling in love with star players and the hope that they symbolize.

As usual, we are reminded how expensive — and foolish — love often can be. But who quits that game?

This winter, facing a season when no one knows how many fans will be allowed to attend games or when, some second-rank and a legion of third-tier free agents may sign cheaply or retire. But if you were hot for 60 games, checkbooks came out. And we see, again, why fewer titles are bought in winter than fans believe on the day spring training starts.

Trevor Bauer, 30, just signed the biggest single-season contract for a player ever: $40 million for 2021. The Los Angeles Dodgers also owe him $62 million more for 2022 and 2023, but Bauer can opt out after either season if he is so magnificent that he can get a better offer.

Trevor Bauer, unorthodox star with an unorthodox deal, gets an unorthodox Dodgers intro

Don’t spill your coffee. Don’t spoil Dodgers President Stan Kasten’s day by reading him this column. Here are the players whose stats most resemble Bauer’s through age 29: ex-Baltimore Oriole Big Ben McDonald, Julio Teheran, Ken Hill and Ubaldo Jiménez. Would you have given any of them $40 million a year?

The Philadelphia Phillies just re-signed all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto for $115.5 million for five years. Not one person in MLB has said an unkind word, and I have written that I would have grabbed that deal. But the players most similar through age 29 are Jonathan Lucroy and Matt Wieters. Kind of makes you shiver.

The New York Yankees gave DJ LeMahieu $90 million. Do they know he most resembles Placido Polanco?

The most expensive player of this offseason, George Springer, got $150 million for six years. The 10 players most similar to Springer averaged just 1.6 wins above replacement per year the next six years — the level of a useful, nondescript player. The only man of those 10 who would have been worth the Springer deal was Jim Edmunds.

How can this be? And how do so many such deals happen almost every winter? Many pan out for a year or two, then turn into team anchors.

As an example, Bauer had a fab 11-start season in 2020 with a 1.73 ERA. But you can find an 11-game hot streak hidden in the middle of the seasons of many good pitchers who never sniff a salary record.

In the six seasons in which Bauer has had more than 25 starts, his ERA has been 4.18 or higher five times. As recently as 2019, he was 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA despite 253 strikeouts. He has had years with control trouble and once led the American League in walks. He has had homer-prone years. He has been indifferent in the postseason (16 runs in 33⅔ innings). He’s smart but sometimes an obnoxious teammate.

But the Dodgers, salivating at the chance for back-to-back titles and one of them in a 162-game season, got into a bidding war with the New York Mets this month as both decided they just had to have Bauer to build an unbeatable rotation.

I got hooked on this “career comparisons” method in 1999, when Kevin Brown signed a seven-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers, then a record for a pitcher, because it dovetailed with my gut-level rule of thumb that you break the bank only for a free agent who’s going to be in the Hall of Fame — or at least make the ballot.

From his year in Baltimore, I knew Brown as a smart, prickly character with dazzling stuff — all Bauer traits. Thanks to baseball-reference.com, I knew the 10 pitchers who were his career comparables. Combined, those 10 pitchers averaged just 11 wins for the seven years after they turned 34.

“The Dodgers have just signed the dumbest $100 million contract in pro sports history,” I wrote then.

At 34, Brown won 18 games in his first year of the seven-year deal, but he averaged just 10.3 wins a season for the entirety of the deal. The Dodgers never made the playoffs with him and finally traded him.

Even then, the risk of long-term contracts, especially to pitchers, is huge. Stephen Strasburg had one of the most dominant Octobers ever in 2019. When the Washington Nationals extended him for $245 million for seven years, I understood and agreed.

But I also knew his closest career comp was Jered Weaver, who, after his age 30 season, fought injuries, went 37-38, then retired. Last season, Strasburg had wrist surgery after just two starts. He’s expected back at full strength this season. That’s probably right. Probably.

The Nationals, like the rest of us, want to forget about 2020. That might be pretty smart.

It’s stunning how fast big deals can go bad. Just two years ago, the Colorado Rockies gave third baseman Nolan Arenado an eight-year, $260 million extension. By this month, the relationship had turned so sour that the Rockies had to pay the St. Louis Cardinals millions of Arenado’s future salaries just to complete an ugly trade.

Which fan bases should be excited and which slightly skeptical of their new stars? The Mets traded for thrilling Francisco Lindor, who is the shortstop most similar offensively to Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Vern Stephens (159 RBI in 1949), Cal Ripken Jr., Ernie Banks and Derek Jeter. Be happy, be very happy.

The Mets also added Carlos Carrasco as their third starter. That’s okay, but curb your enthusiasm a bit (Clay Buchholz, Tanner Roark, Shane Reynolds).

The San Diego Padres are head over heels after adding Yu Darvish and Blake Snell to their rotation. Pennant time? Darvish, through age 33, most resembles Pascual Perez, Danny Cox and Shaun Marcum. Snell, through age 27, most resembles … Darvish, whose best years came before he turned 27.

Just one more example of why analytics keep screaming, “Value the young!” And don’t pay for the old.

In Washington, one of the hottest topics in the future will be how soon to throw long-term money at homegrown stars Trea Turner and Juan Soto and how much.

Almost all Turner’s “similars” played lots of middle infield, including standouts such as Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Michael Young (2,375 hits), four-time all-star Ian Kinsler, 2020 Silver Slugger Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and Alfonso Soriano, who took his speed and power to the outfield. But do names such as Marcus Giles, Jeff Blauser and Scooter Gennett restrain your checkbook just a bit?

Perhaps the Nats’ biggest blessing — and headache, too — in the next several years is the price they would have to pay to keep Soto in D.C. if he continues to most strongly resemble the same megastars that he does now.

Yes, they are Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as special case Tony Conigliaro (eye injury). Of current players, just two join him: Mike Trout and Ronald Acuña Jr. And Acuña may play a 21st-century version of Stan Musial to Soto’s Ted Williams until about 2040.

The Lerner family may have to monetize half of the commercial real estate in Northern Virginia to keep him. History says Soto, unlike the world’s first $40 million pitcher, has a good chance to be worth it.

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