Another Major League Baseball season rolls into motion Wednesday as pitchers and catchers for teams begin official workouts in Florida and Arizona. Their counterparts across the sport will follow in the days to come.
All eyes will be on Camelback Ranch, where Trevor Bauer — suddenly the highest-paid player in the history of MLB, set to make $40 million this year — will begin his Los Angeles Dodgers tenure.
The character like no other signed a deal like no other, a three-year pact that allows Bauer to opt out after each of the first two years and could pay him as much as $102 million if he stays for the life of the contract.
Should he opt out after this year, the average annual value of the deal will be $40 million, meaning Bauer can claim the highest annual value for a player in major league history. Should he stay for the life of the deal, it will have yielded an average annual value of $34 million. Among starting pitchers, only Gerrit Cole ($36 million) and Stephen Strasburg ($35 million) have commanded higher for the length of a deal, according to data compiled by Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
But what Bauer’s deal provides in AAV, it cedes in total value. Until Bauer signed his deal, the usual plan for Cy Young winners in their primes was to hit the market and get as much money as possible for the longest period of time (see Cole’s $324 million over nine years or Strasburg’s $245 million over seven). Pitchers are fragile, and so are their careers. Could Bauer’s deal shift the paradigm?
The short answer, after conversations with agents (including Bauer’s), is probably not. Whether, after only a few years of elite performance, Bauer could have gotten a long-term deal like Cole’s or Strasburg’s remains unclear because Bauer himself ruled it out.
The 30-year-old said he wanted one-year deals for the rest of his career. He told his agents — Rachel Luba and Jon Fetterolf — that he wanted a short-term deal instead of a long one, to prioritize flexibility over security.
As he said in his introductory news conference last week, “I want a chance to win, and I don’t want to be a player who signs a long-term deal and then is resented, either by the fan base or the organization or on my end for having my performance slip below what my contract dictates.”
Bauer’s agents didn’t say what level of interest Bauer drew for longer-term deals, but they emphasized that he told them not to explore them. They said they looked at the progression of average annual value of successive deals given to Max Scherzer ($30 million), David Price and Clayton Kershaw ($31 million), Zack Greinke ($32 million), Justin Verlander ($33 million), Strasburg ($35 million), and Cole ($36 million) and thought Bauer’s first year at $40 million and three years at $34 million meant the deal ended up right in line with the deals given to elite starting pitchers before him.
“If someone says: ‘They only got him $102 million. If I were the agent, I would have done X, Y, and Z,’ they forget the fact that this isn’t the type of deal he wanted to do,” Fetterolf said. “If Trevor Bauer had come in and said, ‘I want to do a traditional deal: most years, most dollars,’ the outcome would have looked a lot different.”
Kershaw and Scherzer could both hit the free agent market again next winter, but they will be 34 and 37, respectively, in 2022. Their next deals, should they sign next deals, probably will look much different from the ones they got in their primes.
But New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard will be 29 when he hits free agency for the first time at the end of 2022. He will be returning from Tommy John surgery and has a history of injury, but his career’s statistical trajectory more closely resembles Strasburg’s and Cole’s than did Bauer’s.
Consensus from chats with agents is that Bauer’s deal, while creative, probably won’t suddenly shift the norms. Pitchers such as Syndergaard, with a history of injury, probably will want security and total value.
Bauer is a rare combination of confident and competitive, which means he is willing to sacrifice money long-term to keep himself pushing for more deals in the short term. Even Scherzer, so competitive he can barely lay down a batting practice bunt without creating competition, wanted security.
If there is anything from Bauer’s approach that might influence the market more broadly, it may be the pay structure used by Luba and Fetterolf. Fetterolf lives in Washington and is a litigation lawyer at Zuckerman Spaeder. He has done arbitration work for the Major League Baseball Players Association and teamed with Luba, a longtime friend of Bauer’s who also worked for the union early in her career, to give the starter an unorthodox setup.
While most agents charge by commission — say, 4 percent of the total deal — Fetterolf and Luba implemented a pay scale that more closely resembles a normal lawyer’s fees. They charge a much smaller percentage fee, then their hourly rates, capping the total somewhere near that more traditional percentage.
“I started thinking of using the same model that a law firm does and charge for the value of my services rather than base it off the value the player himself creates on the field,” said Luba, who added that Bauer, as one of baseball’s more data-driven players, was willing to consider a nontraditional approach.
For now, Bauer’s health and performance probably will dictate his contract plans. As for deals like his, they may be a more comfortable fit for teams who are nervous about committing $300 million over nine years but more willing to try $100 million or so over three.
Then again, teams tend to be receiving fairly consistent return on investment from those big deals: Excluding Bauer, the seven highest-paid starters in big league history — Cole, Strasburg, Price, Kershaw, Greinke, Scherzer and Verlander — have all pitched in the World Series at least once since 2018.