Among the many strange parts of being a sports fan is knowing and analyzing how much someone is making at their job. After doing it for so long, it seems normal to us now, but when you take a step back, it’s a weird thing. It’s particularly weird in baseball, a sport that doesn’t have a salary cap. Of course, I understand why we do it. Even without a hard cap, every team has a budget and teams need to spend money as efficiently as possible. Since we, as fans, inherently root for the team more than individual players, our focus is more in line with the former. To put it simply, knowing and analyzing salaries and contracts is part of playing GM, and that’s objectively a fun thing to do. Unfortunately, we can take this too far at times, worrying too much about maximizing economic efficiency instead of putting the best team on the field.
Obviously, if you’ve been paying attention to the Red Sox recently, you can guess that this is going to be about the David Price contract. In case you haven’t heard, he just signed with Boston for a shitload of dollars being paid out over a shitload of years. More specifically, he’s guaranteed $217 million over the next seven years. Those are legitimately jarring numbers. Still, people were generally happy about this deal, and for good reason. The Red Sox just signed one of the truly elite pitchers in the game. What’s not to love? Well, there is a significant group out there who have some concerns, and they want you to know that Price might not be that great in the last couple years of this contract! If you’re one of these people, I don’t want to be mean but you’re a big dumb dumb and you need to stop.
To get it out of the way, Price’s opt-out clause after his third year obviously changes the calculus here a little bit. It’s entirely possible that he won’t even be here in six or seven years, and we will never have to worry about those pesky decline years. However, let’s go with the assumption that he doesn’t utilize that option. Even if he’s good, it’s hard to turn down $31 million a year for four years, especially as a 33-year-old. In this scenario, the Red Sox are looking at eventually paying that salary to a guy quickly approaching 40. That’s not so great, of course, but to be worried about that right now, in 2015, is silly.
If the idea of paying an aging player big money is a huge concern, then you’re never going to get a good free agent.
If the idea of paying an aging player big money is a huge concern, then you’re never going to get a good free agent. The entire process is inherently inefficient, a side-effect of the extreme control teams have over their players in the early years. Stars like Price, or Mike Trout, or Xander Bogaerts, or Mookie Betts, or many of the countless others are or will be severely underpaid during their formative years. It’s only right that they’re going to make up for that at the tail-end of their career. That’s obviously not a primary concern of teams that didn’t benefit from said formative years, but it’s a reality they have to deal with. Ideally, a team can develop young players to fill their entire roster, but that’s a pipe dream. In the real world, a team is always going to have holes to fill around their internally developed players. When the holes are as large as the hole atop Boston’s rotation, it’s going to cost a large, inefficient contract.
There are two keys to making signing these kind of contracts work. The first is to avoid making a habit out of it. The Red Sox have mixed marks here, with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez still in the beginnings of their deals. However, those aren’t terribly long-term — Ramirez has three years with a vesting option left, and Sandoval has four years remaining — and there’s still a chance at a bounce-back from both players. Luckily, the other key is surrounding the free agents with good, young talent, and the Red Sox have plenty of that. Bogaerts, Betts, Blake Swihart and Eduardo Rodriguez are all firmly part of the core now and are still pre-arbitration players. Jackie Bradley and Henry Owens could join them soon. Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi are poised to reach the majors relatively soon, with Rafael Devers and Anderson Espinoza not far behind. There’s a ton of young talent here and coming up, and as I mentioned before, these are extremely underpaid players.
It’s also important to mention that we have no idea what the financial landscape is going to look like in seven years. The amount of money in baseball right now is bananas, and with the new TV deals around the league, it only figures to increase. Obviously, $31 million is still going to be a lot of money in 2021, but it could be a little less significant. Just a few years ago, $20 million was a crazy amount of money, and now that’s Rick Porcello’s AAV. I mean, JA Happ just got a three-year contract worth $36 million. Imagine that happening seven years ago. In the interest of being fair to both sides, it is possible this bubble bursts at some point soon, but that appears to be unlikely.
The heart of the issue, though, is if this deal prevents them from improving the team down the road. Who cares how much a guy is making unless it hinders the team? This is the Red Sox we’re talking about, and they do have and will always have more money than just about every other franchise in the game. Even if Price sucks, they can afford this sunk cost. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they don’t have the money to sign a free agent at any point in time. If they get priced out of a player at any point in the next seven years, it will almost certainly be on ownership, not Price’s contract.
Ultimately, this is the [editor’s note … sigh] price that you pay for high-end free agents. As much as we like to play GM and spend our imaginary money efficiently, it’s impossible to attract elite talent with that mindset. You’re paying big money to get great production in the early years that hopefully lead to a championship or two. If that’s the case, the contract is worth it even if they have to deal with an expensive, ineffective pitcher over the last couple years. Maybe, things won’t go as we expect and we’ll look back on this deal in 2023 with disgust. If so, it will be because Price was bad for seven years, not because he was bad for a couple at the end. For now, the Red Sox have one of the three best pitchers in the game, and they didn’t have him a couple weeks ago. Let’s enjoy that for a while before worrying about 2021.
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