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The Cole Hamels Saga: Can Any Pitcher Really Fulfill a $100 Million Dollar Contract?

Cole Hamels is on the verge of getting one of the largest contracts in baseball history, a deal that will likely surpass the $120 million deal signed by his teammate Cliff Lee two years ago. That will make Hamels the eighth pitcher in baseball history to earn a $100 million contract, prompting the question of whether a pitcher can really be worth that kind of money.

Beyond the obvious facts that a professional athlete making a nine-figure contract to throw a ball is absurd, pitchers are routinely injury-prone, making a long-term deal all the riskier.

Kevin Brown was the first pitcher ever to ink a $100 million contract and Mike Hampton joined him shortly afterwards, signing a ridiculous $121 million deal with the Colorado Rockies. Since then, CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million), Johan Santana (six years, $137.5 million), Barry Zito (seven years, $126 million), Cliff Lee (five years, $120 million), and Matt Cain (five years, $112.5 million) have joined the $100 million club.

The following details each $100M pitcher’s average full season during his contract. For those still getting paid for their contract (Sabathia, Lee, Zito, Lee, Cain), it doesn’t include 2012 among their average seasonal numbers. And Cain’s averages aren’t on here at all since he just signed his deal this April.

Hampton’s contract was a colossal bust, arguably the worst contract in the history of professional baseball. The Rockies had absolutely no business giving Hampton a deal even close to half of that, and he was downright atrocious during his eight years, lasting just two years on Colorado. While the Coors Field atmosphere certainly didn’t help, Hampton was merely a good pitcher who had a ridiculously successful season (22-4, 2.90 ERA in 1998).

Brown’s deal was way too much although at least he had some solid seasons at the beginning. He is comparable to a pitcher in today’s days like Shawn Marcum or Dan Haren, a pitcher that is a good number two pitcher but not quite an ace. Brown was very impressive his first two seasons before struggling with durability issues and then with overall effectiveness before he was shipped to the New York Yankees.

What was so ridiculous about Zito’s contract is that he wasn’t even that good in the four years prior to the contract. He did win a Cy Young award back in 2002 when he went 23-5 but from 2003 through 2006, he averaged just a 14-12 record and a 3.86 ERA. Zito’s first year in San Francisco was disappointing at 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA, and the problem with a disappointing year is that a $100 million contract really doesn’t allow room for a disappointing year.

Zito followed that up by going 10-17 with a 5.05 ERA In 2008 – leading the league in losses – and by that point, it was apparent his contract was a huge mistake. Zito has never had a winning record with the Giants and the fact that his 2012 season is viewed as a huge success (8-6, 3.75 ERA through 18 starts) tells you the Giants blew it by paying him what they did.

Santana, Sabathia, Lee, and Cain have a much better chance of fulfilling their deals than Brown, Hampton, and Zito. But as good as Santana has been since he signed the contract, he’s not quite the pitcher he was back in his prime in Minnesota when he won a pair of Cy Young awards and a pitching triple crown. He missed the entire 2011 season due to injury which means his contract suddenly becomes reduced to five years at $137.5 million, and that’s unreasonable to expect any pitcher to justify $26-27 million per season.

Santana’s 2012 season isn’t bad at all – he’s 6-6 with a 3.59 ERA, a 2.91 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 1.207 WHIP in 18 starts – but that’s not worth the $24 million the Mets are paying him. And they’re still on the hook for $25.5 million in 2013 and then there’s a $25 million option in 2014 that they would be absolutely foolish not to decline.

Sabathia has been the best of the group so far. He led the league in wins in 2010, he’s remarkably durable, and he strikes out a ton of batters while limiting his walks. As far as $100 million pitchers go, there’s no way the Yankees are regretting his contract so far. The problem is that Sabathia still has four more years after 2012 plus a vesting option at $25 million in 2017 and he has the body type that should terrify Yankees fans. He’s managed to start at least 33 games for each of the last five seasons and save for a brief DL stint this year, he’s never had any injury problems.

But he’s also thrown over 2,500 total innings since debuting in the major leagues, and sooner or later, that’s going to take a toll on his arm. Maybe Sabathia will make it through his whole deal without breaking down or losing any effectiveness, but that’s unlikely.

Lee was terrific in his first season of the deal, posting arguably his best-ever numbers at the ripe old age of 33. That’s the problem though – he has to maintain those numbers for his deal to be worth it. Whether you attribute his struggles this season to the Philadelphia Phillies’ lack of scoring runs for him or his inconsistencies, the bottom line is that he has one win in half a season and that’s not worth the $25 million the Phillies are paying him. And there’s still 2013, 2014, and 2015 to go plus a vesting option that might extend through 2016 at another $27.5 million. I highly doubt Lee will be worth his contract three years from now when he’s nearly 37 years old.

It’s way too early to tell what Cain will be like. He’s a terrific pitcher, although it’s surprising that a guy who entered the season as a sub-.500 career pitcher gets a $112.5 million deal. Cain is just 27 years old and he’s made three of the last four All-Star teams. He has a good chance to be a borderline ace for the San Francisco Giants for the remainder of his contract. Many other pitchers are in the line for a mega-sized deal in the future also, and time will tell if Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, and Tim Lincecum are worth the deals they will likely sign.

A message to any team about to sign a pitcher to a $100 million contract: Learn from the mistakes that other teams have made and be very wary about paying that kind of money to any pitcher.