The Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds will perpetually be criticized for doling out ten year contracts worth a total of $705 million to Albert Pujols (31 at time of contract), Robinson Cano (31) and Joey Votto (30), though Cincinnati may not be as heavily criticized since they are a small market team that is believed to win for the duration of Votto’s contract, and the fact that it’s steady salary wise compared to the Pujols and Cano deals.
When players of Cano and Pujols’ ilk hit the open market, it is a total free for all. Teams dream of a players like Pujols and Cano; a right-handed power hitter who, at the time, played gold glove caliber first base, and a smooth, stylish left-handed power hitting second baseman who was still able to put up strong numbers in a less than ideal New York Yankees lineup. The downside to these deals is that when players hit the open market, they are usually in their late 20s, but with the new age of sabermetrics and getting the most value out of players, teams will try and sign players to team friendly extensions, which Pujols and Cano both did. Thus, both players hit the market in their 30s, where contracts start to become payment for past performance rather than an investment of their future performance.
Pujols’s contract, going into year three, already looks like it’s going to be long and ugly, as Pujols was shut down in 2013 after only 99 games due to plantar fasciitis and a .258/.330/.437 slash line. Pujols had never finished a season with a batting average lower than .299, which he happened to do in year one of his mega deal with the Angels. Votto’s deal could also look bad sooner than later, as he missed 51 games in 2012, but bounced back to play all 162 in 2013, but does have some knee issues, which certainly do not get better with age. Of course, Cano may look good either in the early parts of his contract, but Seattle does have some pitching and some young players that could benefit from have a big hitter around them who has won a World Series.
Ten-year deals are never a good idea for players of Pujols and Cano’s age, nor Votto’s, whose contract will kick in in 2014, his age 30 season. However, there are two players in the league today who, right now, could command 10, 12, or even 15 year deals from their respective clubs. Their names: Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of those same Angels that broke the bank for Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Harper turned 21 in October, and Trout is 22. Both have Rookie of the Year awards under their belts, are two time all stars, and Trout has finished second in AL MVP voting in back to back seasons. The proverbial “Magic and Byrd” of Major League Baseball, the two have already become mainstays in their team’s lineups and are unequivocally the faces of their respective franchises.
For these two, ten years is where you begin contract negotiations. Think about it, if the Angels and Nationals go through arbitration with Trout and Harper, they are going to be paying through the nose every year. The saving grace for the Nationals is Harper’s knee issue hampered his production in 2013, and many believe he could be primed for a monster age-21 season. Trout is much different, as his walk total increased exponentially in 2013, up to 110 from 67 in 2012, and posting a 9.2 WAR. For a player on a team that did not crack 80 wins, that’s quite impressive. Right now, the Angels are getting a huge value, but in 2015, when Trout becomes arbitration eligible, there is going to be quite a spike in salary. Harper could be in the midst of a contract negotiation soon as well due to a clause in his current rookie deal.
What teams normally do is buy out arbitration years with team-friendly contracts early on to provide some payroll stability in certain parts, which then clarifies what they can spend on free agency, how much salary they can take on in a trade, etc. Buying out Harper and Trout’s arbitration years with long term deals provides more salary stability and would make both teams look like geniuses for acting early. Trout hits free agency in 2018, at 27. Harper will be 26 in 2019, when he hits the open market. They could be baseball’s first $350 million players–unless the Nationals and Angels jump ahead of the curve.