At the 2007 winter meetings, Dave Dombrowski recognized an opportunity. Miguel Cabrera was a 24-year-old veteran with five years under his belt. Cabrera had not yet ripped the title of "Best Hitter on the Planet" from Albert Pujols, but he had three consecutive seasons with an OPS+ of 150 in his early 20's. His cost to the Marlins was about to soar, and then they would lose him to free agency. The Marlins were ready to make a deal.
Near the 2012 trade deadline, the Marlins had a problem again. Anibal Sanchez had grown into a reliably above-average starter, but he was a few months away from free agency. The Marlins turned to their trusty trade partner and flipped him for prospects.
Giancarlo Stanton concluded the 2014 season as a 24-year-old veteran with five years under his belt. His season was cut short by injury but he claimed the title "Best National League Player other than Clayton Kershaw." His bWAR exceeds Cabrera's through their first five years. Surely, many general managers were suggesting packages of prospects to free Stanton from Miami, as was I last year.
But this time the Marlins went in a different direction. They signed Stanton to a contract that, at first blush, makes Stanton a Marlin for life.
The headlines read 13 years for $325 million. But that includes a choice for Stanton to opt-out of the deal after six years. There is also an option for the Marlins in the final year, so the headlines could go for more hype and call it 14 years for $350 million.
The Tigers signed Cabrera to an extension last winter; 10 years for $284 million, or 12 years for $344 million with options on the last two years. We evaluated the deal at the time, hoping Cabrera could contribute enough surplus value in the early years as he would inevitably decline with age.
By announcing a $325 million deal, the Marlins could claim the largest and longest contract ever. Mike Trout's extension was for less than half as much. Clayton Kershaw's deal is about two-thirds as large. Suddenly the Marlins are portrayed as big spenders, or at least willing to commit to top talent.
But the details reveal a much different contract than Cabrera's extension with the Tigers. Joey Votto's $263 million contract through age 40 is more similar to Cabrera's contract than Stanton's deal.
Stanton had two years remaining before free agency. The Marlins would pay less-than-market-rate through arbitration, but it would still be a big number for them. His salary was $6.5 million in 2014 and stood to jump to $15-$20 million in the next two years. The Marlins signed him instead to $15.5 million for the two years combined. This is not how extensions typically work.
A player will sell his years of team control, receiving extra money now in exchange for less money later. Stanton accepted less money now. And he likely could do better in free agency than $91.5 million for four years. So the story is that Stanton did this for the good of the team. He is taking less money so the poor Marlins can afford to package some talent around him.
That could be true in part, or maybe Stanton has a good agent and financial advisor and was acting in his own best interest. Stanton gave up $15-$20 million in arbitration salary, and another $15-$30 million in the first four years of free agency. In return he is guaranteed $218 million from 2021 to 2028. If his performance declines for whatever reason, the money is still his. If his value increases, however, he can simply opt-out after 2020. Note that Trout and Kershaw are likewise only signed through 2020.
The Marlins will not obtain surplus value in the second-half of the contract, because if there is value to be had, the contract will be renegotiated or Stanton will be gone. Giancarlo will be 30-years-old in 2020 and may have the entire second-half of his career ahead of him.
Cabrera's extension on the other hand was for ages 31 to 40. He will earn $284 million, with the only options automatically kicking in if he finishes in the top 10 of MVP voting in the final two years. Cabrera's contract is representative of an organization that seeks to treat players fairly, cultivates an environment where players want to stay, and tries to remain competitive over a period of many years. Thus, players like Torii Hunter ask to be signed, and Victor Martinez asked to stay.
Stanton's contract in the final analysis is a four-year extension packaged to generate maximum hype. The Marlins will sell more season tickets, having finished last in attendance. They can improve television ratings and raise the price of the next broadcast contract.
The six-most similar batters to Stanton through age 24, as listed at Baseball Reference, are Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, Tony Conigliaro, Boog Powell, Bob Horner, and Andruw Jones. These are the poster boys for stars who flamed out young, and the cautionary tale of the risk of being hit by a pitch. The Marlins are assuming this risk.
Who will regret their contract more: the Tigers when Cabrera is 40 and making $32 million, or the Marlins when Stanton is 35 and making the same $32 million?