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The reality of the blockbuster contract

Sure, the big deals are fun, but at what cost?

ALCS - Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers - Game Five Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

November 20th marked the five year anniversary of the Detroit Tigers trading Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. This trade feels especially relevant this year, as one of the major reasons Fielder was moved — even when his hefty contract seemed impossible to offload — was due to his comments following the conclusion of the 2013 ALCS against Boston. Fielder made it very clear that baseball was a job, and his job was done for the year. The end. No comment on his fiasco of a belly flop returning to third base. Just a complete check out to start the postseason.

Detroit fans were not impressed, and neither was management.

The return was four glorious years of watching Ian Kinsler turn double plays with Jose Iglesias, until the 2017 offseason found Kinsler headed to the Angels, and ultimately midseason to the Boston Red Sox.

This October, he won a World Series.

I don’t bring this up to beat the dead horse of that particular trade. Baseball is a game of moving parts, and those parts are the players on the field. But when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth $219 million, they were telling the baseball world they would do what it took to win. That year, 2012, they went all the way to the World Series. The next year they went to the ALCS. They did this not solely on Fielder’s shoulders, but he was certainly a cog in the machine.

And then the machine broke.

This is not a story unique to the Detroit Tigers, but it’s the cautionary tale that every team should be aware of as they mull over deals that might amount to more than $300 million for guys like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Is the win-now mentality really worth the long term cost of those bloated deals?

When Mike Ilitch was owner of the Tigers, his desire to see the club win a World Series was worth any cost. He signed Fielder, he gave Victor Martinez the contract extension that would hang around the club’s neck like dead weight for four seasons. He was devoted to his players and his franchise in a way that ultimately did not pay off, and now after his death, the team is struggling to find their way back to a place of contention. They have a long way to go, especially while still carrying the contracts of the oft-injured Miguel Cabrera (arguably worth it for his prime years), and Jordan Zimmermann (ouch).

Look at the Red Sox, who signed Adrian Gonzalez to a seven-year deal worth $154 million in 2012. They traded him that same season to the Dodgers. The Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki to a 10-year deal in 2011, and traded him the Blue Jays four years later, where he — like Fielder — has struggled mightily with injuries. Matt Kemp might be my favorite example. The Dodgers signed him to an eight-year contract worth $160 million that extended through 2019. While Kemp might be sporting a Dodgers uniform now, he was traded from the Dodgers to the Padres, and then to the Braves, and then back to the Dodgers in that span.

Then there are the teams that spent, and didn’t trade, but might be regretting it now. The Seattle Mariners traded James Paxton just this week to the New York Yankees, but still on their roster is Felix Hernandez, who the team signed to a $175 million seven-year deal in 2013. In 2018, he was moved to the bullpen due to his flagging performance. Hernandez and fellow big ticket item, Robinson Cano, may form a two-sided cautionary tale for years to come in Seattle.

Now, this isn’t to say that blockbuster contracts are always a bad move. The Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year $210 million deal that might end up being the blueprint for how other teams manage monster deals, as the contract is being paid out over 14 years — seven years longer than he will be with the club. He has been worth every penny of that deal thusfar. Likewise, the Dodgers are clearly not bemoaning the $215 million seven-year deal they signed with Clayton Kershaw, because after he opted out earlier this offseason, they signed him to a new $93 million three-year contract. The Giants have won three World Series championships with Buster Posey behind the dish, so they’re unlikely to regret his nine-year $167 million contract.

A lot of folks were unhappy with the David Price seven-year deal the Red Sox signed in 2015, but Price has a World Series ring now. So does Jon Lester who signed a $155 million six-year deal with the Cubs (Lester actually has three rings, but who’s counting?).

Still, teams should be wary of long-term contracts for short-term wins. Yes, there is excitement in landing a Harper or a Machado. Do they help your team’s chances of a World Series win? Maybe. But the Nationals had Harper in his prime, and an absolutely dominant Max Scherzer, and they haven’t been able to get to a World Series. The Orioles made it to the 2014 ALCS, but not further. Machado helped the Dodgers in the 2018 postseason, but once again the Los Angeles behemoth could not get Clayton Kershaw his ring.

No one player is the difference between a win and a loss.

But one bad contract can haunt a team for a decade.