Big Deals Usually Don’t Pay Off For Teams

DENVER—It’s the money that gets all the attention when players sign huge free agent deals, but what fans really ought to watch are the years.

The extended long-term contract is primarily a creation of this century, but it has not ensured long-term relationships. The most recent example is Prince Fielder.

Prince Fielder (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Prince Fielder was traded two years into a nine-year deal. (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Two years ago, the Tigers made the big splash, signing Fielder to a nine-year contract, and creating a lineup as potent as any in baseball with Fielder’s lefthanded bat backing up the righthanded power of Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers won back-to-back division titles, but after being swept in the World Series by the Giants in 2012 and eliminated in six games in the American League Championship Series by the eventual Red Sox in October, they decided it was time to break up the dynamic duo.

The Tigers sent Fielder (and $30 million to offset the $168 million remaining on the seven years of his contract) to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has five years and $75 million due over five years.
The latest cautionary tale certainly has not deterred teams from making similar deals, topped off most recently with Robinson Cano signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners.

Incomplete
Not including this offseason, there have been 24 contracts of eight or more years given out in major league history (two of which have gone to Alex Rodriguez), with 21 of them coming since 2000.

The first was signed by righthander Wayne Garland during the initial wave of free agents after the 1976 season. After coming up in the Orioles organization, he signed a 10-year, $2.3 million deal with the Indians. Yes, $2.3 million.
Garland retired following the 1981 season, after five injury-plagued years and a 28-48, 4.50 record for the Indians. But Cleveland had to keep paying him through 1986.

Dave Winfield (10 years, $23 million with the Yankees) was dealt by the Yankees to the Angels in the ninth year of his deal, which was signed before the 1981 season. The Rangers signed Richie Zisk to a 10-year deal prior to the 1978 season, and dealt him to the Mariners after the 1980 campaign. He played three more seasons before injuries brought his career to an end.

Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter’s 10-year deal was one of the few long-term deals that worked out for both parties.

Of the deals of more recent vintage that have been completed, just Derek Jeter (10 years, $189 million with the Yankees for 2001-2010) and Todd Helton (11 years, $151.5 million with the Rockies for 2001-11) spent the entire contract term with the team that originally signed it. Helton did approve a trade to the Red Sox prior to 2007 that fell through, and he reworked the final two years of his contract, deferring all but $9.9 million to create payroll flexibility for the Rockies.

Rodriguez opted out of the 10-year deal he originally signed with the Rangers prior to the 2001 season after 2007, leveraging the Yankees into a new 10-year, $275 million deal from 2008-17. Rodriguez spent just three years in Texas, yet the Rangers agreed to pick up $71 million of the $183 million he had coming over the final seven years of that initial deal to get the Yankees to take the contract. The Rangers did save $21.3 million when Rodriguez voided the final three seasons.

The Rockies kept Mike Hampton for just two years (21-28, 5.75) of his eight-year, $121 million deal. To unload him to the Marlins after the 2002 season, they covered $49 million of the contract, gave up outfielder Juan Pierre and took on the salaries of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson. (The Marlins then flipped Hampton to the Braves.)

Scott Rolen played for three teams over the eight years of the $90 million deal he signed in St. Louis after the 2004 season. He spent the first three years of that contract with the Cardinals, the next two with the Blue Jays and final three in Cincinnati.

The Red Sox unloaded Adrian Gonzalez and his seven-year, $154 million deal on the Dodgers midway through the second year (2012). Manny Ramirez (eight years, $160 million with Boston, 2001-08), and Ken Griffey Jr. (9 years, $116.5 million with Cincinnati, 2000-08) were all traded during the final season of their deals.

Thirteen of the long-term deals are currently in effect, including 10 signed for the 2011 season or later. The three others are Rodriguez, Cabrera (eight years, $152.3 million, 2008-2015 with the Tigers), and Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million, 2009-2016 with the Yankees).

While Fielder is the only one to have been traded, he almost certainly won’t be the last. Matt Kemp, signed through 2019 with the Dodgers, and Elvis Andrus, whom the Rangers have signed through 2022 (with a 2023 option) are among those who have been attached to rumors of varying veracity.

And older players like Albert Pujols, whose deal with the Angels runs through 2021, almost certainly won’t reach the end of their deals.

The commitments are long term. The return, for the most part, has not been.