A look into the thought process behind MLB’s surge of long-term contracts

This is the era of long-term contracts in baseball. 

Counting contracts that started with the 2019 season, 13 different players currently have deals that are at least 10 years in length. This offseason alone, Carlos Correa (13 years), Trea Turner (13 years) and Xander Bogaerts (11 years) have joined the club, and Aaron Judge (nine years) just missed out, though his total compensation ($360 million) and average annual value ($40 million) put him in a different exclusive tier. 

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By my best count, before 2019, there were only 10 such deals handed out previously in the history of the sport. If you include extensions to previous deals — such as Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year extension that kicked in for the 2016 season, tacked on to the two years remaining on his existing contract — the number goes up, but only slightly. 

But what goes into the thought process behind handing out long-term deals like these? We know why the players do it — money, security, control, etc. — but what about from the other side? 

“The criteria is, what kind of player he is. No. 1, is he an aircraft carrier?” MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd, a longtime baseball executive who was the GM of the Colorado Rockies from 1999 to 2014, said in a recent phone interview. “No. 2, what kind of person he represents in your clubhouse, as it relates to the culture that you’re trying to build. And No. 3, when he gets the money, is it going to change at all how he approaches what he does, day in and day out? That was the criteria we used in Colorado.”

We’ve seen these mega-deals handed out as extensions for young players who aren’t yet close to free agency — looking at you, Fernando Tatis Jr. (14 years), Wander Franco (11 years), Austin Riley (10 years) and Julio Rodriguez (13 years) — and, of course, we’ve seen them given out to elite free agents in highest-bidder situations. 

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Manny Machado (10 years) and Bryce Harper (13 years) both signed in the spring of 2019, and Corey Seager inked his 10-year deal with the Rangers last offseason. Rounding out the group, Mike Trout (12 years), Mookie Betts (12 years) and Francisco Lindor (10 years) were established superstars who signed extensions before they would have been able to test the free-agent market. These 13 players are, in many ways, very different than most of the players who previously had contracts extending at least 10 years. 

“I look at these contracts, and I look at them from a couple different vantage points, especially the role I’m in now (at MLB Network),” O’Dowd said. “First of all, you cannot look at everybody with the same brush, because we were not all created equal. The ones that have really blown up, to me, were the corner players who were not great athletes to begin with, but just great offensive players. Their games revolved around explosive power and rotational movement patterns. That has not worked exceptionally well.”

At the top of that list: Cabrera and Albert Pujols, with a shoutout to Joey Votto. Pujols and Cabrera, especially, became the poster boys for the dangers of handing out such long-term deals. All three signed 10-year deals; Pujols’ deal ended after the 2021 season. His combined bWAR over the last five years of the deal was minus-0.4, with a 93 OPS+. For Cabrera and Votto, the upcoming 2023 season is the last of the contract. Cabrera has a 94 OPS+ and minus-1.4 bWAR the past four seasons, while Votto has been a tick better, at 108 OPS+ and 4.6 bWAR, thanks mostly to his renaissance 2021 campaign. 

O’Dowd negotiated one of the long-term deals while with Colorado. Troy Tulowitzki had three years remaining on his deal when the star and the GM negotiated a seven-year extension that brought the total package to 10 years — 2011 to 2020 — and $157.5 million guaranteed. Tulowitzki was 26 years old and already had three seasons with a bWAR of 6.0 or higher under his belt, and he’d finished fifth in the NL MVP voting two years in a row. 

“Only very select players fall into that category, the elite players of the game,” O’Dowd said. “We did that with Tulo and physically he was not able to maintain that. We were in a different situation, playing in Colorado. It is different, from a discussion standpoint, than any of the other 29 teams, because of the environmental factors involved, in committing to players there.”

Injuries told too much of the rest of Tulowitzki’s story. He was dealt to Toronto at the 2015 trade deadline, helping the Blue Jays reach the ALCS in 2015 and 2016. He missed the second half of 2017 with injuries, then spent all of 2018 on the disabled list. His attempted comeback with the Yankees ended after just five games in 2019, and he retired, betrayed by a body that couldn’t stay healthy. 

The hope of the teams signing these players to long-term deals now is that advances in health sciences will help. 

“The players train differently now, and the amount of money they invest personally in sustaining success is totally different,” O’Dowd said. “I think the next frontier in analytics in the game — and it’s happening right now — is performance development, bridging the gap between a player’s potential and their actual performance, keeping their actual performance at the level it’s at, when it’s at its best.

“I’m not saying they’re going to be 5 to 6 WAR players when they get deep into their 30s, but I think they can be 2 WAR players, and they will have earned their payouts over an eight-year period of time, and I think there’s value to having those guys around even in the later parts of their careers.”

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The massive number of years is, to some extent, just playing with the numbers. The one that matters most to teams is the average annual value (AAV) because that’s what counts toward the luxury tax numbers. 

So let’s say the Phillies determined that Trea Turner would provide $300 million worth of value over the rest of his career, and he’ll provide that value for the next eight years, until his Age 37 season. Considering that he’s been worth $105.1 million — based on FanGraphs’ calculation — over the past two seasons, that’s not unreasonable. 

A $300 million contract over eight years would have an AAV of $37.5 million, which is (obviously) a lot. But extend that same total compensation over 11 years, and suddenly the AAV is a much more reasonable $27.3 million per season. That provides an additional $10 million of flexibility to stay under the luxury tax (or under different tiers of the tax). Even if the Phillies would have to completely eat the last year or two of his deal, the benefits of giving him the extra years now outweigh the potential risks.

And, just having players — and people — like Turner, Bogaerts and Correa around, O’Dowd sees that as a win, too. 

“The greatest teachers most of the players have learned from, in my career, are the teammates they’ve been around,” he said. “So I do think there’s value in that, and I think it’s been an under-appreciated value in the era of analytics.

“I’ll give you an example. Even though Todd Helton declined dramatically in his performance, he didn’t decline dramatically in the way he prepared and performed. … How those guys go about preparing to compete is an incredible example to young players of greatness. So not having those players around, I think, affects the development of the next generation of young players.”

It feels odd to think of the still-young Turner, Correa and Bogaerts as aging veteran players, no doubt, but you can bet the teams handing out those long-term contracts already have. And, apparently, they like what they see. 

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