As the Addison Recorder’s resident baseball columnist/editor/self-appointed scribe, I’m making a resolution this year to bring you the weekly baseball column I’ve always wanted to write. I’ll continue to write about movies, theatre, and whatever other events cross my path, but after joining the IWBAA, I feel it’s my personal duty to live up to the standards that membership in such an organization calls for. (I.E., more baseball writing) Hence, consider this my first column from the Dugout across from Wrigley Field (otherwise known as Bag End). It is my hope to be the closest baseball writer of residence next to the greatest ballpark in America (and possibly any ballpark, unless someone can tell me that they live closer to a stadium than I do. The challenge is out!).
Having said that, I am aware that Spring Training has just begun. Which is awesome, but far from a wealth of immediate topics to write about.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t have things to write about…
Long Term Employment is on the Up and Up in Major League Baseball
As free agency has begun to transition recent weeks, there’s been a flurry of signings by several teams as the last straggling players look to find their homes for the upcoming season. While several are still unemployed (Erwin Santana, P, being one of the more notables), this is the time of year where a team looking to make a last-minute improvement to its roster might find a relative bargain. (We’ll talk about one such team in particular in just a moment)
In addition, these past few weeks have been notable for other players signing long term extensions with their teams – a trend that’s been building in recent years as teams look to lock up their homegrown talent for as long as they possibly can in the hope of beating out higher contract demands as these players reach their free agency years. Baseball is flush with cash thanks to a bevy of rich, local TV contracts that are all but showering teams with money. In recent years, we’ve seen such smaller-market teams as the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Milwaukee Brewers (a Central bias, but I’m literally living right next to one of their teams, so I have a unique perspective in this regard) extend players with mega-contracts that would have been impossible for them earlier.
As with any of the major sports, not all of this money has been spent wisely. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gave Albert Pujols a 10 year contract in excess of $200 million two years ago, a contract that to this point he has underperformed on – they’ll be paying him upwards of $20 million a year for years to come, something that they’ll be regretting within five years. On the other hand, a recent trend has been to buy out a players arbitration years with a deal after their second or third year of service time – with examples being Ryan Braun (pre-PED scandal), Evan Longoria, and Jay Bruce. This is done not only to avoid the potentially ugly arbitration process, but also to lock in a player’s salary in the event that their talent might explode to the point of driving themselves out of their original team’s price range. It’s a win-win type of deal – the team gets a friendly salary, the player gets the benefit of an early payday and several years of security, which can be hard to come by in a performance based business.
The focus this week will be on three different teams, each of which have made several large contract deals over the last few weeks, with different scenarios on each team.
Team A: Atlanta Braves
In recent weeks, the Braves have locked up several key members of their long term core, including right fielder Jason Heyward (a two-year deal for $13 million), first baseman Freddie Freeman (eight years, $135 million), starting pitcher Julio Teheran (six years, $32 million), All-World closer Craig Kimbrel (four years, $42 million), and All-World defender/shortstop Andrelton Simmons (seven years, $58 million). The moves lock up what is a remarkably solid core for Atlanta for several years, and avoid arbitration for many of them, a process that in Kimbrel’s case (he’s easily the best closer in the game after Mariano Rivera’s retirement and could have commanded exceedingly large salaries) is especially important. With Andrelton Simmons, a player who wouldn’t have even reached free agency for five years, the move rewards what might have been one of the greatest defensive seasons ever from a player who will only continue to get better.
For those of you who weren’t around in the 1990’s, the Braves have a long-standing record as one of the best organizations in baseball – a reputation that’s slipped in recent years, but has become resurgent as the team has restocked itself with young talent, talent that won a division title last year and will (hopefully, in the Braves’ eyes) continue to contend for years to come now. This is what good organizations do – they reward the key pieces of their team with market-applicable contracts. More importantly, they’re not spending gazillions on the Albert Pujols type players, who aren’t reaching the market as often as they once did – they’re building from within. In the long run, such a move is infinitely more cost effective than spending as the Yankees and Dodgers of the world do. The Braves don’t have as large of a margin for error as those teams – if a free agent signing doesn’t pan out for the Dodgers, they can sign somebody else. If it doesn’t work for the Braves, they could spend years in the hole trying to recover as their team flounders. Worse still, they might find themselves paying millions for a quality player…but have no money to commit elsewhere. (See the Texas Rangers immediately after the A-Rod signing in 2001, or the Reds after they traded for Ken Griffey) The Braves are building their team the right way, with smart signings that reward quality players at key positions.
Team B: Cincinnati Reds
Two years back, the Reds signed Joey Votto to a 10 year, $200 million extension, closely followed by an extension for second baseman Brandon Phillips – a move they might be regretting, if the noise of the offseason rings true. Just last week, they inked starting pitcher Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract, easily the largest contract the team has ever inked a pitcher to. This comes on the heels of the Reds not being able to pay similar dollars to outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who signed with Texas, leaving a major hole in the Reds’ offense.
At face value, this deal seems questionable – Bailey has been good over the last few years, but doesn’t seem the type of pitcher to command such a large contract (his stats are essentially league average, his two no-hitters nonwithstanding). The Reds are gambling – in essence – that Bailey is just reaching his peak and will provide them with a no. 2 or 3 caliber starter for the next five years, now that his command has improved and his health has remained consistent. Whether they’ll end up getting that is another question entirely.
As a Reds fan, I’m still of a mixed mind about the deal. I like that they’re rewarding Homer’s hard work, and that he won’t simply be walking away. However, in two years time, the Reds will have $65 million on the books for just four players – Votto, Bailey, Phillips, and Bruce. While they’re the core of the team, there will also be large dollars to pay for at that time to players such as third baseman Todd Frazier, catcher Devin Mesoraco, and closer Aroldis Chapman. Perhaps more importantly, pitchers Matt Latos and Jhonny Cueto will be free agents. Cueto and Latos are unquestionably better pitchers than Bailey (when healthy) – Latos alone will probably command a deal in the range of six to seven years for $150 million if he continues to play the way he has for the last two years. When it comes time to pay them, the Reds might not have the money, and probably will have to either trade their pitchers for prospects or simply let them walk. (If Cueto continues to have health issues, the issue might be moot in his regard)
What the Reds are paying for, in my opinion, is for Bailey to be a stabilizing force in their rotation, a role that has been filled by Bronson Arroyo in recent years. $17 million a year might seem a lot for stability, but for those who remember the Reds of the 2000’s, it’s not that large of a price to pay. In addition, the team has shown an increasing ability to build pitching talent from within – players like Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, and Robert Stephenson will be young and cheap for years to come. However, a rotation ace like Latos comes along once in a blue moon, and can be the difference in, say, a one-game playoff (something that Dusty Baker didn’t quite grasp). Bailey may yet be that ace, but at this point, he’s a steady #3 starter who can dominate on any given day, but is more likely to provide 12-15 wins, a 3.50 ERA, and 180 K’s a year. The old adage rings true – you can never have enough pitching.
Team C: Baltimore Orioles
And then we come to the Orioles, a team that twice – twice! – this offseason signed players to contracts before rescinding them following failed physicals, a team that lost out on Arroyo’s services despite offering better money than his ultimate destination, Arizona, and that just signed Ubaldo Jiminez to a 4-year, $50 million deal. The Orioles have been locking up several of their players with extensions (the notables being Adam Jones and Nick Markakis), but have been on a twenty-year streak of failing to develop any quality starting pitching from within their own organization. Consequently, the growing clamor around Baltimore has been to sign any quality pitcher they can. The team is hoping that Jiminez can fill the role of ace.
Unfortunately, he’s not an ace. His last truly good year came in 2010 for the Rockies before he settled into a three year rut that alternated between terrible and competent. Not exactly the kind of player you want taking the role of staff ace. Nevertheless, the feeling was that the Orioles had to do something. Who knows – maybe the deal will work out in Baltimore’s favor. Maybe not. The point is that the contract is a gamble, and as far to the opposite end of the spectrum from a team such as the Braves as you can find in MLB. There are reasons why the Orioles had failed to reach the postseason until two years ago (though hopefully their core will remain of a high quality for the next few years, a hard goal in a division that includes the Yankees, Rays, and world champion Red Sox). It takes a while to rebuild an organization, something the Pirates are just now completing, and teams like the Royals may not achieve for years to come.
But hey, at least they’re not the Cleveland Browns.