It’s only Wednesday, but the Brewers have already made waves twice this week with a couple interesting signings. First, with Monday’s complicated Kyle Lohse deal and then there was the “He’s back!” moment Tuesday when the team brought back one of the game’s great punchlines in the statue known as Yuniesky Betancourt.
Neither of these signings are being widely celebrated by the Brewers faithful or the national media, nor are they being lauded as historically bad deals, they fall somewhere in the middle (kind of like Yuni on a roller past the pitcher), as do the vast majority of baseball contracts.
To take a look at what really constitutes the best and worst of baseball signings, I’ve put together a list of the top five and bottom five contracts within the division. Only players who are out of the arbitration system were considered, to focus more on evaluating team’s allocation of resources instead of drafting and player development.
THE TOP FIVE
1. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
Last season marked the first year of a six-year, $51.5 million deal for McCutchen, and he rewarded the Pirates with a +7.4 WAR season, according to FanGraphs. Hats off to the Pirates, for knowing what they had to do with McCutchen, and getting it done before last season when he vaulted himself into the discussion of best players in the National League.
Enough can’t be said about the importance of signing young talent to extensions, and the Pirates worked a similar deal with Jose Tabata (six years, $15 million), which isn’t working out quite as well. Still, the risk of signing someone like McCutchen, or even Tabata, to a long extension before they reach their prime is almost zero. On the long list of terrible contracts over the past decade or so, the vast majority of those contracts are ones that were given to the player once he hit free agency. The nature of the market drives the price too high for the likes of Pittsburgh to consider getting in the sweepstakes when the prized players hit the open market. Just this past winter, Josh Hamilton (five years, $133 million), B.J. Upton (five years, $75.25 million), Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) and Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million) all signed for more annually than McCutchen will make in his current deal. And yet, nobody would claim that any of those players are more valuable than McCutchen, given his age (26) and his track record for staying healthy.
2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
The Brewers have Braun under contract through the 2020 season with a club option for 2021. He will make $8.5 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014, $12 million in 2015, and then his annual wage increases to $19 million from 2016 to 2018 with a drop to $18 million in 2019 and $16 million in 2020.
Braun’s eight-year, $45 million deal and the ensuing five-year, $105 million extension are the epitome of a club locking up it’s prized cornerstone to a mutually beneficial long-term deal. What the Brewers have with Braun is a bit more of an investment than what the Bucs were able to secure with McCutchen, but not if you just compare the original deals of eight years, $45 million for Braun and six years, $51.5 million for McCutchen. A better comparison for Braun’s extension would be Matt Kemp, who the Dodgers signed to an eight-year, $160 million deal that keeps him with the team through 2019. The main difference here, is that the Brewers extended their MVP candidate at the perfect time, and were able to lock in Braun’s age 27 through 32 seasons for just under $59.8 million. For the same prime years, the Dodgers are paying Kemp $115 million. The Dodgers probably waited a year too long to extend Kemp, and it cost them. The Brewers have been aggressive about keeping Braun in Milwaukee from the start, and the player rewarded them for it by signing.
If “franchise cornerstones” actually exist, Braun would certainly fit the bill, and even if he starts showing some regression towards the end of the deal, the Brewers are never committing more than $19 million to him in a season, which should allow them to remain active in improving other aspects of the team. Speaking of franchise cornerstones, the Yankees will be paying their shortstop, who will start the season on the DL, $17 million this year for his age-39 season, and Braun will be making exactly half that.
3. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers
I know this really risks coming across as a homer, putting two players on a best contracts list from a team that had Yuni, lost Yuni, and then wanted Yuni back, but hear me out. Lucroy is a fine catcher, most people will agree. Last year he slugged .513 with a .378 wOBA, and by all accounts, he’s perfectly adequate behind the dish, although measuring catcher defense is among the most difficult assessments in baseball. He is entering the second year of a five-year, $10.28 million deal that will take him through his age-30 season, with a team option in 2017.
If it hasn’t already been made clear in this article, the “when” in baseball contracts is often just as important as the “money.” Getting players locked in during their prime years at a club-friendly cost is the essence behind baseball signings. Yadier Molina, 30, will make more money ($14 million) this season than Lucroy will over the life of his five-year contract. I get it, they aren’t the same player. Maybe you would argue that they aren’t close to the same player, depending on how much you think Molina walks on water defensively. But they are definitely closer than their respective contracts suggest. How about Miguel Montero? He’s entering the second year of a six-year, $65.9 million deal. Lucroy gets to be on this list because he is an above-average option at one of the premium positions, locked up in his prime at far below market norms.
4. Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds
With contracts, we often talk about the future — the potential for windfalls or disaster. But a contract that’s half complete should also be judged based on the production the team has already paid for. Cueto signed a four-year, $27 million deal in 2011, and the Reds have already reaped the rewards. In 2011 he posted a 2.31 ERA in 156 innings and in 2012 he posted a 2.78 ERA in 217 innings. That’s 373 incredibly valuable innings, and it cost the Reds just $8.8 million.
Even though Cueto received some buzz for the Cy Young Award last year, that’s not the type of pitcher most people are expecting him to be on an annual basis, but even if his ERA sits in the mid-threes, as long as he’s tossing 200-plus innings, he’s still a bargain to the Reds. The thing that really makes this deal great, is that the team locked up Cueto right before he started to profile as a number one starter. The foresight Walt Jocketty displayed here was monumental.
5. Allen Craig, 1B, Cardinals
When you’re a well-run organization, you not only pass on giving the beloved fan-favorite who’s past his prime a huge deal, you also have the guy who can replace him ready within the organization. When St. Louis let Albert Pujols go without putting up much of a fight, it was easy to look at it as a stathead and make a case for how and why the Cardinals would make up his production and how they really wouldn’t miss him, at least not at that price. The thing is, even after Craig’s impressive numbers in limited at bats in 2011, I don’t think many people outside the Cardinals’ organization thought Craig would hit .307/.354/.522 in his first full season with the club, like he did.
Before he could put together another big season in 2013, likely approaching 30 home runs with a .300 average if he plays in 150 games, the Cards signed him to a five-year, $31 million deal this offseason. While Pujols will be making $63 million over the next three years with the Angels, St. Louis has Craig on the books for just $10 million over that span. In addition to backloading the deal, the team made sure that they would have all of Craig’s remaining prime years, with a team option for his age-33 season. Then they’ll let him go on the open market, like they always do, and they’ll probably have another masher without a position waiting in the wings.