free piece at Baseball Prospectus today, Steven Goldman writes on lengthy multi-year contracts. His overall point as it relates to the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez is that 10-year contracts for position players are generally not as bad as pitchers. Of course, the scarcity of ten-year contracts makes an in-depth study of them next to impossible, and we’re really relying on the evidence from Dave Winfield as a barometer of success.
When it comes to pitchers, however, Goldman takes a look at multi-year contracts and Johan Santana. He concludes that “the odds of a pitcher surviving ten years unscathed are minuscule.”
But what about the seven years Santana is rumored to want? Let me excerpt:
Of course, many lefties have pitched well at that age , but the list of those who maintained their value to a degree that they would be worth the kind of length and value that Santana is apparently demanding is pretty small: Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, and Steve Carlton comprise the top tier, after which you have to start cherry-picking the odd Jamie Moyer, Warren Spahn, Kenny Rogers, and David Wells seasons. As good as Santana is, history and human physiology are against him.
That said, it’s possible that no one cares. One of the interesting things we’ve seen this offseason—particularly in the contracts for A-Rod, Jorge Posada, and perhaps also what Santana will get—is the kind of contract where no one involved really thinks that the player will deliver value commensurate with the dollars involved throughout the term of the contract. The team does what it has to maintain its ability to win now, figuring that it will deal later with the problem of having an expensive, underperforming vet around.
I like what Goldman has to say here but with a few caveats. First, he doesn’t really control for inflation when it comes to the Posada and A-Rod deals. It’s quite possible that Jorge Posada will be a good deal in a few years as the market for catchers explodes. The same holds true for A-Rod. We just won’t know if these two players become dead weight until after the fact. So assuming that teams are willing to take on contracts that extend beyond the reasonable shelf life of a player is something of a flawed conclusion considering where baseball economics are heading.
But more germane to the Santana discussion is something we’ve mentioned before. The Yanks would be giving up lots of young potential and around $150 million for a player who probably won’t be able to live up to the demands of a $20-$25 million a year contract after the fourth or fifth season. Considering that Santana’s stats put him more in the mold of Johnson or Carlton but physically, he doesn’t profile to be as durable as those lefties, his long-term outlook doesn’t look at rosy as those two pitchers. Wells and Rogers have relied more on pinpoint control and slow, slower, slowest breaking ball approaches to pitching and have managed to stay effective by honing their craft. In other words, it’s unlikely that Santana 2008 and Santana 2012 will be anywhere near the same pitcher.
For A-Rod, a deal of this magnitude makes sense, and the marketing bonuses seem to support the belief that the Yanks will recoup this investment and then some. But for Santana, a lefty hurler at his peak now at nearly 29, it’s buyer beware.