Good Contracts, Bad Contracts
Brandon McCarthy comes in with the philosophical question of the day: What even constitutes a good contract in baseball these days?
He asked this question upon hearing the news that the Cubs are going to release outfielder Jason Heyward this winter, with one year left on his eight-year, $184 million contract.
By every viable statistical measure, Heyward’s contract was an absolute bomb for the Cubs. Chicago had signed Heyward for big money because he was a WAR warrior — a WARrior, if you will — meaning he was a player whose baseline stats seemed pretty ordinary, but he did everything else so well (great defender, great baserunner, etc.) that his WAR numbers were always shockingly high.
From 2010 through 2015 — the six years the Cubs used to make him the $184 million offer — Heyward hit .268/.353/.431, averaging 16 homers, 74 runs and 59 RBIs per season. Eh.
But by WAR, he was worth between 25 and 30 wins above replacement, which is All-Star, MVP stuff. FanGraphs, as we have talked about many times, offers a fun little estimate of a player’s annual value on the free-agent market. Here’s Heyward’s dollar estimate entering free agency:
2010: $27.9 million
2011: $14.3 million
2012: $34.1 million
2013: $22.8 million
2014: $35.4 million
2015: $44.4 million
That’s $179 million dollars over six seasons — almost $30 million per season.
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The Cubs offered him $23 million per season over eight years — Heyward was just turning 26 years old. Purely based on WAR, this seems pretty reasonable. Plus, everybody likes Jason Heyward; he’s one of the classiest people in baseball. The Cubs made the bet.
And, did it come in? No. In his seven seasons with the Cubs, Heyward has never once been worth the $23 million. The closest he came, according to FanGraphs, was 2018, when he hit an empty .270/.335/.395 in just 127 games. FanGraphs has him being a very good baserunner that year.
In all, FanGraphs has Heyward worth about $71 million over the length of the contract.
So that’s the very definition of a bad contract, right?
But … is it? Because, as Cubs fans will tell you, Heyward played a pivotal, perhaps even imperative role in Chicago’s 2016 World Series victory. True, he hit only .109 in the playoffs (after posting a 68 OPS+ during the season) but his rain-delay speech during Game 7 of the Series has become the stuff of legend, and I know there are numerous people in and out of the organization who will insist the Cubs don’t win that game without it.
Now, you can believe that or not believe that; for the point of this exercise, let’s just say that Heyward’s leadership was the difference-maker for the 2016 World Series. We’ll never know for sure, but let’s just say that the Cubs don’t win that World Series if Jason Heyward is not on the team.
Now ask the question again: Is that a good or bad contract?
Let’s turn around and look at one of the best — maybe THE best — deal given out, the six-year extension that the Angels gave Mike Trout in 2015. The Angels still had three years of team control, so they bought those out and gave Trout three years after that at $33.25 million per season.
Over those six seasons, Trout hit .303/.432/.605, a 181 OPS+. He won two MVP awards, finished second twice, finished fourth and fifth the other two years. He established himself as one of the greatest players in baseball history even though one of those seasons was lost to COVID and Trout was hurt in three of the other ones.
He was paid $145 million. By FanGraphs, he was worth $356 million.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another free-agent contract with that big a disparity.
And yet, in the larger picture, was that a good deal? The Angels never won anything. They made the playoffs one time and were swept by the Kansas City Royals. They have had losing records ever since. The Angels rewrote that contract in 2019, making it a 12-year, $426.5 million deal that will last until 2030, an admittedly scary proposition for an amazing player who now seems to have a congenital back issue.
If the Angels go 12 years without winning anything, will that be a bad deal no matter how Trout performs.
This is the tricky part of baseball contracts. In basketball, you sign a franchise player, you expect that player to take you deep into the playoffs. In football, you get a superstar quarterback, you’re counting on Super Bowls, not passing yards.
But in baseball, as we all know, one player — even a once-in-a-lifetime player who pitches AND hits — can only do so much for the team.
So what do you want to get when signing a player to a big-money deal? What, for example, does San Diego want? The Padres have invested enormously (in either money or prospects) in three players — Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis and Juan Soto. Machado has been excellent, Tatis, when healthy, is probably the most dynamic player in the game, and Soto is Ted Williams reincarnate.
Will it be enough if the three of them put up big numbers? Because they surely will.
Or will it only pay off if the Padres somehow beat the Dodgers and win a World Series?
I would bet that if Wonder Woman put the Lasso of Truth around Padres GM A.J. Preller, he’d admit that none of this works unless the Padres win it all.
Back to Heyward. When the Cubs signed him in 2016, they were dreaming big dreams. They had surprised everyone — even themselves, I suspect — by winning 97 games and reaching the NLCS in 2015. Guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez had made an impact earlier than expected. The pitching had come together way better than expected (Jake Arrieta turning into Bob Gibson certainly helped).
Heyward was a finishing touch. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Joe Maddon and others thought he would hit better — of course they did — but they saw him as a great-fielding outfielder (which he was) and a team leader (which he was) and believed that he would help this team go from good to great, and the Cubs would win a World Series for the first time in more than a century.
So on the one hand, Heyward’s deal belongs with the worst contracts ever, belongs there with the Angels’ Albert Pujols contract, and the Angels’ Anthony Rendon contract and the Angels’ Josh Hamilton contract … and not just the Angels but also with the Tigers’ Prince Fielder contract and the Phillies’ Ryan Howard contract and the Nationals’ most recent Stephen Strasburg contract and so on.
But on the other hand … would the Cubs in 2016 have paid $184 million for an underachieving and oft-injured ballplayer with an 85 OPS+ — a player they would release before the contract was even finished — if they knew that it guaranteed a World Series victory?
I’ve got to believe they would have paid that and more.