Will You Still Need Them, Will You Still Play Them, When They’re 41?
Throughout the nearly 50 years of free agency in Major League Baseball, the high-end money available to players has expanded exponentially.
The emotions, though, remain remarkably similar at the start of long-term megadeals: Gratitude, wonder, and, at times, disbelief at a player’s own good fortune.
Xander Bogaerts last week made no secret of how he would have reacted earlier this off-season had his agent informed him that signing an 11-year deal was possible, let alone one that carried a guarantee of $280 million.
“I would have kissed him,” Bogaerts said at a news conference at Petco Park in San Diego last week, glancing at his agent, Scott Boras. “I would have. I haven’t yet, but I might do that.”
Back in 1976, when the pitcher Wayne Garland became the first player to sign a free-agent contract of at least 10 years — for $2.3 million, with Cleveland — he called his mother.
“I didn’t get the million dollars,” Garland, who was seeking that sum over five years, told his mom.
“You’re not worth it,” she responded.
“I got two million dollars and 10 years,” he answered. She repeated the sentiment.
“She spoke the truth,” Garland, 72, said over the phone from his home in Nashville on Wednesday. “She put it plain and simple.”
‘Some people were happy for me, some were jealous of me, some people said nobody is worth that.’
Wayne Garland discussing the 10-year, $2.3 million contract he signed in 1976.
Garland was a trailblazer as a member of baseball’s first free-agent class. The path forged by his 10-year deal leads directly to three All-Star shortstops who were given contracts this month that combine for nearly $1 billion in guarantees.
On Tuesday, Carlos Correa, 28, agreed to terms with the San Francisco Giants on a 13-year, $350 million contract that surpassed the deal signed by the Mets’ Francisco Lindor (10 years, $341 million) for the most total dollars committed to a shortstop. Trea Turner, 29, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for 11 years and $300 million. And Bogaerts, 30, got $280 million from the Padres.
When their contracts finally expire, Correa, Turner and Bogaerts will all be in their early 40s. The Giants, Phillies and Padres do not — and cannot — expect their All Star-caliber play to continue through the later years of these deals. Eventually, those players are likely to require position changes and extra days off. History would suggest they all stand a decent chance of being traded or released long before their deals expire.
“It’s not an exact science,” Dave Dombrowski, Philadelphia’s president of baseball operations, said of projecting a player’s production as he ages. He added: “One thing I do think is, sometimes you have to differentiate between a normal big-league player and an elite athlete. I do think there are some differences in that regard. We’ve done a lot of research. An elite athlete can last longer at that performance level than other individuals can.”
With this season’s additions, there have been 24 contracts that guaranteed a player at least 10 years — 13 via free agency and 11 via extensions. No free agent signed to such a deal has remained with his team for the entire term of the contract.
Dave Winfield’s contract aged better than most. He signed a 10-year, $23.5 million free-agent deal with the Yankees in 1980, and despite his sour relationship with the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him Mr. May and was eventually suspended for two years for paying a gambler to try to dig up embarrassing information on him, Winfield made eight All-Star teams in New York.
Winfield missed all of 1989 with a back injury and was traded to the Angels in 1990, but the ability was still there: In 1992, two years after his 10-year deal had expired, he finished fifth in the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award voting and helped Toronto win the World Series. And he was still a good player at 41 the next season.
Other free-agent deals of 10 or more years were far less successful.
At 41, Albert Pujols, who had signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in 2012, was released in the 10th year of his underwhelming tenure in Anaheim, Calif. — his resurgent 2022 season with St. Louis came a year after that contract expired. Robinson Canó (10 years, $228 million with Seattle in 2014) washed out of the game last summer at 39 following two suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs — he still has one season left on the contract.
Alex Rodriguez signed two 10-year deals. The first ($252 million) was with Texas in 2001, and he was traded to the Yankees only three seasons later. Seven seasons and three M.V.P. Awards into the deal, he exercised an opt-out clause, signing a second 10-year contract ($275 million). He helped lead the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009, but he was suspended for the entire 2014 season because of connections to performance-enhancing drugs and the team released him with a year left on the deal.
For a time, those failures seemed to sour teams on making such long agreements. But with clubs looking to lower the average annual value of contracts, partially for competitive balance tax reasons, the long deals have come back in full force. Some have even gone to players who have yet to fully establish themselves in the majors.
Fernando Tatis Jr. has had a rocky start to the 14-year contract he signed with the Padres before the 2021 season, but optimism abounds that his career could turn around. Other young players signed to speculative megadeals include Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez (12 years, with options that could make it 18), Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco (11 years, with an option for 12) and Atlanta’s Austin Riley (10 years, with an option for 11).
Garland was only 26 when he signed his 10-year deal, which came after a breakout 1976 season in which he went 20-7 for the Baltimore Orioles with a 2.67 E.R.A. over 232⅓ innings. With free agency a new concept, not everybody understood Garland’s motives — even with his big payday.
“Some people were happy for me, some were jealous of me, some people said nobody is worth that,” Garland said of his contract, which was negotiated by Jerry Kapstein, his agent. Kapstein also secured a 10-year deal for the outfielder Richie Zisk in 1978 — the first contract of that length given to a position player.
In addition to getting more money — Baltimore had offered him only five years with far lower salaries — Garland liked the idea of joining a winning team (Cleveland had gone 81-78 in 1976). However, after posting an American League-leading 19 losses while throwing 282⅔ innings for Cleveland in 1977, the right-handed Garland felt a twinge in his shoulder the next spring and, by April’s end, could barely get the ball to the plate. Garland had suffered a torn rotator cuff and had season-ending surgery. He was never the same.
It was a different world back then.
After his surgery, Garland said, “they made me travel with the team. I had to come to the ballpark every day.” They set him up with a walkie talkie in the press box and, from there, he assisted the coach Rocky Colavito in positioning outfielders.
“They made me do it,” Garland said. “If I didn’t do it, I was going to get fined.”
Players today are not asked to perform such duties, but the various megadeals have tended to be cut short for one of two reasons: declining ability as the player ages, or a dramatic shift in a team’s philosophy.
“Giancarlo Stanton has come of age, and he’s going to be here a long time,” Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins’ owner at the time, said upon signing Stanton to an eye-popping 13-year, $325 million extension in 2014.
Three years later, the Marlins were sold and Stanton was traded to the Yankees.
Of the all the deals — whether via free agency or an extension — that called for 10 or more years, Derek Jeter (10 years, $189 million with the Yankees in 2001) is thus far the only recipient to play the full term with the signing team. It was a top-to-bottom success, with Jeter making eight All-Star teams and collecting 1,918 hits over those 10 seasons. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, 39, is entering the final season of a 10-year, $225 million extension and has a chance to join Jeter as players who completed such a deal with the signing team.
It did not end so well for Garland, who was released by Cleveland in 1982, five years and 99 appearances into his deal. He said he had a difficult relationship with other players after his injuries and had harsh words with team officials upon his exit, telling them “just make sure you send the check every two weeks.” He was 30.
It wasn’t until he became a coach in the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati organizations in the 1990s, he said, that the ice melted.
“I got more thanks after I was through playing,” Garland said. “From the younger people saying ‘thanks to you, you made it better for all of us.’”
He hasn’t watched baseball in 20 years, he said, and added that he wasn’t even familiar with this off-season’s big-money shortstops.
Nevertheless, when details of Correa’s contract were relayed, Garland said, “God bless him.”