MLB Free Agency: Josh Hamilton might seem like a prize, but history shows us how costly $100 million can be

Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE

Will the Mariners shake that money maker?

$100,000,000. A hundred million dollars. Eight zeros. Benny Frank times a million. Whatever you want to call it, it certainly ain't what it used to be. If you're interested, it's likely not enough to get you Josh Hamilton or Zack Grienke. How times have changed.

It used to be that $100,000,000 could get you a very good starting pitcher in his mid-30's! It's almost fitting that the first $100,000,000 man was Kevin Brown. It's not that he was a bad pitcher or anything, Brown had a 21-win season, posted a 1.89 ERA in 1996, finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times, but he was also 34 when he signed that deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999. He became the first player to sign a 9-digit baseball contract, opening a door of the inevitable.

It's weird that the Dodgers signed Brown in '99, while they had Mike Piazza on their roster in 1998 before trading him to the Marlins. Piazza reportedly turns down a contract offer of $84,000,000 before the Dodgers trade him, and then Los Angeles gives Kevin Brown $105,000,000 for seven years. (Piazza signed for $91,000,000 with the Mets.) Again, it's not that Brown was bad for the Dodgers, going 58-32 with a 2.83 ERA in five sometimes-injured seasons, but more importantly, LA never made the playoffs in those five years. (They did go to the playoffs the year after trading Brown to the Yankees for Brandon Weeden, among others. Yes, that Brandon Weeden.)

Brown's contract was just a tipping point, but it would only take two years before $100,000,000 looked like a bargain. After Ken Griffey Jr. signed a $116,500,000 deal with the Reds in 2000, record contracts would start to get handed out like candies and nuts on Christmas.

2001:

- Chipper Jones $90,000,000 for six years with the Braves

- Mike Hampton $121,000,000 for eight years with the Rockies

- Manny Ramirez $160,000,000 for eight years with the Red Sox

- Derek Jeter $189,000,000 for ten years with the Yankees

and everyone's least favorite Rod....

- Alex Rodriguez $252,000,000 for ten years with the Rangers

The four richest contracts ever signed, and it includes Mike Hampton getting more guaranteed money than Griffey and every other player in baseball other than the three higher signees that season. Hampton might have been six years younger than Brown, but he was not nearly as accomplished. It's funny how differently we view players these days and how far we've come thanks to sabermetric analysis.

Back then: "Holy crap, Mike Hampton went 22-4!"

Today: "Wins are meaningless. Mike Hampton posted 6.7 strikeouts and 3.8 walks per nine. Are you a moron?"

Most people were still taken aback that Hampton and Brown were $100,000,000 men, that it was an overpay, but we're still talking about the Rockies looking for any competent starting pitcher they can find. It just wasn't going to be Hampton, who posted a 5.75 ERA and lasted just two seasons in Colorado before they lucked out in dealing him to the Marlins. (For two days and then he was sent to the Braves. Like Piazza before him, Florida rarely likes to keep a guy on the roster with a big contract for longer than a couple of days.)

(I wrote that last bit and basically all of this article before the Marlins trade. How fitting.)

By 2001, we had six "$100,000,000" contracts. What we know now is that the Dodgers never went to the playoffs with Brown. The Reds never went to the playoffs with Griffey. The Rockies never went to the playoffs with Hampton. The Rangers never went to the playoffs with Rodriguez. Fans of those teams were excited (mostly, I'm assuming) on the day that those stars (and Mike Hampton) were signed to record deals. But only because they thought that it might get them to the playoffs and further.

Two-thirds of those fans ended up severely disappointed. That doesn't count the fact that Yankees fans had already celebrated four World Series titles with Jeter, and it would be nine years before they'd celebrate another one.

The team that turned out on top that off-season was the Red Sox and their deal with Manny. Boston wasn't unsuccessful in the years before, making the playoffs in 1998 and 1999, but they needed something to get them over the hump. They went only 82-79 in the first year of Ramirez's deal, but then won a World Series in the fourth and seventh years of the contract, while maintaining dominance and spending power.

Out of six contracts, only one of them really seemed to give a team the edge they needed to get over the hump and it seems highly unlikely that Jeter was going anywhere either. Even then, the Red Sox already had talent when they signed Ramirez, traded for Curt Schilling and found David Ortiz, in order to really become the best team in baseball. Ramirez was a puzzle piece, he wasn't the only answer. Winning a World Series is one of those awful quizzes that is not multiple choice; it's essay answers and cite examples.

Continue to 2002-2004:

- Barry Bonds re-signs with Giants for $90,000,000 over five years

- Albert Pujols extends with the Cardinals for $100,000,000 over seven years

- Jason Giambi signs with the Yankees for $120,000,000 over seven years

- Todd Helton re-signs with the Rockies for $141,500,000 over nine years

The Giants made a World Series with Bonds, but then won two championships after he was forcefully retired. Giambi stayed with the Yankees for the entire length of the contract, hitting .248 in the final five years, and then left via free agency. New York won the World Series the next season. Helton has stayed with the Rockies, and they made a World Series once with him, but his production dropped off dramatically by the third year of the deal. (Averaged just 14 HR per year from 2005-2011.)

The Cardinals were not going to let Pujols walk, we all knew he was the greatest hitter of the generation, so they locked him down for seven years (plus club option) in 2004. It worked out to the tune of two titles, thank goodness they had that club option! Oh and the Cards also signed Scott Rolen for $90,000,000 in 2003.

Four big contracts in a three year span, and one of those worked out. Success of the other three is varying levels of debatable, but we don't get excited about signing a player for All-Star appearances or because he seems like a nice guy. Success is measured in rings. Just ask Sonic the Hedgehog.

2005-2007

- Carlos Lee signs with the Astros for $100,000,000 for six years

- Carlos Beltran signs with the Mets for $119,000,000 over seven years

- Barry Zito signs with the Giants for $126,000,000 over seven years

- Alfonso Soriano signs with the Cubs for $136,000,000 over eight years

Four more deals that cross that "Lotta Bennies" threshold in the next three years. As you can see, the 2001 boom did not exactly balloon the market per se, but it still started giving agents and players reason to say, "Look jerk, we both know that this can be done. Do you want to play with the big boys?" And then you've got General Managers of teams that have a long history of failure that are ready to make a power move in an instant.

The Astros, Mets, Giants, and Cubs. Go back a little further to what we've discussed and add: Rockies, Rangers, and Red Sox. Teams that at the time of the deals were desperate to turn things around. Because of those deals, congratulations go out to.. the Red Sox.

Sorry to the rest of ya's, better luck next time. (Before you argue about the Giants, is your argument actually that Zito helped the Giants win two championships? Is it really?)

Now, there were only seven "Big Bucky Bucks" deals over a six year period. The 2001 explosion didn't necessarily start a trend so much as it exposed the rise of inflation and just how much a player would become "worth" as time went on. How much is a player "worth" exactly though? Well, that's entirely dependent on what you paid the last guy. At this point, Alfonso Soriano was "worth" $136,000,000 to some team and that's all that matters. While the Cubs won the Central in each of Soriano's first two seasons, they did not finally get back to the World Series and have been left with an albatross. And that's a fish most teams would rather not eat.

That's when length of deal really starts to take precedent over AAV. (Average Annual Value.) How can a fanbase not become despondent when Soriano hits .241/.303/.423 in the third year of an eight-year deal? It starts to feel like you've committed to your demise instead of your hope. That's where a long contract can have severely negative effects on a team.

The Cubs never won a playoff game with Soriano. The Astros never went to the playoffs with Lee. The Mets went to the playoffs once with Beltran and if you're a baseball fan, you know only one image of Beltran in the playoffs with the Mets.

And then you've got Zito, the most "despite" contract in baseball history.

As the market was set for higher and higher prices, so too have come in more and more $100,000,000 deals.

2008

- Torii Hunter signs with the Angels for $90,000,000 over five years

- Ichiro Suzuki signs with the Mariners for $90,000,000 over five years

- Carlos Zambrano signs with the Cubs for $91,500,000 over five years

- Vernon Wells signs with the Blue Jays for $126,000,000 over seven years

- Johan Santana signs with the Mets for $137,500,000 over six years

- Miguel Cabrera signs with the Tigers for $152,300,000 over eight years

- Alex Rodriguez opts out and re-signs with the Yankees for $275,000,000 over ten years

All of a sudden there are seven huge contracts in one off-season, with all of the deals at ~$90 million being for five years. How have they worked out?

The Mariners, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Mets haven't been to the playoffs since signing those deals. The Angels, with all of their big contracts, haven't been to the playoffs since 2009 and haven't made the World Series since 2002. Cabrera is a phenomenal player, though the Tigers didn't make the playoffs until the fourth year of the contract. The Rodriguez re-sign is the worst contract ever given to a player in any sport.

2009

- The Yankees sign Mark Teixeira for $180,000,000 over eight years and C.C. Sabathia for $161,000,000 over seven years. Also, A.J. Burnett for $82,500,000 over five years. A year after missing the playoffs, they win the World Series. Clearly, the formula works!

Since 2009

- Ryan Zimmerman extended by the Nationals for $100,000,000 between 2014-2019

- Jose Reyes signs with the Marlins for $106,000,000 over six years

- Cliff Lee signs with the Phillies for $120,000,000 over five years

- Matt Holliday signs with the Cardinals for $120,000,000 over seven years

- C.C. Sabathia opts out and re-signs with the Yankees for $122,000,000 over five years

- Ryan Howard extends with the Phillies for $125,000,000 over five years

- Jayson Werth signs with the Nationals for $126,000,000 over seven years

- Matt Cain extends with the Giants for $127,500,000 over six years

- Carl Crawford signs with the Red Sox for $142,000,000 over seven years

- Cole Hamels extends with the Phillies for $144,000,000 over six years

- Adrian Gonzalez signs with the Red Sox for $154,000,000 over seven years

- Troy Tulowitzki extends with the Rockies for $157,750,000 over ten years

- Matt Kemp extends with the Dodgers for $160,000,000 over eight years

- Joe Mauer re-signs with the Twins for $184,000,000 over eight years

- Prince Fielder signs with the Tigers for $214,000,000 over nine years

- Joey Votto extends with the Reds, paying him $225,000,000 between 2014-2023

- Albert Pujols signs the third biggest contract ever, with the Angels for $240,000,000 over ten years

That is seventeen deals of at least $100,000,000 in three years. There were previously nineteen such deals between 1999 and 2009. Not only that, but $100,000,000 won't even get you close to seven years anymore. Now, the tricky thing with a player like Werth, who is far from a superstar, is that his $18,000,000 AAV is "reasonable." If you consider that it's the same AAV of previous deals to Ichiro, Wells, Zito, Hunter, and an old Sammy Sosa. It is a lot of money for a baseball player, it's tied for the 29th highest AAV so far, but it's not unreasonable for the world that we live in today and considering that the Nationals had money to spend and didn't want to come away empty-handed, it made some sense.

Is it an overpay? The market value says that you're worth what they pay you. This isn't "the price of gold," it's the price of a mystery. Of an educated guess. It's a risk, in every sense of the word in a world of guaranteed contracts. The only question, how often has it been worth the risk?

I have outlined the thirty-six $100,000,000 contracts, most of which aren't over yet. But we can summarize some facts about these 36 contracts. Three of these contracts haven't kicked in yet, let's break down the other 33:

- Of the first six $100,000,000 deals, four resulted in no playoff appearances for the team with the player that they signed to the deal. Brown had five in LA without playoffs. Griffey had almost nine in Cincinnati, no playoffs. Hampton had two in Colorado, no playoffs. Rodriguez had three in Texas, no playoffs.

The Rangers averaged 72 wins in his three seasons before being dealt to the Yankees.

The Dodgers went to the playoffs the year after dealing Brown to the Yankees. The Reds went to the playoffs two years after dealing Griffey to the White Sox. It would take the Rangers seven years to make the playoffs after dealing Rodriguez, but they immediately jumped to 89 wins in 2004 and were more competitive.

The Yankees went to three World Series with Jeter, because Yankees. The Red Sox won two World Series with Ramirez.

- Those deals combined for an original 52 years. They ended up staying with those teams for just under 37 combined years. Brown, Griffey, Hampton, and Rodriguez played 19 seasons with their originally-signed ballclubs and went to the playoffs in 0 of 19 years.

- Pujols spent 8 years in his contract with the Cardinals, losing the World Series in 2004, winning it in 2006 and 2011, missing the playoffs just three times. The Cards also came close to the World Series in the first year after Albert, while the Angels missed the playoffs.

- In 2012, eight $100+ deals were signed or kicked in. Cain beat Fielder in the World Series, that's two of them. The Tigers feature two players on these types of deals, though Justin Verlander has an AAV of $20,000,000 and will be joining the "I wanna be a hundred millionaire, so frickin' bad" club after 2014 at the latest.

The Giants also have two members of the club, while Tim Lincecum carries an AAV of $18,000,000 for 2012 and $22,000,000 next season.

However, that leaves six other players that had their 2012 deals kick in: Pujols missed the playoffs. Kemp missed the playoffs. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford didn't just miss the playoffs, they got immediately kicked to the curb by Boston and sent to the Dodgers where they missed the playoffs with Kemp. Howard missed the playoffs and half of the season. Reyes missed the playoffs and is no longer in Miami. Though, nothing that Miami has done applies to real world thinking.

Two players met in the World Series, the other six missed the playoffs altogether. Not only that, but the Red Sox, Phillies, Dodgers, and Marlins all look to be in much different positions than they were before 2012 and it is not all that bright. I guess it's not always sunny in Philadelphia *rimshot.* (Again, I wrote this before the Miami trade and the Marlins future is only bright if you look at it through a telephoto lens.)

- The biggest failures of the 33-person club: Brown, Griffey, Hampton, Rodriguez, Giambi, Helton, Carlos Lee, Zito, Soriano, Wells, Santana, Beltran, Rodriguez again, Crawford, Gonzalez. That's the 14 members that either failed to live up to expectations or didn't even cut it with the team that originally signed them. That does not include players that it's too early to put the book on, but we can guess that Howard, Teixeira, and Werth are in dangerous territory.

Or that the Twins have finished in last place in each of the first two years of the Mauer deal.

Tulowitzki originally signed a deal for 2008-2014 for $45,000,000 and his nine-figure deal kicks in for 2015, but the Rockies went to the World Series in 2007. In the first five years of that deal, they've gone to the playoffs once and finished 64-98 last year with Tulo playing 47 games. He has averaged 113 games a year since signing that contract.

We can eliminate the failures, but it leaves a gray area. How about we instead count the definite successes?

- Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols' first contract. High probability: Cain, Cabrera, Holliday, Sabathia's first or second. Possible to probable: Mauer, Pujols' second, Fielder, Tulowitzki, Werth, Reyes, Cliff Lee.

That's a handful of World Series titles out of the 33 contracts that expanded to hundreds of years. Oftentimes, those titles were even shared (Pujols, Holliday. Sabathia, Jeter, Rodriguez, Teixeira. Cain, Zito.) and there have been plenty of competitive ballclubs in recent years without big spending.

Just think of it. As contracts rise and payments inflate, it's actually given somewhat of an opportunity to the small spenders. The Rays already know that a team in St. Petersburg cannot compete with a team in New York for free agency. It's never going to happen. But in a classic case of Brains v Brawn, the Rays knew what they had to do: Get smarter or die trying.

Tampa maxes the value of every dollar spent. The Yankees minimize the value. At the end of the year, it evens out to nearly the same amount of wins. It goes back to the point of being worth "whatever they're willing to pay you." If the Yankees are willing, you're worth more. There is no set price tag when you first enter free agency, the price tag is asserted after the Yankees, or another big market team with spending power, put in a bid or don't. If Josh Hamilton wants $175,000,000, he's going to be in a lot better position to do that if he meets with the Red Sox or Yankees.

You don't think that when the Rays extended Evan Longoria as a rookie, that keeps him around until 2016, they weren't doing it to ensure that he never gets an offer from the Yankees before he's 30? Or that they didn't think of doing that partly because they had to get smarter, hire genius executives, and then put themselves into a position to do that?

Of course, the problem isn't the big market clubs. The Red Sox got into a bad position with contracts and then were able to exorcise the demons onto the Dodgers. They're still the most powerful team in free agency outside of the Yankees and they can sign anybody that they want. They've got enough room in payroll to basically sign the entire roster of every team in baseball besides a few. It's the small-market teams. The teams like the Mariners. The teams with less wiggle room for their errors.

The Blue Jays didn't go to the playoffs with Vernon Wells. The Twins wrapped 23% of their 2012 payroll into Joe Mauer, and that percentage is likely to go up. The Nationals will be interesting to watch in coming years. Zimmerman, Werth, and Gio Gonzalez account for $46,000,000 in guaranteed money for 2014 and 2015, just as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are going through arbitration years. Numbers that could balloon to AAV's of at least $20,000,000 apiece if all goes right.

The Mets tried to act like their big brothers, and it simply did not work out. The Marlins were a failed experiment almost instantly. Small market teams that have tried to play with the big boys, have often failed. However, teams like the Rays or Athletic's, that tried to play off of the big market, big spenders, have found more success. Why would you try to play a game that you know you can't win? Why would you resort to a certain level, when you know that the consequences could be dire? The Yankees know that they suffer no consequence when Giambi fails, they'll still sell more Yankees caps every year.

I have never seen anyone wear a Pirates hat out of anything but irony or because "nobody has this."

Have giant contracts bred much success? The Phillies have a huge payroll now, but when they won the World Series in 2008, they only had two players with an AAV of $10,000,000 or greater: Howard at 10, and Pat Burrell at $14,250,000.

When the Giants won in 2010: Zito at $18.5, Aaron Rowand at $13.6, and Edgar Rentaria at $10. The Marlins won in 2003 with Ivan Rodriguez at $10 and no other player above $5,000,000 AAV. No matter who the winners and losers of free agency are, the winners and losers of the World Series are literally decided during the World Series. If your team does not sign Hamilton, it's not necessarily a bad move. If your team does sign Hamilton, it's not necessarily a good move.

However, there's going to be a big difference in success based on who is already on the team that signed Hamilton, rather than just signing Hamilton in itself. An NBA team can compete instantly with a new player more easily, because the talent on the "field" is smaller. One player on basketball, if elite, should be enough to make a difference. One player on a baseball team, such as Felix Hernandez or Mauer, is not as impactful. If a competitive team signs Hamilton, it might be enough to make a difference. If a non-competitive team signs Hamilton, they should know that there's more work to do and it's not necessarily going to come with another huge contract. Nor should we expect it to.

The 2012 AL playoff payrolls (in millions, of course):

- Baltimore, $76.7

- New York, $209.7

- Detroit, $136.5

- Oakland, $63.7

- Texas, $121.9

NL:

- Washington, $93.4

- Atlanta, $97.5

- Cincinnati, $81.3

- St. Louis, $114.1

- San Francisco, $129.4

Yes, the final four were all over $100,000,000 in payroll. The remaining six, only one of them were at that mark. Of course, for the Giants, most of that money was bad money. Zito, Lincecum, Aubrey Huff, Brian Wilson, Melky Cabrera, and Freddy Sanchez make up six of the top seven AAV's on San Francisco in 2012. The Giants didn't win because of the players that they signed as free agents, they won because of the players that they acquired in the draft and through trades. Players that they'll likely have to extend some day, besides just the ones that they already have. And that's where the most successful $100,000,000 contracts have come from.

The players you already had.

Think about this for a second: Out of all of those $100 million contracts, how many players signed those deals to switch teams and went on to win a World Series? Manny Ramirez, Barry Zito, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and Matt Holliday. And that's it. Two of those guys had to go to an already great team to help them win one title. Zito is Zito.

The only real comparison to what the Yankees did in 2009 would be like saying that the Cardinals go out and sign Josh Hamilton plus Zack Greinke. Sure, if the Cardinals go out and sign the two biggest free agents and add them to an already great team, that could be quite good. But if the Mariners go out and sign Hamilton or Greinke, we probably shouldn't assume that it will have much of an impact in the immediate future.

Hell, the Angels signed Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, traded for Greinke, called up Mike Trout, and still missed the playoffs. There is no winner in free agency, it's not the time of year that matters most. Some team will sign Hamilton, some team will sign Greinke. But it won't mean that they have necessarily done a good thing. If history has taught us anything, it's that anyone can turn into an unexpected albatross. For the Mariners, or pretty much any team, you have to find most of your success from within.

Or from the Marlins latest firesale. Just be careful taking on those nine-figure deals. Sometimes, that kind of money is what it used to be and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Follow Kenneth On Twitter for much shorter stories.

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