In the weeks leading up to Spring Training the baseball world was treated to almost daily reports that the Braves had signed another one of their young home-grown players to a long-term contract extension. Each move was met with successive praise, not only for the team’s newfound commitment to spending money, but also to their foresight in signing these guys to contracts that cover what are typically a player’s prime years.
Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, and Andrelton Simmons represent the core of this Atlanta team, and the Braves spent a shade over $280 million to wrap all of them up. While each contract received some degree of scrutiny, the only complaints with any merit centered around the risk that some of these guys had not yet fully proven themselves and may not be worth the risk of such long-term deals. It was minor criticism and most Braves fans and people around baseball applauded the team for making the moves.
Those deals, taken in total, now look even better than they did a month ago. Yesterday the Detroit Tigers announced that they had signed Miguel Cabrera to a 10-year contract extension worth $292 million. Miggy’s a good, even great, player. He’s a two-time MVP, he’s led the league in batting average the past three seasons, he’s one of the best players in baseball. But that’s a lot of money, for a long time.
Cabrera will be 31 this year, and of those Braves players that were signed, only Freeman will reach that age before his contract runs out. Freeman will be 31 in the final year of his 8-year deal.
The criticism heaped upon the Tigers for this extension has come from all corners of the baseball world. While people rightly pointing to Cabrera’s hitting prowess as important and worthy of keeping him, they are perplexed that the other factors of baseball (fielding and baserunning) were basically ignored. Those two factors, fielding and baserunning, are two parts of Cabrera’s game that are the most likely to erode as he gets older, and they’re already things that Cabrera is really poor at.
The arc of most baseball careers tell us that a player’s most productive years are in his late 20’s, and that he will start to decline as he moves into his mid-to-late 30’s. Essentially the Braves paid for prime years and the promise of future production, while the Tigers paid for past production and the hope that it continues.
Any long-term deal is a gamble, but it certainly seems like the Braves spent their money more wisely than did the Tigers. Keep in mind that Cabrera’s contract covers more actual free agent years than all the Braves contracts combined, and free agent years, as opposed to arbitration years, are generally more expensive. The Braves are saying that they would rather pay players in their 20’s than ones in their 30’s. This tendency is further evident in the team’s decision not to be overly competitive in retaining 30-year-old Brian McCann and 38-year-old Tim Hudson.
Only time will tell which approach works. If history is any guide the Tigers are more likely to regret their decision than the Braves are. Big contracts to aging stars are the old way of thinking, while big contracts to young players are en vogue.
Even the highly criticized 5-year deal given to B.J. Upton last off-season will pay the center fielder only through his age-32 season. One of the reasons the Braves moved so quickly to sign him was that he was the youngest free agent on the market. Here though, we can see the risk in any long-term contract. B.J. was awful last season, but there is still hope that he can turn that around because his awfulness was not due to age, but to other baseball-related factors (breaking balls on the outer half). Were he 32 at the beginning of the deal, the dread would be greater.
Hopefully the Braves keep thinking young as they seek to improve their club from year to year.