Jayson Werth just signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals. Cliff Lee is looking for a seven-year deal as well. Players have always been attracted to the almighty dollar at free agent time, but now more than ever, the length of the contract is becoming as important, if not more important, than the number of digits next to the dollar sign.
But is this the right way to go for the teams throwing all that cash on the table? And should they be giving these contracts to players on the wrong side of age 30? Recent history says no.
Remember Mike Hampton? He was the pitcher who was traded by the Astros to the Mets following the 1999 season, a year in which he went 22-4 for Houston. Hampton helped lead the Mets to the World Series, but then left New York for (as he put it) the better school systems in Colorado. The Mets were willing to give him a lucrative deal, but the Rockies were the ones offering the security of an eight-year contract.
The left-handed Hampton left New York after one season, went to Colorado, and watched his talent dissipate in Denver’s thin air. During the eight years of his contract (split between Colorado and Atlanta), Hampton won a grand total of 56 games with an ERA of 4.81. But at least his kids benefited from the superior Denver school system.
Hampton is not the only player in recent years to have signed a deal of seven years or more who didn’t live up to his contract. In fact, several others have taken a stretch of success, turned it into a long-term contract and then laughed all the way to the bank while his production suffered. Check out what these players did prior to their big paydays followed by their production after they put their John Hancocks on their contracts.
- 1996: 17-11, 1.89 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 159 Ks
- 1997: 16-8, 2.69 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 205 Ks
- 1998: 18-7, 2.38 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 257 Ks
Kevin Brown signed a seven-year, $105 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the 1999 season. His first three years in LA were very good, as he went 41-19 with a 2.77 ERA. Once he entered the middle year of his contract, he became more brittle and his performance suffered, culminating with his trade to the Yankees following the 2003 season.
Over the last four years of his contract, Brown won only 31 games and his ERA went up by more than one run (3.81). In the final season of his contract, he was a shadow of himself, going 4-7 with a 6.50 ERA. The once-dominant pitcher who always had a high strikeout total and low ERA actually allowed more earned runs (53) than had strikeouts (50) in his final major league season.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
- 1996: .303, 49 HR, 140 RBI, 125 runs scored
- 1997: .304, 56 HR, 147 RBI, 125 runs scored
- 1998: .284, 56 HR, 146 RBI, 120 runs scored
- 1999: .285, 48 HR, 134 RBI, 123 runs scored
The man known as The Kid was already the most popular athlete in baseball in the late ’90s, despite playing in the relative obscurity of Seattle. But when his contract expired after the 1999 season, he wanted to go back home. So he left the Pacific Northwest and signed a nine-year, $116.5 million contract to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
His first season in the Queen City wasn’t as eye-popping as his last four years in Seattle, but how can anyone be disappointed with a .271 batting average, 40 HR, 118 RBI and 100 runs scored? Unfortunately, that was the best performance he was able to give the Reds.
Following the 2000 season, injury after injury befell The Kid and he was never the same player. Over the last eight years of his contract, Griffey missed a total of 455 games (or the equivalent of nearly three full seasons). He averaged 22 HR and 63 RBI over those seasons, to go with a .269 batting average. When he returned to Seattle to finish out his career, he could barely reach the Mendoza Line, hitting .208 in his final season and a half with the Mariners.
- 1999: .315, 33 HR, 123 RBI, 115 runs scored
- 2000: .333, 43 HR, 137 RBI, 108 runs scored
- 2001: .342, 38 HR, 120 RBI, 109 runs scored
With those three dominant seasons in Oakland, you knew the Yankees were going to open up their wallets for Giambi once he became a free agent. And that’s exactly what they did when they signed the Giambino for seven years at $120 million.
His first year in pinstripes was as good as his last three years in Oakland, as Giambi finished the 2002 season with a .314 batting average, to go with his 41 HR and 122 RBI. His power was still there in 2003 (41 HR, 107 RBI), but his batting average plummeted to .250. The downward trend in batting average continued throughout the rest of his Yankee career. Over the final five years of his contract, Giambi hit .247. He never hit 40 HR again and only had one other 100 RBI season (2006).
So what do Kevin Brown, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jason Giambi all have in common besides their poor production after signing their lucrative long-term deals? They were all in their 30s when they signed their contracts.
Kevin Brown did not throw his first pitch as a Dodger until he was 34. Ken Griffey, Jr. was no longer a spry youth when he signed with Cincinnati as a 30-year-old. Jason Giambi put on the Yankee pinstripes for the first time when he was 31.
Want more? Todd Helton turned 30 during the first season of his eight-year, $117.8 million contract. He went from hitting .320 or higher for seven years in a row, 30+ HR in six consecutive seasons and 100+ RBI in five straight campaigns to a man who might give you a .300 batting average, with 15 HR and 80 RBI if he’s healthy. Basically, he’s become an overpaid Mark Grace.
How about Alfonso Soriano? He was coming off a season in which he became only the fourth member of the 40-40 club when he picked up 46 HR and 41 SB in 2006 as a member of the Washington Nationals. He then left our nation’s capital to pick up the money blowing around in the Windy City, signing an eight-year, $136 million contract to play for the Cubs. At the time, Soriano was 31 years old. Talk about a letdown! Prior to his move to Chicago, Soriano had compiled four seasons with 100 or more runs scored, four years with 35 or more home runs, five seasons of 90 or more RBI and five years with 30 or more stolen bases. In four lost seasons with the Cubs, Soriano has yet to cross the century mark in runs scored (he scored 97 in 2007), has hit more than 30 HR only once (33 in 2007), and is still looking for his first season with at least 80 RBI and 20 stolen bases. The worst thing about it is that he’s only halfway through the eight years of his deal.
What about the aforementioned Mike Hampton? Well, he was the baby of the group, as he signed his eight-year deal with Colorado at the age of 28. However, his contract lasted until he was 36, putting him in his 30s for the majority of the deal.
I haven’t even mentioned the most recent disappointment signed to a long-term deal, and it’s better if we don’t say too much about him. After all, Barry Zito might have become a member of the Mets pitching staff in 2007, but the front office was smart enough not to offer him the seven-year deal that he eventually received from the San Francisco Giants.
Like Hampton, the left-handed Zito was 28 when he crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. Once he left the East Bay, the Barry Zito that won 102 games in seven years as an Oakland Athletic disappeared into the San Francisco fog.
Zito has yet to post a winning record in any of his four seasons in San Francisco. His 17 losses led the National League in 2008 and his continued subpar performances led the Giants to leave him off the postseason roster in 2010. They spent $126 million in the hopes that Barry Zito would help them win a championship and in 2010, they won that championship without him.
If that $126 million figure given to Barry Zito over seven years sounds familiar to you, it should. That’s the same amount of money and years that the Nationals just gave to Jayson Werth, the man without a 100 RBI season and whose only All-Star Game appearance came as a result of an injury to Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran in 2009.
It should be noted that Jayson Werth is 31. Cliff Lee, who is also looking for a seven-year deal, is 32. The seven year pitch has become quite popular with today’s aging stars. Some owners are still crazy enough to dole out these long-term deals. However, if they all just studied the recent history of baseball and similar contracts, they’d know that seven is not always a lucky number, especially with players past their prime. As Mets fans, we should be thankful that Sandy Alderson is not one to offer such contracts to past-their-prime superstars.