Will big spending pay off in long run?
They are the One Percent of the One Percent, the richest men in a millionaire’s club. Only about 30 major leaguers, past and present, understand the gravity of signing a contract worth $100 million.
Prince Fielder (Tigers, $214 million) and Jose Reyes (Marlins, $106 million) joined the fraternity this winter. Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish was another new addition — sort of. With Darvish, the Rangers’ $107.7 million investment was divided between his posting fee and contract.
Albert Pujols had his membership card renewed. His $240 million deal with the Angels was more than double his $100 million contract in St. Louis.
The Big Four have created limitless optimism in their respective cities. Many fans of the Angels, Tigers, Rangers and Marlins are absolutely certain their team will win the World Series. They don’t want to hear the cautionary tales. But they should.
Without the right alignment of personalities, organizations, markets, motivations and timing, nine-figure contracts can morph into catastrophes.
“Not every player is equipped to handle the burden of a $100 million contract,” agent Mark Rodgers says.
Rodgers wasn’t speaking about any particular player or contract. He wasn’t forecasting doom for the big-spending clubs. He wasn’t requesting sympathy for the unfortunate souls who gross more than $1 million in each biweekly paycheck. He was, however, speaking from experience.
Rodgers, as the agent for Mike Hampton, negotiated an eight-year, $121 million contract with the Colorado Rockies after the 2000 season. For a few days, it was the largest deal in baseball history. Now Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd acknowledges it was a bad signing. Hampton lasted only two seasons in Colorado, going 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA.
“Every day he went to work,” Rodgers says, “he was competing with that contract, to prove he was worth it.”
“It wasn’t that Mike failed; it was that we gave the money to a player we didn’t know,” O’Dowd says. “The greatest lesson I learned from that is if you’re going to commit that type of money, you’d better know the player inside and out, because you’re going to be living with that player for a long time.”
The experience was painful for O’Dowd, but it didn’t stop him from signing two other players to $100 million contracts — first baseman Todd Helton and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. O’Dowd saw Helton and Tulowitzki as fundamentally different from Hampton, in that they were drafted and developed by the organization. O’Dowd says the team developed an "authentic relationship" with both players long before the contracts were signed. And the results have been better.
That makes you wonder: How much do the Angels, Tigers, Rangers and Marlins really know about their new players — and vice versa?
Jon Daniels, the Rangers general manager since 2005, can’t recall the team devoting more man hours to evaluating a single player than it did with Darvish. Twelve Rangers officials saw Darvish pitch in person, with several more watching on video. All told, the team had a representative at 20 of Darvish’s 28 starts for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters last year.
The Tigers were somewhat less painstaking with Fielder. They didn’t start pursuing him until after the Jan. 17 announcement that designated hitter Victor Martinez likely was gone for the season because of a knee injury.
“We weren’t even in the picture before that,” says Dave Dombrowski, the club president and general manager.
Exactly one week later, Fielder had the biggest contract in team history — and fourth largest all-time.
Could the Tigers possibly have done all the necessary homework on Fielder in such a short amount of time?
“Mr. (Mike) Ilitch may have said it best: Prince Fielder sat on Mr. Ilitch’s knee when he was a child and his father was playing in Detroit,” Scott Boras, Fielder’s agent, says of the Detroit owner. “There’s a history of the organization knowing Prince. They had done all the due diligence on him leading up to the (2002) draft, but Milwaukee took him right before they could.
“Because of who he is as a leader, and as a teammate, the character issue wasn’t a consideration. The statistics bear out his unbelievable desire to play hard and play every day. [Fielder has played 162, 161 and 162 games over the past three seasons.] Because he has such a pristine reputation and behavior in the major leagues, it’s one of those situations where it really didn’t require the due diligence of other situations.”
Yet, one question looms large over Fielder, Darvish, Reyes and even Pujols: How will they respond to the attention, responsibility and Alpha male status that comes with each paycheck? Pujols, for all his accolades, wasn’t even the highest-paid player on the Cardinals last year.
O’Dowd says $100 million contracts are perceived differently — even from $99 million contracts — within the clubhouse culture. Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager, believes it’s vital to maintain the proper salary structure within the organization.
“If you walk in the clubhouse and see someone who’s making money he doesn’t deserve,” Gillick says, "that’s staring you in the face every day.”
Money invites scrutiny. Perhaps because of that, Darvish passed on a number of perks that Daisuke Matsuzaka, who signed a similar contract through the posting process, has in his deal with the Boston Red Sox.
“He asked us, ‘Do other guys get their house and car paid for during spring training? Does everyone have their own PR guy?’” Daniels says. “When we told him no, he said, ‘Then I don’t want that.’ I’ve got to imagine that means something to his teammates. I know it means something to me. He wants to be one of the guys.”
Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth — members of the $100 Million Club — struggled in 2011 during their first seasons with new teams. The same was true of Dan Uggla and Adam Dunn, who "only" signed contracts worth $62 million and $56 million, respectively.
O’Dowd believes highly paid players have a better chance to succeed when surrounded by other stars who can alleviate pressure placed on them — and when the team does all it can to maintain realistic expectations.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, you earn 20 percent of the payroll, so you have to produce 20 percent of our runs.’ If that becomes the focus, it’s not going to work,” O’Dowd says. “The stats and numbers don’t always add up. With Todd Helton, there’s an intrinsic value to what he does for us. He has a chance to be the first player to go into the Hall of Fame in a Rockies uniform. He’s going to be part of the fabric and culture of our organization long after his career is done. That has value you can’t measure.”
Boras, who represents Werth, says he’s "very aware" of the pressure felt by players after signing such massive contracts. Boras has a sports psychologist on staff — Don Carman, the former Phillies pitcher — who meets with players before and during seasons.
“I’ve seen it impact almost every player that signs a long-term contract, to some extent,” Boras says. “It’s not ‘if’ it will happen. The question is, ‘How long will those expectations impact what they do normally?’ We make sure there’s a way to deal with it, through the awareness and understanding that you need to be you — not anything else.
“Many of my clients have gone through this. There’s an acclimation period. Sometimes it’s 30 days, sometimes it’s 60 days. You’re stepping into a new phase of your life, contractually. That acclimation will take its course. For the most part, they return to their previous performance levels and end up being successful.”
Still, it’s difficult to generalize about such a select group. There have been just 32 contracts worth at least $100 million, according to Jeff Euston of Baseball Prospectus. And there are only 29 players on the list, since three men — Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Pujols — appear twice.
Kevin Brown signed the first nine-figure contract after the 1998 season. Since then, 3,843 players have appeared in the major leagues, according to STATS LLC. So, over the past 13 seasons, less than one percent of all big leaguers can understand the pressures of being a $100 Million Man.
One irony of the ’11-’12 offseason is that the Yankees and Red Sox were scarcely mentioned as possible suitors for Pujols, Fielder, Darvish or Reyes. The Yankees invested their resources in upgrading the starting rotation, trading for Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda. Profligate spenders not long ago, the Yankees seem responsible now.
Critics would say the Tigers’ investment in Fielder was wildly inefficient — particularly since they could have addressed their leadoff question (with money to spare for pitching) by signing Reyes earlier in the offseason. But Dombrowski says the team decided not to pursue Reyes, for reasons he didn’t cite. By all accounts, Ilitch didn’t expand the payroll until after learning about Martinez’s injury. At 82, Ilitch refused to enter a season without a realistic chance to win the World Series — no matter the cost.
The Tigers can’t even say a new television rights package was the engine behind Fielder’s contract. Their deal with FOX Sports Detroit began several years ago and continues through the end of the decade. That is in contrast to the Angels and Rangers, who are benefiting from new 20-year rights contracts reports say could be worth up to $3 billion apiece.
The logic behind the Fielder deal was as straightforward as it could be for a contract of that size: An owner’s desire to win matched his willingness to spend $214 million.
“This guy has instincts off the charts,” Boras says of Ilitch. “We may have had five one-hour conversations. I went through how Prince impacts the revenues, the other teams in the division, the chances of making the playoffs. I showed him how rare it is to have a 3-4 combination with the metrics of (Miguel) Cabrera and Fielder. This may be the equivalent of (Hank) Aaron and (Eddie) Mathews. Every time we’ve seen 3-4 hitters with these metrics, they’ve won a championship.”
It looks good on paper. With the $100 Million Club, it always does.