Tyler Anderson jumped in too early.
Oh, anyone can understand why Anderson on November 15 agreed to a three-year, $39 million free agent deal with the Angels instead of accepting a qualifying one-year, $19.65 million offer from the Dodgers. In his first six seasons, Anderson had an average ERA which was precisely the league average. Last season, at age 32, he broke for the Dodgers, producing the eighth-best adjusted ERA in the majors. The Angels offered him nearly $40 million. He wanted to play in Anaheim. Why mess around?
Reasonable question. It turned out to be very reasonable. Anderson acted rationally in an environment that quickly became irrational. Contracts, for rookie shooters, especially, but really, for all players, are getting crazier by the day. And the spending orgy at the Winter Meetings, which rivals the 2019 and 2000 editions, if not something far from Ancient Rome, is just beginning.
On Monday, Justin Verlander turns 40 on February 3rd. 20, matching fellow Mets freshman Max Scherzer, 38, for the highest average annual salary in game history, $43.33 million. Trea Turner has agreed with the Phillies to an 11-year, $300 million contract that will take him to 40 years. Not yet: Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Rodon. and more.
Welcome to the perfect storm of baseball’s excess, a collection of events that have already produced over a billion dollars in free agent contracts. Each deal is more surprising and seemingly illogical than the last. However, none of it was a surprise.
Consider the forces at work:
• It’s the first full season of a new collective bargaining agreement. Landlords have historically reacted to ensuring the peace of the business over a sustainable period by spending more freely.
• The sport’s revenues last season approached $11 billion, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred. That number likely surpasses the $10.7 billion record set in 2019, the last full season played without COVID-19 restrictions.
• In November, the association sold the remaining 15 percent of BAMTech to Disney for $900 million. While that amount technically breaks down to $30 million per team, it’s possible that the league withheld a portion of the money for its central fund.
• The higher luxury tax thresholds in the new CBA create more flexibility for the game’s biggest spenders. The bottom line increased from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 and then $233 in 2023. The effect is only now beginning to be felt. The final season began under the old CBA and ended after a 99-day lockout with an abbreviated conclusion to free agency.
• A new, expanded postseason format – and the sudden emergence of the Padres and Phillies in the National League Championship Series – may create more hope for clubs that were also previously lagging behind, and provide greater incentive for spending.
So there you go, bragging rights.
The offseason began with Edwin Díaz becoming the highest-paid player in history, agreeing to a five-year, $102 million contract with the Mets. Two other relievers, Robert Suarez (five years, $46 million) and Rafael Montero (three years, $34.5 million) followed in blowout deals. A general manager looking for bullpen help was rushing into meetings with clients Sunday night, trying to strike a reasonable two-year deal with a quality officer, looking somewhat nervous.
The starting market, which culminated with the Rangers signing Jacob DeGrom to a five-year, $185 million contract, is getting more intense, and not just at the top. Two weeks after Anderson signed with the Angels, Zack Evelyn reached a three-year, $40 million deal with the Rays despite pitching only 75 2/3 innings last season. And things just started.
Matthew Boyd converted 13 1/3 innings with the Mariners last season into a one-year, $10 million contract with one of his former teams, the Tigers. Mike Clevinger joined the White Sox on a one-year, $12 million deal after missing all of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and producing an ERA 14 percent below the league average in 2022. Both contracts seemed excessive at first. Not even a month later, both of them might be bargains, just like Anderson’s deal.
The middle class of starting pitchers—Chris Bassett, Nathan Ivaldi, Jameson Tellon, Andrew Heaney, Tejuan Walker, and others—would be the next to be overpaid. One of those pitchers received five new offers after signing DeGrom, according to his agent, who asked not to be identified in the middle of negotiations. Bassett and Ivaldi may be somewhat impressed by their qualifying offers. But with the way the money flows, will teams blink at the prospect of giving up a draft pick or two and bonus international pool space to get the pitcher they want?
Of course, it’s not just novice shooters who benefit. For a look at the potential ramifications of some of the larger position player deals, let’s fast forward to the 2031 Phillies. Bryce Harper will be 38 that season, playing the final year of his contract. Turner will also be 38, but with two years left on his deal. The Phillies can bask in the relatively low average annual values for both players — Turner ranks 27th all-time with $27.27 million, and Harper ranks 35th at $25.38 million. But both contracts include full no-trade clauses and lack opt-outs. Barring something exciting, neither player is going anywhere.
All of this is fine, as long as the teams are getting the production you would expect in the early years of the contracts. Harper was at this point worth good money for the Phillies, winning MVP honors in 2021 and leading them to a World Series in 2022 while serving as DH due to an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery. How will Harper live? What kind of player will Turner be when he starts losing his pace? Neither question will bother the Phillies, as long as they win a World Series or two when they’re both under contract.
DeGrom’s often injured performance over the next five years may warrant closer scrutiny. One writer joked that Diaz as an anchor might offer more roles over the next five years than Diaz as a rookie. Verlander at $86.66 million isn’t a bargain, but with nearly $100 million less than DeGrom, the Mets are practically excited about their “savings.”
Hey, it’s not my money, or even your money – ticket prices are driven by the principles of supply and demand, not player contract sizes. If the owners didn’t have the money, they wouldn’t spend it. And boy do they, more than ever before.
Poor Tyler Anderson. He got rich before he got richer. Amidst the absurdity of the 2022-23 season, he is the unfortunate son of baseball.
(Trea Turner top photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)