Massive contracts in baseball showing that ‘loyalty’ to players hurts more than it helps

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers
Sep 27, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

To begin, I want to make it extremely clear that in no way am I demeaning the names that are used in this article.

It’s a term that’s used quite often in baseball: Loyalty. But, what does it mean for a franchise? Does it mean mortgaging a part of your team’s future to “repay” a player who was really good at his job over the course of a few years? Or for an owner, does it mean opening up your pocketbook to overpay a player who was once considered as “great” in order to keep him around at the end of a big contract? Giving him a huge long-term contract that is going to go well beyond the player’s prime? Not trading a player? There are plenty of ways to define the word, but at the end of it all, “being loyal” to a certain player often hurts the team more than making competent business decisions.

For the teams of professional sports, the end goal is universal: a championship. Put the best product you can put together on the field, and hope they are good enough to earn that coveted trophy at the end of the season. But all too often, teams are hampered in their ability to do so as a result of staying loyal to certain players at certain times.

Loyalty can go two separate ways. On one end, a team can continue paying a player more than he’s worth (in market comparison) throughout his career. You hear players say it regularly. “I want to finish my career in (insert city here).” If they have a large contract, and are not performing at a level that justifies such a contract, is it fair to the fans of the team to keep that player around? To the other players on the team?

On the other end, isn’t it fair to give a player a chance to make a run at a World Series at some point? If a certain team isn’t in a good enough position to compete, isn’t it fair to allow a player who has been great a chance to earn a championship with another team? It’s another thing we hear quite often: “(Insert player’s name here) deserves to finish his career with this team.” Personally, I don’t like hearing that. To me, that means “we’re willing to pay this guy more money than he’s truly worth, possibly or probably even at the expense of moving on, because he was really good for us at one point.”

In the history of baseball, there are plenty of examples of loyalty from teams to their star players. Teams that opened their pocket books, and passed on trade opportunities that would have likely improved their teams, in order to keep certain players in their jersey. Some historical examples include Jeff Bagwell, Craig BiggioJason Varitek, and Todd Helton. All of these players remained with one team over the duration of their careers. Biggio (1988-2007) and Bagwell (1991-2005) played their entire careers with the Houston Astros. Over that 20 year period, the Astros made six trips to the playoffs, their deepest run ending at the hands of a 4-0 sweep in the 2005 World Series to the Chicago White Sox.

It stands to reason to keep this thought in mind: If “Team A” doesn’t pay a guy the big money to keep him around, then “Team B” or “Team C” will pay him what he wants. In my own opinion, it seems as though teams are far more willing to overpay/over-extend great players, in a show of loyalty, to keep them around well beyond their window of elite productivity.

“The economics in baseball are complicated,” said Paul Adams, sports editor of the Huron Daily Tribune. “You see players fall victim to a system that sees them put up some of the best numbers of their careers, but not get paid properly for it. Take the case of Justin Verlander, prior to signing his current deal with the Tigers, he was without a doubt one of the top five pitchers in the game. Now at 34, the Tigers are committed to Verlander for $28 million per season through 2019. With a franchise in transition, they may be forced to do the unthinkable, trade one of the faces of the franchise.”

Whether or not Verlander is actually traded remains to be seen, but loyalty to a player who is not producing at a reasonable level comes into play yet again. Some of the examples listed above had similar circumstances, as well.

Biggio, a Hall of Famer, never won an MVP award. For that matter, he never finished in the top three of voting, and finished in the top five on two occasions. As it generally happens, his production waned towards the end of his career. After batting .246 with 21 home runs and 62 RBI’s in the 2006 season, Biggio was awarded a one year extension worth $5.15 million (would be worth closer to $7 million in today’s world) for 2007. Loyalty, or hampering?

Bagwell, also a Hall of Famer, was shown loyalty in another fashion. He received a five year $85 million extension after the 2001 season. Still in the prime of his career, Bagwell was belting home runs and hitting for average at this point. But, after 11 years in the big leagues, was he really worth a five year contract for $85 million (would equate to well over $100 million today)? My question remains: Did staying loyal to these two players (again, I am not demeaning them in any way) actually pay off? Six trips to the playoffs over 20 years, and exactly zero World Series championships. Easy answer: no.

While these are just two examples throughout a long, storied history of the game, they stand to show a point. Today’s game isn’t much different. Good/great players are offered ridiculously large and long term contracts while they are approaching/at/just passing their prime. Sure, there are short term benefits to long contracts. But when the long term arrives, and the production starts to dwindle, teams will bite the bullet to show their loyalty at an alarming rate.

There are plenty of examples in recent memory as well. Miguel Cabrera signed an eight year deal worth $248 million that goes until he is 40 years old. Albert Pujols is playing under a 10 year $240 million pact that goes until he is 41. Giancarlo Stanton inked a whopping 13 year contract worth $325 million, which will carry on until he is 39 years old. While I’m not here to dispute the terms of these contracts, my question is simple. When the inevitable happens and Father Time catches up to these guys, their production will dwindle, much like every single other player who has played the game. With these absolutely massive contracts, it will become harder and harder for teams to be able to get out from underneath them. Is the loyalty shown by a team behind such a big contract worth it in the end?

Sure, some players are ok with collecting a big pay check every year, and not competing for a World Series. If they are producing, and not stopping the team from improving, I’m ok with that as well. Many players have stayed loyal to certain teams in this fashion over the years too (David Ortiz comes immediately to mind.)

Every single contract given to every single player is a gamble on both ends. But when it comes down to it, players need to fulfill their obligation that comes with their contract. When they stop doing so, teams need to understand that loyalty to a player is great and all, but business is also business. Loyalty be damned, sometimes moving on is the better option.