Modern sports are built on the foundation of superstars.
Even if you don’t watch the NBA, you know that Lebron James will play for the Lakers next year. And you can bank on the fact that Los Angeles will be in the Western Conference finals against Golden State.
Even if you don’t watch the NFL, you know that Tom Brady is going to dominate in 2018 unless a blitzing linebacker literally breaks him. If Robert Kraft woke up one morning with a brain ailment and traded Brady to the Buccaneers, you could bank on the fact that Tampa Bay would host at least one NFC playoff game.
Major League Baseball is nothing like this.
Alex Rodriguez was the biggest baseball celebrity superstar since Joe DiMaggio. In 2016, however, he was a terrible liability to the New York Yankees.
A-Rod signed a 10-year contract extension in 2007 and his horrible hitting and lack of athleticism had brought the entire franchise down to his mediocre level. On August 12, 2016, the Yankees forced A-Rod to leave the team, and agreed to pay him tens of millions of dollars to watch the games at home.
On August 13, 2016, a kid named Aaron Judge was brought up from the minors because the Yankees now had a free roster spot. He hit a HR in his first at-bat. With A-Rod gone, the team immediately became good again and they haven’t looked back.
At the heart of every disappointing team is a star with an insane long-term contract.
The Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs 3 out of 5 years, most recently in 2016. That’s the year they decided to torture their fans by signing first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year contract extension. Mr. Davis has become the worst player in baseball. Literally the worst. He is batting less than .160 with minimal power.
So why doesn’t management just cut him? That’s the tragedy of long-term contracts. Mr. Davis is still due $110 million through 2022. Baltimore is stuck with him. And they are stuck in last place for years to come.
There is no star so great that he can’t sink a franchise with a foolish long-term contract. Miguel Cabrera was a magnificent hitter and he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Right now, though, the Detroit Tigers wish that they weren’t stuck with him until 2023, at $30 million per year.
The Angels have the best player in the league: Mike Trout. So how come they are only .500? Because they made the hideous mistake of giving the former best player in the league – Albert Pujols – a 10-year contract.
Only now, Mr. Pujols can’t run, play competent defense, or hit for average. He seems to have just enough energy left to sign his $30 million paychecks until age 41 while he poisons the team with his torpor.
I would criticize the New York Mets front-office for signing flaky and oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes to a contract extension at $29 million per year. But – you know what? – I’m not going to. I think Mets fans secretly prefer their team to be a last-place embarrassment.
Big budget franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox still have an advantage over the rest of the league. Only the advantage is not that they can sign the best free agents. The advantage is that when they mess up and sign the best free agent players to foolish contracts, they can simply pay them to not play.
Boston is happily paying Pablo Sandoval $32 million to play for San Francisco for the next few years. And New York is currently shelling out $21 million per year to Jacoby Ellsbury even though his only job is to continue making up phantom injuries that keep him as far away from the active roster as possible.
For years, the 2018-19 offseason has been hyped as the most important free agent class in MLB history.
I agree. The hype is real. The question is which myopic owners will sabotage their franchise by signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to long-term contracts. And which teams will give themselves a chance to win by saying no and sticking to the cheap young homegrown players that they already have.