Super long free agent contracts are fine, actually

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It’s pretty difficult to envision where Major League Baseball is going to be 11 or 13 years from now, and yet, there’s been quite a bit of gnashing of teeth over contracts handed out to shortstops Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa this offseason. Turner’s 11-year, $300 million deal will end after the 2034 season, when he’s 41 years old. Bogaerts’ 11-year pact, which will pay him $280 million, wraps the same year, also when he’s 41. Correa’s is longer and for more total money, at 13 years and $350 million, but he’s also younger than the other two, meaning he’ll “just” be 41 when the contract ends in 2036.

We’re used to saying something like “it’s just money” when it comes to signing stars to long-term deals. They cost money, even when MLB’s owners are doing their damndest to make sure pay as a whole stays down: the stars and best players at the premium positions still get paid, even when the middle class is slowly crushed under a free agency system that has toppled over them. The thing we need to get used to saying is “it’s just years.” Turner, Bogaerts, and Correa are all signed into the middle of next decade, and their contracts will end when they’re 41, if they even last that long. Because of the length of the deals, the average annual value of the contracts — i.e. how much they count against the soft cap of the luxury tax threshold and what they are costing these teams in present-day dollars each year — is lower. Turner’s deal comes in at an AAV of just over $27 million. Bogaerts’ contract, about $25.5 million per, and Correa’s, just under $27 million.

The value of a particular dollar changes over time. Bogaerts’ $25.5 million per year is not going to look like $25.5 million today does 11 years from now — with inflation, a rising luxury tax threshold, and what will likely be even more money coming into the game for a league whose nearly two-decade long streak of record revenues was only interrupted by a season-shortening pandemic, $25.5 million for a 41-year-old Bogaerts might not seem like much of an issue, really. Rewind to 11 years ago, and today’s $25.5 million was valued at $19.3 million in 2011 dollars. Go back 13 years, and Correa’s $26.9 million AAV was worth… $19.3 million in 2009 dollars. The luxury tax threshold sat at $178 million in 2011, and $162 million in 2009. It’s at $233 million in 2023, which lines up pretty neatly — within $2 million — via reverse inflation with 2011’s soft cap.

These are lengthy stretches of time: 2011 was not one not two but three collective bargaining agreements ago, 2009 a fourth. Adding on extra years for these players seems to be the way to acquire them, and since the dollar amounts are significant but are stretched out over such a long period of time and will, in theory, help reduce tax penalties while also leaving flexibility for future moves, teams seem pretty happy to be handing them out. There just really isn’t much to get worked up about here, given how much different $25.5 million or $27 million is going to look in the middle of next decade than it does now, both because of inflation and because of changed context. Maybe Turner won’t be worth $27 million when he’s 41, but that’s looking at the answer to the wrong question. Free agents are signed for huge deals because of what they’ll produce in the best years they have left. Signing them into their 40s is the cost of acquiring the best years they have left in the league. And when players the caliber of this trio of shortstops are agreeing to AAV that come in short of, say, what Stephen Strasburg signed with the Nationals a few years ago by nearly a full $10 million per year… why would teams ever say no to this change? It’s the rare case of something being both good for the players — literally hundreds of millions of dollars and complete job security that goes beyond how long their bodies might last — but at an annual value that should allow teams to work around them with new addition or even an approved trade elsewhere, should their production suffer in the twilight of these deals.

Another way to think of it is that the problem with Albert Pujols’ megacontract (10 years, $240 million) wasn’t the money or the years. It was that the Angels signed a player to a deal of that size and then made a series of terrible personnel decisions in both free agency and in player development that combined with a refusal to go beyond the luxury tax and turned the franchise into something of a running gag. If the Angels had simply made better decisions, they could have weathered the downturn of Pujols’ career with ease, but they spent the money they were willing to spend on the wrong supporting cast, and then threw in the towel on pushing even harder to make up for it.

The Padres clearly have no trouble spending above their weight: we have a few years’ evidence of this, and they, unlike the Angels, seem happy to keep spending even when the dollars aren’t working, in the hopes they find ones that will. The Phillies are currently run by a guy who was fired by the Red Sox for not wanting to trade Mookie Betts, who has a long history of convincing owners that it’s just money, why not spend it. The Giants kept quiet on free agency for a few years there, filling holes on the cheap and for short periods of time, but seemingly did so in order to bring in a Correa or an Aaron Judge this offseason: presumably, in a division that also has the spend-happy Padres and even spend-happier Dodgers in it, the Giants won’t just call it a day with Correa, and will climb toward or maybe even over the luxury tax threshold in order to keep up. So long as that sort of thing is going on with these three clubs, why should it matter if these shortstops are still making bank in their early 40s?

It shouldn’t, and it doesn’t, and you probably want to keep an eye out for anyone saying the future of these organizations and the league is now in peril because Xander Bogaerts is going to make $25 million per year a decade from now. We’ll be lucky if any of these coastal teams are still above water at that point, and I don’t mean financially. These deals will help in the present, in the peak these players have left: the rest of the years are just the cost of doing business — and those years are cheaper than money.

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