As much as we try to make fantasy baseball model the real thing as much as possible, one difference has been highlighted in recent days – the long-term contract.
In most keeper leagues, an owner has to deal with escalating salaries, but when things go awry, a player can be unceremoniously released. As painful as it might be, the fantasy owner can cut bait, and in doing so, is absolved of future financial commitment.
That is not the case in Major League Baseball. In fact, clubs are lining up to take larger and larger portions of risk in return for the potential of saving cash down the road. The idea of buying out arbitration years in return for several free agent seasons following, pioneered by then-Cleveland general manager John Hart in the early 1990’s, has morphed into what may become a monster.
Hart realized the only way his mid-market Indians could hold onto their home-grown stars such as Carlos Baerga and Manny Ramirez was to lock them in with long-term contracts a number of years prior to free agency. The club could secure that commitment by paying more money up front to players who at the time were probably only making MLB minimum salary.
Unlike in fantasy, the commitments being made now, coming earlier and earlier in players’ careers, are binding and inescapable. Instead of just covering the arbitration years – seasons four through six in the bigs – these new deals are now also buying into the first three years of a player’s career as well.
That is a period when player salaries are traditionally kept under tight team control, usually in the $500,000 to $1 million annual range. It is also a time in which many contenders fall by the wayside, proven to be major league pretenders instead.
A new high (or low, depending on your perspective) occurred earlier this week. On Tuesday, the Houston Astros announced a five-year deal with top prospect Jonathan Singleton that guarantees him $10 million over the next five seasons. The contract offers the potential for Singleton to expand his earnings to as much as $35 million in total through options and incentives.
The rub is that Singleton was preparing to suit up for his very first game in the major leagues. His only track record was in the minor leagues. Increasing the risk is the 22-year-old’s checkered past with drugs and alcohol. Of course, that may be one reason the player readily accepted such an offer so early in his career.
For clubs, these kind of contracts are all about risk mitigation. In this case, the rebuilding Astros appeared to be willing to take the chance that Singleton will not become Joe Charbonneau in return for what would be a very team-friendly contract if he becomes the next Albert Pujols.
In all fairness, there has been a negative backlash to the Singleton deal from some other agents, worried that the overall market for pre-free agent players would be pulled down due to this contract. That may prove to be the case or it may not.
At least there is a practical limit to these cradle signings. A few years back, after a rash of draftees demanded and received Major League contracts to come to terms, MLB prohibited the practice. If you remember the name Zack Cox, then you know this continued example of owners creating rules specifically to protect themselves from themselves was a good idea.
For those of us being fantasy general managers only, we should be relieved we don’t have to carry such risk over the long haul.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 16-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.