The testing era in baseball caused teams to recalculate how players perform as they age. Last season, for instance, no everyday player over 35 hit more than 20 home runs and played regularly in the field, and no pitcher that old received even one vote for the Cy Young Award. In short, the over-35 impact player, a staple of the Steroid Era, ceased to exist.
Since free agency began on Nov. 7, however, baseball has ignored its revised actuarial tables and doled out contracts remarkable not only for the guaranteed dollars but also for their length. Last Saturday the Red Sox announced the signing of outfielder Carl Crawford for $142 million over seven years, which will pay him through age 36. That deal was no doubt influenced by the seven-year, $126 million contract the Nationals gave outfielder Jayson Werth, who will be 38 when his deal expires. Crawford's contract was the fourth of at least seven years signed since March (including Joe Mauer's and Troy Tulowitzki's), with three more likely to come (for Adrian Gonzalez, Cliff Lee and Albert Pujols).
"It turned around completely," said one AL executive at baseball's winter meetings last week. "People had been reconditioned about the inefficiency of the free-agent market, but in one week it's blown up and we're back to where we were."
Said another executive, "[Werth's and Crawford's] contracts make it harder to keep your players. If I'm [NL MVP] Joey Votto, why sign an extension when I know these contracts are out there as a free agent?"
Baseball is creating a class of players who will be paid huge money as they decline through their mid-30s. In 2016 alone, for instance, Pujols (whom the Cardinals are trying to re-sign this winter), Werth, Lee, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are likely to be making more than $20 million at age 36 or older. In 2010 there was only one such player: Derek Jeter.
G.M. Mike Rizzo admitted his last-place team overspent for Werth, saying, "When you're in a position the Nationals are in, you at times have to pony up for an extra year or some more money to get the player."
Why the loosened purse strings? The two biggest catalysts for spending have been the same for the past decade: The Yankees--Red Sox rivalry, in which the ante is particularly upped when one team doesn't make the postseason (like Boston this season), and TV money, which teams expect to increase after MLB's deals with Fox, TBS and ESPN expire at the end of 2013. Owners are more conscious of their spending after a settlement with the union in September regarding allegations of collusion in the '08 and '09 free-agent markets, and the union gave the Marlins heat last winter for pocketing revenue sharing rather than putting it toward payroll. Indeed, when one owner was asked to explain the source of the Nationals' spending, considering their poor attendance and the worst local TV ratings in baseball, he replied, "Revenue sharing. They've been doing well with it, and now they're spending it."
Twelve months ago clubs had dished out only 12 contracts in history that guaranteed a player $125 million. Assuming new deals for Gonzalez, Lee and Pujols, that number will reach 20. Much of that money eventually will go to older players no longer able to make the same impact. As for the impact of the spending, that has only just begun.
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