HomeSportsThe winter of the epic contract: How decade-plus MLB megadeals suddenly became...

The winter of the epic contract: How decade-plus MLB megadeals suddenly became a thing

Christmas is still ahead of us, and yet the baseball industry has already spent in record numbers and signed away most of the best available players. Twenty-four of the top 25 free agents, as ranked by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel in early November, have already chosen new teams, signing deals totaling close to $2.8 billion.

But it isn’t just the amount of money that is jarring — it’s the length of time teams are willing to pay it.

In the history of MLB free agency, only four players have received deals that have extended beyond 10 years — and three of those came this month. Trea Turner agreed to an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 5, Xander Bogaerts got 11 years and $280 million from the San Diego Padres on Dec. 8 and Carlos Correa landed with the New York Mets on a 12-year, $315 million contract — one week after agreeing to a 13-year, $350 million deal with the San Francisco Giants that fell apart over a disagreement about his physical.

Turner and Bogaerts will be paid through their age-40 seasons. Correa and Aaron Judge, who accepted a nine-year, $360 million contract to return to the New York Yankees, are locked up through age 39.

The idea of signing a player for a decade or more on a deal that will almost certainly take him to the very end of his career seems counterintuitive to modern roster construction. Front offices are smarter, more analytically minded than ever, hyper-focused on efficiency and well-schooled on the deficiencies of players in their mid to late 30s. The sport itself, proliferated by devastating breaking balls and triple-digit fastballs, has never been more unkind to the slower reaction times of those approaching middle age. And yet teams are handing out long-term contracts like never before. Ten of the past 11 deals signed for 10 or more years have come since 2019, and this offseason has taken that approach to a new level.

What gives? ESPN spoke to more than a dozen people in the industry, most of them executives and agents, in an effort to figure out why prolonged contracts are suddenly the rage. Three main theories emerged.

Lower AAVs are valuable

The most popular reason given to explain the plethora of long-term deals was simply that lengthening out a contract is an easy way to minimize present-day costs.

One in particular embodied that sentiment: Bryce Harper‘s 13-year, $330 million agreement with the Phillies, obtained near the end of February in 2019. Harper, represented by Scott Boras, perceivably entered free agency with a desire to top Giancarlo Stanton‘s $325 million extension and thus set a record for total guarantee. To attain it, he accepted a lower average annual value, of about $25 million, which in turn helped the Phillies reduce the deal’s year-to-year impact on the luxury tax. (AAV, not year-to-year salary, is used to calculate where teams reside in relation to the luxury tax threshold.)

Harper’s deal lies in stark contrast with the short-term, high-AAV deals that have also populated the industry in recent years, obtained by Trevor Bauer (three years and $102 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers), Max Scherzer (three years and $130 million from the Mets) and Justin Verlander (two years and $86.7 million from the Mets). Those deals drove up prices; Harper’s provided an alternate path for players who sought to cash in similarly.

“I think for a period of time, agents weren’t really letting that be on the table and were focused on the AAV,” an assistant general manager said. “So now there are opportunities for higher AAVs and opportunities for longer deals. Before, no one was doing the Verlander contract, so the only path was the deals that were signed.”

Correa has lived both worlds, obtaining a $35.1 million AAV on a short-term deal with the Minnesota Twins last year, then opting out and ultimately getting $315 million from the Mets. As one agent said: “This is really about the luxury tax.”

The new collective bargaining agreement included a relatively large increase in the luxury tax threshold, jumping nearly 10% from 2021 to 2022. But the repercussions were also stiffer, with a fourth tier introduced and other draft-related penalties looming. Teams now have more room to maneuver, but also a desire to maintain the flexibility to get back under the threshold and avoid escalating repeater penalties.

The luxury tax threshold is $233 million for the 2023 season, a $23 million increase from where it stood as recently as 2021, with an overage rate of 20%. But the rates multiply significantly depending on the amount teams go over by and how many consecutive years they do so, getting as high as 110%. Teams can also be stripped of draft picks and lose international-bonus-pool money. It has prompted them to pivot. A recent FanGraphs article also made the point that the nation’s economy, specifically federal interest rates, has motivated teams to stretch dollars out into future years.

The contracts for Correa, Turner and Bogaerts all rank within the top 15 all-time in total value — but none are within the top 25 in AAV.

“Rates are going up, and it makes sense to stretch out this money over time,” another agent said. “Teams can do some savvy financial work on the back end to cover the financial implications of the future costs of the contract. But also, stretching out the deals and lowering the AAV allows teams to have more flexibility under the new CBT thresholds, especially if they go up. The back end of deals are essentially all deferred money. Teams know they are eating the last few years of the contract.”

Players are starting earlier, potentially aging better

The combination of getting to free agency earlier and theoretically, with the help of modern technology, maintaining production at an older age, could be as important as anything in the discussion of long-term contracts. In the past, achieving the six years of service time required for free agency often meant players hit the open market in their 30s. But players — especially star-caliber prospects — often are matriculating through minor league systems at a faster rate, debuting in the majors earlier and therefore becoming free agents sooner.

The past three offseasons have seen 581 players become free agents before turning 30, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. If you go back nearly a decade, to the three-year span from 2012 to 2014, that number was only 182. The game, in essence, keeps getting younger. Correa (28) and Turner (29) have yet to reach their 30s. When Shohei Ohtani reaches free agency next offseason, he’ll be 29. When Juan Soto follows two years later, he’ll be 26. They, too, might attain decade-plus-long contracts.

“There happens to be a bunch of really good players that happen to be young for free agents,” another assistant GM said. “That’s helping teams feel OK about it. Players aren’t spending a full year at every level. The system is getting them to the big leagues quicker and to free agency earlier. Giving out a decade-long contract — or even longer — at 28 or even 29 is much different than at 31 or 32. Players can perform at 40 or 41, especially with the [designated hitter] in both leagues. Maybe not as much at 43 or 45.”

The universal DH is certainly a factor, giving 15 additional teams — including the three to hand out 11-plus-year contracts this offseason — a chance to preserve players in their late 30s and early 40s. But the jury is still out on whether the production will ultimately hold up. Two of our most recent examples of mega-contracts saw Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols — before a 2022 renaissance — fade aggressively in the tail ends of their Hall of Fame careers. Eventually the same might be said for the likes of Judge, Correa, Turner and Bogaerts. But some of the sharpest minds in the industry are banking on their teams’ abilities to extend players’ primes through science and nutrition.

“We as an industry I think have gotten pretty sophisticated — whether that’s a good thing or not others can decide — about aging curves and projections and things like that,” Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said from the general managers meetings in November.

“Also just think about strength and conditioning, nutrition, all these areas — there’s been a lot of advancements, not just baseball-wise but across all sports. And using aging curves from 10, 20 years ago versus what players have access to now, you have to ask how relevant it is.”

Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski echoed similar thoughts shortly after signing Turner for 11 years.

“We feel players have a better chance to play at later ages,” Dombrowski wrote in an email. “Our ability to work with players on conditioning methods, nutrition, physical fitness is so much better these days, and the players’ focus on achieving longer playing careers is extremely important.”

‘The Cohen Effect’

In the two years since Steve Cohen assumed control of the Mets, a theory has continued to circulate the industry: If they could do it over again, some rival owners would reconsider approving him. It’s clear to see why.

Under Cohen, the Mets’ competitive balance tax payroll has skyrocketed, finishing at about $295 million in 2022 and, after the Correa signing, trending in the neighborhood of $380 million in 2023. Cohen’s unmitigated aggressiveness, coupled with similar motivations by Padres chairman Peter Seidler and Phillies CEO John Middleton, has helped drive up the prices on free agents, and some believe it has pushed teams to spend at unprecedented rates.

In the words of one agent, “The right owners are in the mix for the World Series.”

“I think the market is correcting itself towards our side as owners get more competitive,” another agent said. “Call it ‘The Cohen Effect.’ Teams have to keep up with the arms race. With the new CBA, inflation, new revenue streams and three aggressive owners, the contracts are going up.”

In the offseasons that followed the 2016 to 2020 campaigns, teams spent an average of $1.6 billion per year on free agents, according to numbers maintained by Spotrac. Last year, that number rose to $3.2 billion. This year, it’s already at $3.5 billion.

“This is what we’ve been wanting for a while now,” one player involved in past labor issues wrote in a text message. “Now imagine if we can get all 30 teams to participate for the top players. A few owners are raising the top of the market. Hopefully the trickle-down continues.”

It might all be a product of ideal timing, the right owners reaching the ideal point in their franchises’ trajectories and capitalizing on a free agent market that is particularly flush with star talent.

This trend, like the others, might not last.

But look at teams such as the Giants and the Chicago Cubs, both of whom seem at least a year away from legitimate contention but have chased top-tier free agents nonetheless (the Giants famously whiffed on Judge and Correa, but the Cubs signed Dansby Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million contract that also exceeded industry expectations). Or the Texas Rangers, committing a combined $500 million to Corey Seager and Marcus Semien coming off a 102-loss season and then spending big again on Jacob deGrom this winter. Or the Phillies and Padres four years ago, locking up Harper and Manny Machado on $300 million-plus contracts to serve as the face of their next championship window.

Revenue reached $11 billion last year, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said during the World Series. The sale of the remaining stake in BamTech outfitted each owner with an additional $30 million and online gambling has brought in a major stream of new revenue. High-salary long-term deals have a history of ending poorly, and yet they’ve never been more popular.

One longtime scout might have explained it best with one sentence:

“Owners have so much money.”

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