Tyler Anderson jumped too early.
Oh, anyone can understand why on November 15, Anderson agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Angels instead of accepting a one-year, $19.65 million offer from the Dodgers. In his first six seasons, Anderson had an adjusted ERA that was exactly league average. Last season, at age 32, he broke out with the Dodgers and produced the eighth-best corrected ERA in the majors. The Angels offered him nearly $40 million. He wanted to play in Anaheim. Why mess around?
Reasonable question. Too reasonable, it turned out. Anderson acted rationally in an environment that quickly became irrational. The contracts, especially for starting pitchers, but actually for all players, are getting crazier by the day. And the spending spree at the Winter Meetings, which rivals the 2019 and 2000 editions, has only just begun.
On Monday, Justin Verlander, who turned 40 on Feb. 20, matched up with new Mets teammate Max Scherzer, 38, for the highest average annual salary in game history, $43.33 million. Trea Turner agreed with the Phillies on an 11-year, $300 million contract that will – gasp – put him at age 40. To come: Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Rodón. And more.
Welcome to the perfect storm of baseball surpluses, a confluence of events that has already generated more than $1 billion in free agent contracts. Each deal is more baffling and seemingly nonsensical than the last. And yet none of it comes as a surprise.
Consider the forces at work:
• It is the first full off-season of a new collective bargaining agreement. Owners have historically responded to the certainty of labor peace over a longer period of time by spending more freely.
• According to Commissioner Rob Manfred, revenue from the sport last season was nearly $11 billion. That number will potentially surpass the $10.7 billion record set in 2019, the last full season played without COVID-19 restrictions.
• The league sold the remaining 15 percent of BAMTech to Disney for $900 million in November. While that amount technically equates to $30 million per team, it’s possible that the league has withheld some of the money from the Central Fund.
• The higher luxury tax thresholds in the new CBA provided more flexibility for the game’s biggest backers. The lowest threshold rose from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 and then to $233 in 2023. The impact is only now beginning to show. The last off-season began under the old CBA and ended with a shortened conclusion to free agency after a 99-day lockout.
• The new, expanded postseason format – and the surprise appearances of the Padres and Phillies in the National League Championship Series – may bring more hope to previously run clubs and provide more incentive to spend.
So there you have it, the makings for a splurge.
The off-season began when Edwin Díaz became the highest-paid reliever in history, agreeing to a five-year, $102 million contract with the Mets. Two other relievers, Robert Suárez (five years, $46 million) and Rafael Montero (three years, $34.5 million) followed with blown deals. A general manager seeking bullpen help rushed into meetings with agents on Sunday night, trying to make a reasonable two-year deal with a quality reliever, looking rather rushed.
The starting pitcher market, which peaked with the Rangers signing Jacob deGrom for five years and $185 million, is even more intense, and not just at the top. Two weeks after Anderson signed with the Angels, Zach Eflin reached a three-year, $40 million deal with the Rays despite throwing just 75 2/3 innings last season. And things had only just begun.
Matthew Boyd turned 13 1/3 innings last season with the Mariners into a one-year, $10 million contract with one of his previous teams, the Tigers. Mike Clevinger joined the White Sox on a one-year, $12 million deal after missing all of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and producing an adjusted ERA 14 percent below the league average in 2022. Both contracts seemed initially excessive. Less than a month later, both might be bargains, just like Anderson’s.
The middle tier of starting pitchers – Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Taillon, Andrew Heaney, Taijuan Walker, et al – will be next to be overpaid. One of those pitchers received five new offers after deGrom signed, according to his agent, who asked not to be identified during negotiations. Bassitt and Eovaldi may be somewhat hampered by their qualifying offers. But given the way money is flying around, will teams even blink at the prospect of giving up one or two draft picks and international bonus pool space to get the pitcher they want?
Of course, not only the starting pitchers benefit. For a look at the potential ramifications of some of the bigger position player deals, let’s fast-forward to the 2031 Phillies. Bryce Harper turns 38 that season, playing into the final year of his contract. Turner also turns 38, but still has two years to go. The Phillies can bask in the relatively low average annual values of both players – Turner ranks 27th all-time with $27.27 million, Harper ranks 35th with $25.38 million. But both contracts contain full no-trade clauses and lack opt-outs. Barring something dramatic, neither player is going anywhere.
That’s all fine as long as the teams get the production they expect in the early years of the contracts. Harper has been well worth the money for the Phillies so far, winning an MVP award in 2021 and leading them to the World Series in 2022 while serving as DH due to an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery. How will Harper age? What kind of player will Turner be when he starts to lose his speed? Neither question will get the Phillies into trouble, as long as they win one or two World Series while they’re all under contract.
The oft-injured deGrom’s performance over the next five years may be subject to closer scrutiny. One writer joked that Díaz as a reliever could throw more innings than deGrom as a starter in the next five years. Verlander at $86.66 million is no bargain, but at nearly $100 million less than deGrom, the Mets are practically giddy about their “savings.”
Hey, it’s not my money, or even your money – ticket prices are determined by supply and demand principles, not the size of player contracts. If the owners didn’t have the money, they wouldn’t spend it. And boy do they have it, more than ever before.
Poor Tyler Anderson. He got rich before he could get any richer. Amidst the craziness of the 2022/23 off-season, he’s the hapless son of baseball.
(Top photo by Trea Turner: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)