It was fun while it lasted. For a while after the so-called statistical revolution, pioneered or at least made public by the Moneyball A’s, there existed a time where fans and analysts — professional and amateur alike — could criticize all manner of baseball player contracts for the amount of money teams were willing to commit to players who may or may not deserve their riches relative to the market.
The problem for us “analysts” since has been twofold. Firstly, there just aren’t many front offices to make fun of anymore (outside of Philadelphia, of course). Understanding that almost every Big League franchise now employs statistical analysis and scouting teams capable of far more in-depth and nuanced analysis than any of us are capable of, it becomes difficult to criticize any move they make because even if we can’t see it, there is probably a very good reason the team traded for player A or signed player B to a massive contact.
Secondly, the money in relative terms, just isn’t worth talking about anymore. Teams, buoyed by massive broadcast television rights and unfathomably rich ownership, are no longer quite as bound by the financial decisions they make in regards to their on-the-field product as they might have been twenty — or even ten or five — years ago.
The teams have the money and the players deserve it, at least in reference to how much revenue is generated by the industry. So it’s impossible to fault a team for spending an inordinate amount of cash on a player. Even long terms ones the size of Robinson Cano’s this winter with Seattle are taken with that massive caveat. The Mariners are paying for the first few years of the deal where they expect they’ll get far more than their money’s worth from Cano than they’re actually paying him. So much so, in fact, that they’re assumedly ready and expecting to eat the final few seasons of the deal as merely the cost of doing business.
The point of this lead-burying exercise is to suggest that maybe some of the contracts we previously — as a community of internet baseball enthusiasts — thought were terrible given their length and dollar figure, may not actually be that bad.
Let’s look at one example:
After the best offensive season of his career at the age of 31 with Philadelphia, Jayson Werth signed the largest contract in Nationals/Expos franchise history when he inked his seven-year, $126-million deal with the long-terrible beltway franchise. It was seen at the time as a massive overpay. Werth, despite putting up four straight solid seasons, including three straight of nearly five WAR according to FanGraphs, was a late bloomer who would be hitting his decline phase as he entered his mid-30s — exactly the years that the Nats were now committed to paying a lot of money for.
I admit, at the time I thought it was not only a massive overpay but a contract that Washington would surely regret once it came time to signing their two recently drafted generational superstars in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The defense from the front office of Mike Rizzo and company was that they had to show players around the league that they were serious, and if that means overpaying to get premium free agents in order to attract others, then so be it.
Werth is about to enter the fourth year of that deal and most people still view that contract among the worst in the game, but how has it held up?
Well, the first season did nothing but exacerbate this notion. Despite playing in 150 games, Werth slashed just .232/.330/.389 for a wRC+ of exactly 100 (or league average). Of course when you’re paying an average annual amount of $18 million for a player, you expect somewhere better than league average. Mind you, the Nats only paid Werth $10 million in 2011 and his FanGraphs WAR value pegged him at 2.3 wins. If you assume that teams were willing to pay about $5 million per win above replacement on the open market in 2011, then they got about what they paid for. The problem was that Werth’s 2011 seemed indicative of precipitous decline ahead given it was his age-32 season.
In 2012, Werth landed on the 60-day DL in early May after fracturing his left forearm diving for a ball in right field and any real attempt at producing value for his contract that year went out the window. Still, Werth returned in early August and quickly found his feet offensively slashing .312/.394/.441 after returning, which allowed him to finish the season with an impressive 128 wRC+. His defensive metrics brought down his WAR number for FanGraphs, but Baseball Prospectus tabbed him with a 2.3 WARP. If you assume that his real value was somewhere between the two given the difference in evaluating his defense, he still came close to producing the value suggested by his $13 million salary even if that still came up short compared to the AAV of his contract.
Then in 2013, Werth proved what he could do when mostly healthy. Although he missed a month with hamstring problems, Werth still managed to post an excellent season slashing .318/.398/.532 with 25 home runs and a WAR value of 4.6 according to FanGraphs and a WARP of 4.7 from Baseball Prospectus. He was so good in fact, that by wRC+, he was the fourth best hitter in all of baseball behind only Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis. If you consider inflation, teams probably paid somewhere close to $6 million per win on the open market in 2013 and by that valuation, he was worth somewhere around $25-$27 million to Washington.
The expensive part of Werth’s deal is still yet to come as Washington has yet to pay even the average annual value in any single season so far. In 2014, he’ll make $20 million and is owed $83 million over the next four seasons — his age 35-38 seasons to boot. But given the rapidly increasing inflationary value of player contracts and the market size and foreseeable success that the Nationals franchise is sure to enjoy over the next few seasons, you can squint and imagine a world where Werth comes at least somewhat close to producing the value that contract commands.
Although the ability to stay healthy is certainly a skill — one that Werth has not really proven that he has—it can be assumed that he is about a 4-win player when he stays on the field. If we assume natural decline from this point forward, Werth could easily obtain his value relative to his deal. Considering that according to Baseball Prospects, he’s been worth roughly 10 WARP over his first three seasons in Washington (somewhere around $55 million of value), the Nats only need him to produce about 11 wins above replacement for the remainder of the deal to meet roughly market value assuming normal inflation (which may be less-than-generous considering the influx of cash entering MLB in the next decade or so).
Can the Nats reasonably expect Werth to average just under 3 wins per season over the next four years? It doesn’t seem unreasonable. Either way, it isn’t as bad as we all thought heading into the deal — and certainly not as bad as we all thought after his awful 2011 campaign. And even if Werth produces nowhere near the value suggested by his deal, I’m not sure it matters all that much. It’s not like the Nationals — or any team for that matter — is going to run out of money. And if the franchise thought their signing of Werth would harm the long-term ability to sign Strasburg and Harper, I’m sure they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.