On Nov. 18, 2001, with the promise of a new stadium allowing them to expand payroll, the Pirates inked Jason Kendall to a six year contract worth $60 million. It was the largest signing in franchise history.
16 years, two months and nine days later, it still is the largest signing in Pirates history.
An asterisk may need to go next to that fact soon. If they pick up the option year of Andrew McCutchen’s contract in 2018, his deal will officially pay out $65.5 million over seven seasons. Kendall already has been passed in terms of AAV by Francisco Liriano and Francisco Cervelli.
But over 16 years later, Kendall still has the franchise record for the richest contract with the most guaranteed money. It is tied for the smallest amount for a franchise record contract among all teams (they share that honor with the Indians and their recent 3 year, $60 million pact with Edwin Encarnacion. He can make more with bonuses and a fourth year option).
It’s also the lowest paying AAV for a franchise record contract. Sure, there were rumors of a McCutchen extension years ago and they made a run at re-signing Russell Martin in 2014, but so far, no dice.
So when’s that going to change? I don’t mean that in a grumpy, arms crossed, calling the radio station to complain “when’s that going to change?” I mean, legitimately, when are the Pirates going to give out a new record setting contract? Is their guy already in the organization?
I think it’s safe to say the Pirates’ next 60+ million dollar man will be home grown. Five of the six largest contracts that Neal Huntington has dished out have been extensions of guys already on the roster (McCutchen, Harrison, Polanco, Cervelli and Marte). The sixth player was Francisco Liriano, who resigned after testing free agency.
It makes sense that if Huntington is going to offer a lot of guaranteed money to a player, he wants him to come through the farm system. They start the deal when they’re younger, so there is less of a chance of being stuck with an albatross at the end of the contract. The organization knows these players the best, warts and all. They can maximize the value of the deal by buying out years of free agency in exchange for giving a small increase in the pre-arb years.
If it wasn’t for these contracts, Marte would be entering his second year of arbitration, Cervelli would have been one of the best catchers available in free agency this year and McCutchen would have long been gone. Sure, there are occasional misfires like with Tabata, and sometimes the player does not live up to the deal, like Harrison, but small market clubs need to bank on bargains like this to survive.
They also tend to cost a whole lot less than $60 million. At least for now.
Baseball is not immune to inflation, and salaries and payrolls are going to keep growing. The average MLB salary jumped from $3.2 million in 2012 to $4.4 million in 2016. That’s a 37.5% increase.
So let’s say someone like Josh Bell, Austin Meadows or even Polanco signed a deal in 2016 with the same spending power as McCutchen’s in 2012. A 37.5% increase on his six year, $51.5 million deal is $70.8 million.
Does that seem outlandish? The corner outfielders’ contracts lined up the same way. Marte and Polanco both signed their extensions with one big league season in the books. Marte’s AAV on his deal is $5.17 million, or 1.62 times the average major salary when he signed in 2014. Polanco signed for $7 million per year, which was 1.6 times the major league average in 2016.
And that’s just for position players. Anyone who has been following baseball contracts the last few years knows that pitching is king.
In 2017, the 98 starters who are signed or have settled their arbitration cases are going to combine to make $1.04 billion. With a B. That’s an average of $10.6 million each. In 2012, 28 starting pitchers made $10 million. Forty-six will in 2017.
Remember, parents of toddlers: it’s never too early to teach Junior to throw a curveball. Try to make him do it as a lefty.
So let’s look at Jameson Taillon. He is going to be just under the wall for super-two eligibility in 2019. That fourth year of arbitration really does help a player’s earning power. If he can prove that the elbow is 100 percent, it makes sense for the Pirates to try to cost control him.
There aren’t a lot of Pirates to model a potential contract off of, so let’s pretend he has the same earning power as Stephen Strasburg (they’re different types of pitchers, but I think it’s a fair assessment since they’re both Tommy John survivors and will most likely be 3-5 win players throughout their careers).
Strasburg avoided arbitration all three years, signing for $4 million in 2014, $7.4 million in 2015 and $10.4 a year ago. That’s 1.05 times the average salary in ‘14, 1.74 times in ‘15 and 2.37 times in ‘16.
We don’t have an official average salary in 2017 yet, but a 2.7 percent increase would put it at $4.5 million. That’s not an exact number, but humor me for the sake of simple math. That means the average salary grew 17.8 percent in three years.
If it grows 17.8% over the next three years, the average MLB salary will be $5.3 million when he goes into arbitration for the first time in 2020. 1.05 times that is $5.5 million. If the average value grows 3% a year the next two years and he gets the same ratio as Strasburg did, he would make $9.5 million in 2021 and $13.3 million in 2022, totaling $28.3 million over three seasons. If salaries grow at the same pace as they did for Strasburg in 2015 and 2016, he would make $10.1 and $14.2 million, totaling $29.8 million. Those years plus a season or two of free agency and pre-arb would easily eclipse $60 million.
If it’s not Taillon, it could be the next wave of pitchers like Mitch Keller or Taylor Hearn who make that sixty millionth and first dollar, but only a fool looks more than a decade into the future.
Regardless, the Pirates aren’t going to stop signing young talent just because inflation is jacking up salaries. If anything, they might be more inclined to make more deals.
One of those contracts is going to be worth more than $60 million. Kendall’s reign is coming to an end soon.