Tyler Anderson jumped too early.
Oh, everyone can understand why on Nov. 15 Anderson agreed to a three-year, $39 million free-agent deal with the Angels instead of accepting a qualifying, one-year, $19.65 million offer from the Dodgers . In his first six seasons, Anderson had an adjusted ERA that was right on the league average. Last season, at age 32, he broke out with the Dodgers and produced the 8th best adjusted ERA in the majors. The Angels offered him nearly $40 million. He wanted to play in Anaheim. Why mess around?
reasonable question. Too sensible, as it turned out. Anderson acted rationally in an environment that quickly became irrational. 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, if not quite something from ancient Rome, is only just beginning.
On Monday, Justin Verlander, who turned 40 on Feb. 20, tied with new Mets teammate Max Scherzer, 38, for the highest average annual salary in the game’s history, $43.33 million. Trea Turner agreed to an 11-year, $300 million deal with the Phillies that will take him – pant – into 40 years of age. Coming up: Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Rodón. And more.
Welcome to the perfect storm of baseball excess, a confluence of events that has already spawned more than $1 billion in free agent contracts. Each deal is more mind-blowing and seemingly nonsensical than the last. And yet none of this comes as a surprise.
Consider the acting forces:
• It is the first complete off-season of a new collective agreement. Historically, owners have responded to assurances of labor peace over a longer period of time with more permissive spending.
• The sport’s revenue last season totaled nearly $11 billion, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred. That number will potentially surpass the record $10.7 billion 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 adds up to $30 million per team, it’s possible the league withheld some money for its central fund.
• The higher luxury tax thresholds in the new CBA have created more flexibility for the game’s largest expenses. The lowest threshold rose from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 and then to $233 million in 2023. The impact is only now being seen. The last offseason began under the old CBA and ended with an abridged free-hand deal after a 99-day lockout.
• The new, expanded postseason format – and surprise performances by the Padres and Phillies in the National League Championship Series – may bring more hope to previously also ran clubs and provide more incentive to spend.
So there you have it, the stuff to splurge on.
The offseason began with Edwin Díaz becoming the highest-paid helper in history, agreeing to a five-year, $102 million contract with the Mets. Two other aides, Robert Suárez (five years, $46 million) and Rafael Montero (three years, $34.5 million), followed with inflated deals. A general manager looking for open-plan support rushed to meetings with agents Sunday night trying to secure a reasonable two-year deal with a top-notch helper and looked quite stressed.
The seed market, which peaked with Rangers’ five-year, $185 million signing of Jacob deGrom, is even more intense, and not just at the top. Two weeks after Anderson signed with the Angels, Zach Eflin signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Rays, despite pitching only 75 2/3 innings last season. And things were just getting started.
Matthew Boyd converted 13 1/3 innings with the Mariners last season into a one-year, $10 million contract with one of his former teams, the Tigers. Mike Clevinger joined the White Sox on a one-year, $12 million contract after missing all of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and posting an adjusted ERA in 2022 that was 14 percent below the league average lay. Both contracts seemed excessive at first. Not even a month later, both could be bargains, just like Anderson’s.
The middle class of free-agent starting pitchers — Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Taillon, Andrew Heaney, Taijuan Walker, and others — 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 named mid-negotiations. Bassitt and Eovaldi could easily be weighed down by their qualifying offers. But with the money flying around, will teams even blink at the prospect of giving up a draft pick or two and international bonus pool spot to get the pitcher they want?
Of course, it’s not just the starting pitchers who benefit. For a look at the potential impact of some of the bigger positional player deals, let’s fast-forward to the 2031 Phillies. Bryce Harper turns 38 this season and is in the final year of his contract. Turner will also be 38 but has two years left on his contract. The Phillies can bask in both players’ relatively low yearly averages — Turner ranks 27th all-time with $27.27 million, Harper 35th with $25.38 million. However, both contracts contain full no-trade clauses and no opt-outs. Barring something dramatic, none of the players are going anywhere.
All of this is fine as long as teams get the production they expect in the early years of the contracts. Harper has been worth the money for the Phillies up to that point, winning a 2021 MVP award and leading them to the 2022 World Series while serving as DH due to an elbow injury that led to Tommy John’s surgery. How will Harper age? What kind of player will Turner be when he starts losing his speed? No question will worry the Phillies as long as they win a World Series or two while everyone is under contract.
Perhaps the often-injured deGrom’s performance over the next five years will warrant scrutiny. One writer joked that Díaz could pitch more innings as a reliever than deGrom as a starter over the next five years. Verlander is no bargain at $86.66 million, but at nearly $100 million less than deGrom, the Mets are practically giddy about their “savings.”
Hey, it’s not my money, not even your money – ticket prices are determined by the principles of supply and demand, not the size of players’ contracts. If the owners didn’t have the money, they wouldn’t spend it. And boy do they have it, more so than ever.
Poor Tyler Anderson. He got rich before he could have gotten richer. Amid the craziness of the 2022-23 offseason, he’s baseball’s hapless son.
(Top Photo by Trea Turner: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)