Carleton: Big extension, big mistake?

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on August 5, 2014:

Let’s talk about Joe Mauer. In spring training 2010, the defending MVP and reliable six- or seven-win Mauer signed a contract extension with the Minnesota Twins that will run until 2018 and pay him roughly $23 million per year. It’s by far the richest contract the Twins have ever given out. I suppose that if anyone were going to get that contract from the Twins, Mauer, who hails from Minnesota and apparently believes so deeply in the cause that he is the father of actual twins, would seem to be the perfect candidate. Still, it was a big commitment from the “small-market” Twins. Such contracts are usually only legal in New York and Los Angeles.

Of course, there were gainsayers at the time, mostly because these contracts never seem to end well. Inevitably, someone brings up the words “aging curve” and says that in the last few years, there’s no possible way that Mauer (or whoever) will be able to justify his salary. It’s the sort of contract that can wreck an entire payroll. On the flip side were the optimists. Mauer’s skill set was getting on base, but there were signs that he was starting to develop a power stroke (a career-high 28 home runs in 2009), and while it was understood that he would eventually need to move from behind the plate, he might move to third base.

Fast forward to the fifth season after Mauer signed his big extension and he is a first baseman hovering around replacement level. He did have a few years where he put up good value. He still gets on base better than the league average, but he is no longer providing value by wearing shin guards. Nor did that power stick around. We’ve perhaps reached the dog days of the Joe Mauer contract.

A week or so ago, a listener on Effectively Wild asked whether small market/small budget teams actually had an advantage because when they had a player like Mauer, they could simply say “We don’t have the money to sign him.” In doing so, they could avoid the trap of the long-term contract. While it might make fans angry in the short run, it gives the team the freedom (and incentive) to look for other players who are under-valued, and maybe to spread that money around to three or four different options, all of whom might be pleasant surprises and collectively worth more than the one big signing.

Are big contracts always a waste of money? There are plenty of cautionary tales to say “yes,” but is there a case to be made for signing them anyway?

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Originally published: August 5, 2014. Last Updated: August 5, 2014.