Max Scherzer and Jon Lester might as well have neon-green dollar signs stamped all over their uniforms and caps when Major League Baseball spring training opens next week.
Their careers were redefined this offseason when they joined MLB’s elite echelon of $100 million arms, a sweet 16 whose salaries total an even sweeter $2.42 billion. Every game they start, and every pitch they throw, will be viewed through the prism of their incomes.
Judging by history, they had better succeed swiftly with their new teams. Wins and innings pitched are likely to dwindle with age.
Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations who signed Lester, likens these megadeals to a “splurge on a luxury item,” MLB’s equivalent of a Birkin bag or vintage Ferrari.
Is the roster candy worth it to their teams? Or merely a status symbol?
“They are difference-makers. They are special talents. Usually there are only 10 to 12 of these in the game, and they give you something that no one else has,” said agent Scott Boras, who negotiated the deals for Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and Scherzer. “A lot of teams have a lot of pitchers, but few teams have a true No. 1.”
Only three pitchers have won World Series rings after signing nine-figure contracts: CC Sabathia with the New York Yankees, and Zito and Matt Cain with the San Francisco Giants. The rest find their finances sated but their ambitions starved.
The $100 million pitchers have combined to average a 12-9 record and 3.39 ERA during the first four seasons of their deals, according to STATS. During the remaining years, they fell to a 7-7 record and 4.43 ERA.
Durability decreases dramatically, with the group averaging 205 innings in first seasons, 178 by the third year, and 132 by the fifth.
Justin Verlander was 124-65 and 30 years old when he signed his big deal with Detroit in March 2013. He is 28-24 since, slowed by core muscle surgery before the 2014 season.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone that looks at long-term contracts for pitchers that are older, and thinks that all of them are going to be years of investment that are at the highest rate,” Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said. “You expect some type of decline and adjustment that takes place.”
Pitchers and catchers start workouts with World Series champion San Francisco on Thursday, and position players join five days later. Among the players making fresh starts are Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez with Boston; Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and James Shields with San Diego; and David Robertson with the Chicago White Sox.
And Alex Rodriguez returns to the New York Yankees at age 39 following his yearlong suspension.
Seeking their first championship, the Washington Nationals gave the 30-year-old Scherzer a $210 million, seven-year contract, $5 million shy of the record for pitchers set by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.
The Cubs, who won their last title 17 days after the Ford’s first Model T left the car factory in 1908, guaranteed $155 million over six seasons to Lester, and included 25 hours of private jet use annually to seal the deal with the left-hander, who turned 31 last month.
Epstein weighs health history, body type, athleticism, character, work ethic, mechanics and toughness among the factors in determining whether a pitcher is worth it.
“If you sign Andy Pettitte at age 31, you would have gotten performance throughout the contract,” Epstein said. “So it’s just a matter of trying to sign the right guy.”
Brown became MLB’s first $100 million man when he signed with the Dodgers in December 1998. He pitched Florida to the 1997 World Series title, and San Diego to the 1998 NL pennant.
Brown’s deal shocked a league accustomed to escalating salaries since free agency began in 1976.
Sandy Alderson, then an executive in the commissioner’s officer, called it “an affront to baseball.”
“I’m in mourning,” said Larry Lucchino, San Diego’s president at the time. “Not for the Padres, but for baseball.”
Brown was 139-99 with a 3.30 ERA when he agreed to the contract and went 72-45 with a 3.23 ERA during the deal for the Dodgers and Yankees, who acquired him for the final two years. In all, the $100 million men have averaged a 96-64 career record with a 3.46 ERA when they agreed to the contracts, then a 39-28 mark with a 3.55 ERA mark while earning the big money.
Just two of the previous 14 have losing records under their deals: Zito was 63-80 for San Francisco, and Cole Hamels has gone 17-23 for Philadelphia despite a 3.05 ERA in the first two seasons.
“For most long-term deals, you see the best return on investment in the earlier years, and typically in the last year or two, you’re not getting quite the bang for the buck,” Epstein said. “Inflation helps mitigate that somewhat, because by the end of your deals, salaries have escalated, the cost per win has escalated, so you’re not requiring the player to do quite as much to be worth the contract at that point.”
Nine of the pitchers reached their deals as free agents, and the others were within two years of free agency. Kershaw and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka were the youngest at 25, and Brown the oldest at 33.
Boras said the dropoff is factored in. He argues the aces are underpaid in the initial seasons.
“These players may be worth $40, $45 million for those three or four years,” he said, “The complaint is that, ‘Oh, you’re going to pay for this in the latter years.’ Well, the reality of it is you’re not paying their true value in the early years. That’s the quid pro quo.”
RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer
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