Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, January 24, 2023 -- "Can't"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 136
January 24, 2023

Over the weekend, the NFL played out its quarterfinal round. Advancing to the semis were three of the four teams who advanced a year ago. The Kansas City Chiefs will host the AFC championship game for the fifth consecutive year. I noted this on Twitter, once again making  the point that the NFL’s vaunted “competitive balance” is mostly mythological despite the presence of a payroll cap.

As it usually does, this ruined my mentions for two days. I shouldn’t be surprised that the public conversation on this hasn’t advanced past 2004 or so, and yet I am every time.

I want to focus on one strain of the argument today, one that kept coming up in the thread, the idea that the NFL system is better because teams in smaller cities can retain their stars whereas in baseball they cannot. Over and over again the idea was expressed that teams in smaller cities can’t keep the players they drafted. (I won’t say “developed,” as that’s the job of semi-pro teams affiliated with colleges.) Now, I have danced around his at times, and what I want to do today is present a bunch of information about baseball contracts to inform the conversation. Very little of what follows is opinion, just facts.

Let’s start with an update of a chart I have run before, the largest contracts in baseball history and the city of the team that signed the player. (All data from Cot’s.)

Mike Trout         $427M    Los Angeles
Mookie Betts       $365M    Los Angeles
Aaron Judge        $360M    New York
Francisco Lindor   $341M    New York
Fernando Tatis     $340M    San Diego
Bryce Harper       $330M    Philadelphia
Giancarlo Stanton  $325M    Miami
Corey Seager       $325M    Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth)
Gerrit Cole        $324M    New York
Rafael Devers      $314M    Boston
Manny Machado      $300M    San Diego
Trea Turner        $300M    Philadelphia

This chart has changed a lot in recent years, and is certainly what people think of when they think of big-city teams buying up players. Of the 12 teams to sign a player to a $300 million contract, eight play in the game’s five largest media markets. The two Padres signings stick out, as San Diego plays in the fourth-smallest media market of any baseball team.

Of these 12, four were cases of a team retaining a player it developed. None were cases of a small-city free agent leaving for a big city. Two, the Francisco Lindor and Gerrit Cole contracts, were for players who started their careers with small-city teams and were traded.

Expanding the range, there have been 31 contracts of at least $200 million signed in baseball history. Here’s how they break down, dividing the league into thirds based on this data. (For this project, I have slotted Toronto at #9 overall. Neither the Blue Jays nor the team bumped from the first category, the Astros, have any contracts herein.)

Large market: 13
Medium market: 10
Small market: 8

I don’t know what other people want that list to look like, but it sure looks reasonable to me. Large-city teams may have some advantages in attracting superstar players, but as I have written before, that’s a feature, not a bug. There are more people in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and more money is made by everyone when those teams do well.

If you go through those 31 signings, you see all kinds of fun stuff. Robinson Cano moved from New York to Seattle in free agency for $240 million. Zack Greinke went from Los Angeles to Phoenix for $207 million. The Reds, Brewers, Padres, and Mariners all signed homegrown talents for the bulk of their careers. It’s certainly not a list of contracts that shows the small-city teams in the league being shut out in the market competition for high-priced talent.

Let’s run at it from a different direction, one that gets specifically at the idea that small-city teams can’t retain the stars they develop. I created a list of the 33 best players of the 21st century, everyone with 50 bWAR from 2001 through 2022. Indulge me as we look at their paths.

Albert Pujols played in St. Louis through age 31, then was signed to a ten-year, $240-million contract by the Los Angeles Angels.

Adrian Beltre played in Los Angeles through age 24, then was signed to a five-year, $64-million contact by the Seattle Mariners.

Mike Trout has played his entire career, through age 30, in Los Angeles, and is signed through another decade.

Alex Rodriguez played in Seattle through age 24, then signed a ten-year, $252-million contract with the Texas Rangers, in Dallas/Fort Worth.

Justin Verlander played in Detroit through age 34 and was traded to Houston.

Clayton Kershaw is 35 and has played his entire career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zack Greinke played in Kansas City through age 26 and was traded to Milwaukee.

Max Scherzer was traded from Phoenix to Detroit at age 24, played in Detroit until age 29, then signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with Washington.

Robinson Cano played in New York through age 30, then signed a ten-year, $240-million contract with Seattle.

Miguel Cabrera played in Miami through age 24, was traded to Detroit, and will likely end his career there.

Roy Halladay played in Toronto through age 30 and was traded to Philadelphia.

Chase Utley played in Philadelphia through age 36.

Joey Votto has played his entire career in Cincinnati.

Carlos Beltran played in Kansas City through age 27 and was traded to Houston.

CC Sabathia played in Cleveland through age 26 and was traded to Milwaukee.

Ichiro Suzuki played in Seattle through age 38.

Mark Buehrle played in Chicago through age 32 and then signed a four-year, $58-million contract with Miami.

Paul Goldschmidt played in Phoenix through age 30 and was traded to St. Louis prior to his walk year.

Evan Longoria played in Tampa/St. Pete through age 31 and was traded to San Francisco.

Cole Hamels played in Philadelphia through age 31 and was traded to Texas.

Mookie Betts
played in Boston through age 26 and was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Joe Mauer played his entire career in Minnesota.

David Ortiz was traded as a prospect and waived just after his 27th birthday. He played the rest of his career, 14 years, in Boston.

Ian Kinsler
played in Dallas/Fort Worth through age 31 and was traded to Detroit.

Chipper Jones played his entire career in Atlanta.

Nolan Arenado played in Denver through age 29, signed an extension to play there until he is 35, and was traded to St. Louis.

Manny Machado played in Baltimore until he was 25, and was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dustin Pedroia played his entire career in Boston.

Barry Bonds is one of the 30 best players of the 21st century while playing just seven seasons in said century. He played in San Francisco until he was 42 and was blackballed after leading the league in OBP in 2007.

Johan Santana played in Minnesota through age 28 and was traded to the New York Mets.

Mark Teixeira played in Texas (DFW) until he was 27 and was traded to Atlanta.

Torii Hunter played in Minnesota until he was 31 and then signed a five-year, $90-million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

Scott Rolen, who will hopefully be a Hall of Famer in eight hours, played in Philadelphia until he was 27 and was traded to St. Louis.

That’s a lot of names and teams and numbers. What you can take from it, is that there is just no pattern of the best players in baseball being sucked up by the teams in the largest cities. Four players played their whole careers for one team, including teams in Cincinnati and Minnesota. Others played the useful parts of their careers for their original team before being traded or let go, including Chase Utley, Evan Longoria, Ichiro, and Ian Kinsler. Some of these stars left larger cities for smaller ones via free agency: Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Mark Buehrle. This are the best players of the 21st century, and you cannot find any pattern as to where they go mid-career.

Many of these players did not leave their teams, but were traded, which is a decision by the team to not retain the player but rather to lower payroll and go into a rebuild. It’s a choice. I hope by now you recognize that the baseball economy is flush with cash, and that cash is distributed generously around the league in a way that no team can say they “can’t” sign a star to a market-rate contract -- even before getting into issues of owner wealth, the steady appreciation of franchise value, and the immediate and direct positive effects of investing in the baseball team.

Let’s drill down a bit further on the specific complaint that a small-city baseball team could not retain a Patrick Mahomes. The label “small market” has been mishandled at times, but I think it’s fair to consider five teams at the bottom of the charts on their own tier: The Milwaukee Brewers, the Cincinnati Reds, the Kansas City Royals, the San Diego Padres, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Baltimore, per the data, is actually smaller than Pittsburgh, though we generally consider Pittsburgh one of the game’s smallest cities. For our purposes today, we’ll include the Pirates and not the Orioles.)

These are the best players produced by those teams in the 21st century:

Zack Greinke played in Kansas City through age 26 and was traded to Milwaukee.

Joey Votto has played his entire career in Cincinnati.

Carlos Beltran
played in Kansas City through age 27 and was traded to Houston.

Ryan Braun played his entire career in Milwaukee.

Andrew McCutchen played in Pittsburgh through age 30 and was traded to San Francisco.

Carl Crawford
played in Tampa/St. Pete through age 28 and signed a seven-year, $142-million contract with Boston.

Johnny Cueto played in Cincinnati through age 29 and was traded to Kansas City.

Starling Marte played in Pittsburgh through age 30 and was traded to Arizona.

Lorenzo Cain was traded to Kansas City at 25, played there through age 31 and signed a five-year, $80-million contract with Milwaukee.

Jake Peavy played in San Diego through age 28 and was traded to the Chicago White Sox.

The problem here isn’t that those teams aren’t retaining their stars. The problem is that they’re not producing stars. Votto and Braun are the two best arguments against this idea  that small-city teams can’t keep their superstar players. McCutchen isn’t far behind -- he spent the productive part of his career in Pittsburgh and was traded with more than a year left on his contract. I usually throw Joe Mauer in here as well, your mileage may vary. Even when teams lose or give away the player, they have usually gotten his most productive years.

Once you’re outside this group, four of which get help in the form of revenue-sharing payouts estimated at more than $50 million a year, you’re into teams that have self-limited despite being in cities a size bigger, like the Guardians, Rays, and A’s. The specifics of each situation notwithstanding, only the Guardians have an argument for being constrained by their potential revenue, and again, they’re getting lots of financial help from the other teams.

Even those small-city teams are often just making bad choices. The Reds could have a 2023 starting rotation of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Hunter Greene, Tyler Mahle, and Nick Lodolo for less than $35 million, and be a legitimate wild-card contender and fringe NL Central contender. They chose to put that money into Powerpoint lying. The Royals have produced two Hall of Famers this century and traded them both. You can’t build a rule set based on David Glass being cheap.

“Can’t” is just bootlicking. The image of a class of baseball teams treating the rest of the league like a farm system was far more true in the 1950s than it is in the 2020s. If a small-city team comes up with a generational talent, it can keep that talent, as is evident above. When it doesn’t do so, as the Royals repeatedly chose under Glass, as the Reds and Pirates have done in recent years, that says far more about the owner and the management team than it does the “system.”