The greatest free-agent class in history is lined up for next winter, with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado leading the way and expected to cash in at the top of the market with record-setting deals. Baseball executives have speculated that Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, will aim for the first half-billion-dollar deal and will get at least $300 million to $350 million. Machado, actually preferred by other teams because he’s an elite defensive infielder, might make just as much or more.
Measured against that landscape -- against the possible cost for a Harper, a Machado and others -- Giancarlo Stanton must look like a relative bargain to the Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman. The final details of their proposed trade with the Marlins have not been announced, but it appears the Yankees will assume something in the range of $243 million in salary over the next 10 years, probably much less than it will cost for Harper or Machado next winter.
Cashman has been the chief baseball operations officer of the team that has spent the most money, by far, in his nearly 20 years on the job, but he did not inherit George Steinbrenner’s unquenchable thirst for The Big Star’s Big Deal. When Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, Cashman lobbied for ownership to let him go, rather than reinvest in a star already past his 30th birthday. Before that, Cashman did not want to do the deals for Randy Johnson or Gary Sheffield, and more recently, he argued against an extension for CC Sabathia when the lefty had a chance to opt out of his contract in 2012.
Ownership overruled him in those cases, and in recent years, Cashman -- who argued for years for better financial efficiency -- has patiently waited through the end of significant expiring contracts, for Rodriguez, Sabathia and others.
But now he and the Yankees apparently are prepared to assume Stanton’s massive contract, having deemed it a value opportunity in the current market context -- and it’s somewhat surprising that it’s the Yankees, rather than the Dodgers, who have made this happen, given that Stanton completely controlled this process with his no-trade clause and that friends believe his first choice was to land in L.A.
In the aftermath of the ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement, with costs in the amateur draft and international markets now restricted and teams able to spend more freely on their big league rosters, each win above replacement generated by a player is thought to be worth about $8.5 million in value. For a team like the Yankees, with a high-end payroll, it might be worth $10 million.
Last season, Stanton rated a 6.9 WAR, according to Fangraphs -- or worth, loosely, about $56 million to $70 million. He is 28 years old, coming off the best season of his career, and his 2018 team can reasonably expect that he will continue to play at his highest level in the immediate future.
The Miami Herald reported earlier this month that it had been made clear to Stanton that if he wouldn’t accept a trade of the Marlins choosing, the team would be completely stripped around him. If that conversation took place, it was nothing more than a bluff, because the only way the Marlins could unload a significant portion of debt was by dealing the 2017 NL MVP. If the Marlins traded every other guaranteed contract on their roster -- a nearly impossible task, given that Wei-Yin Chen is owed $52 million and Martin Prado about $28 million -- they could dump no more than $153 million. The Marlins were completely boxed in, with only one way to shift debt off their books significantly: by trading Stanton.
Because of Stanton’s ability to steer his trade and the Marlins’ desperation to move Stanton, the Yankees were presented with an opportunity that some in their organization believed to be out of the question as recently as a week ago. Stanton’s contract is backloaded and onerous for the Yankees, but because the acquisition cost in prospects is relatively low for the Yankees and because the Marlins are taking on some salary, the slugger will assume only about 10 to 15 percent of the team’s payroll in the years ahead.
The Dodgers have watched the Stanton trade talks develop and have wondered if they would be presented with a similar opportunity. But Andrew Friedman, L.A.’s president of baseball operations, is viewed by his peers as extremely disciplined, and he has bypassed expensive trades for veterans, instead keeping elite young players like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, and avoiding the very long-term deals. To date, his largest investment has been the five-year, $80 million signing of Kenley Jansen.
The Dodgers really like Stanton and have been well aware of his desire to play for them. But in internal discussions, there has been discomfort with the very back end of his contract -- Years 8, 9 and 10, for which Stanton will be in his late 30s, he will be owed owed about $96 million, presumably in his waning years of production and defense. The Yankees can project ahead and know that Stanton could shift into a DH role, if necessary; the Dodgers do not have that luxury. The access to the DH, in the end, might be why the Yankees jumped at Stanton and the Dodgers did not. During the postseason, Joe Girardi, in his last days as the team’s manager, was asked by a reporter about the old-school ways of the Yankees’ organization, juxtaposed against an industry mostly driven by analytics.
Girardi paused, looked at the questioner and countered that these days the Yankees are steeped in analytics.
Cashman would not make the Stanton trade and assume baseball’s biggest contract if he did not believe it will be greatly exceeded by his value as a player. By moving now, rather than waiting for the more expensive Harper, Machado, et al., he gets a player who may turn out to be a relative bargain for a big-market team like the Yankees.