A list of the largest contracts in MLB history shows that long-term deals exceeding $100 million tend to work out well for the team far less than most people seem to think. For every Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez deal that proved favorable for the team there are several massive deals that proved unfavorable to varying degrees: Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, Ken Griffey Jr., Kevin Brown, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Carlos Beltran.
Some of those were full-blown busts, some were a mixed bag where ultimately the player was paid significantly more than he was worth, and some simply saw the team overpay for a good player, as the “bad” pretty clearly outnumber the “good” even though in nearly every case the team and its fans were thrilled at the time of the signing. In other words, if given a chance to go back in time more often than not teams would opt against handing out a $100 million deal.
Beyond that, for any talk of Mauer’s contract being so big that it could hinder the Twins’ ability to maintain a quality roster around him it’s important to note that their payroll has been in the $70 million range in recent years. Moving to Target Field has allowed them to push the payroll to around $100 million for 2010 and presumably the near future, in which case the $23 million devoted to Mauer will still leave more money to spend than they had in any previous season.
History says there’s a high likelihood of the Twins living to regret Mauer’s deal, but that would be true at $124 million or $184 million because once you get into that stratosphere remaining healthy and similarly productive is a must for the pact to work out. Whether that’s a sound risk is certainly debatable, particularly for the Twins, but if anyone is worth their taking on the risks associated with a $184 million contract Mauer would seem to be the guy on and off the field.
If nothing else, the folks in Cooperstown can now start engraving a Twins hat on his plaque.
What's typically left out of these discussions (though not necessarily by Gleeman) is the opportunity cost of a huge contract like Mauer's. Sure, they're getting a great player, but you still might wonder what else the Twins might do with $184 million over the next eight seasons. Could they purchase as many wins as they have in Mauer? Probably not ... unless they spent a good chunk of that (now hypothetical) $184 million on international players (an option which might be mooted by the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, if the owners have their way).
There's also a cost -- though impossible to pinpoint -- associated with the lack of flexibility. Organizationally, if you know you've got $184 million to spend over the next eight years, you'd love to just sort of have it sitting there; maybe you'll want to spend $10 million this year, but $30 million next year ... who knows what might come up? But the Twins are locked in; they know exactly where that $184 million is going. And at some point, they might wish some of it wasn't going to Joe Mauer.
What about the costs of not getting Mauer signed?
There's something we might call a "credibility cost," right? If Mauer's not signed, do the Twins sell as many tickets in Years 2 and 3 (and beyond) in the new ballpark? Do they get as much when selling their local TV package?
Of course, I would argue that their credibility will, in the long run, hinge not on who's catching Scott Baker but rather how many games Scott Baker and his teammates are winning. In the short run, we know Joe Mauer helps the Twins win a lot of games. But the bottom line, for me anyway, is that Mauer's contract works for only as long as the Twins are winning. If they're not, he's just another guy playing for a team that nobody wants to watch.
Is this a good deal for the Twins? It's probably a good deal this year, and probably next year. Beyond then, it's up to the men who run the Twins. If they continue to draft and develop real talent, and make the occasional canny trade, Mauer's contract will look like ... well, probably not a steal, because there will probably be a season (or three) in which Mauer's limited by injuries to 120-odd games and just can't put up the numbers of a $24 million player.
But if the front office puts together good teams and the Twins win four or five division titles, any occasional deficiency will be forgiven and forgotten. You think this is the end of the story? For Bill Smith & Co., this is just the beginning. Now's when things really start getting hard.