Shin-Soo Choo & the history of 7-year contracts

Will Shin-Soo Choo live up to his seven-year contract? History suggests that he probably won't. - Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Salaries are not the only things that have grown in recent years; contract lengths have increased along with them. How has that worked out?

This winter, three Major League Baseball players have signed contracts of at least seven years. Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo have each shown that the current going rate for top free-agent talent is not measured solely in dollars, but in length of commitment as well. However, this has not always been the case; the seven- or 10-year deal on the open market is a relatively new phenomenon, and it's not a trend that has proven beneficial to teams overall.

Let's begin by gauging what kind of player gets a mega-contract today. Cano is likely on a Hall of Fame track; through his age-30 season in 2013, he has been worth 41.2 aWins+, which is a stat that I just created by averaging FanGraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference WAR (basically like Rob Neyer's Wins+, but averaged to make it easier to relate to the number). Ellsbury is a very good player, but has only been worth 22.4 aWins+ through age 29, and has had only three individual seasons in which he was worth at least three wins.

Choo is similar to Ellsbury; a good player, but only 24.6 aWins+ through age 30, and only four individual seasons which exceeded three aWins+. In other words, in today's market, seven years gets you a good player who won't be the best weapon on a contending team, and it takes ten years to lock up a potential Hall of Famer. And that's only considering guys who have already entered their thirties and are more likely to decline than improve.

How did we get to this point? When did good-but-not-great players start getting mammoth seven-year free agent commitments from teams? Here's a brief history of super-long mega-deals.

Free agency as we know it began in the mid-1970s, when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally beat the reserve clause in court. The Cleveland Indians were the first to experiment with a mega-contract when they signed pitcher Wayne Garland to a 10-year, $2.3 million deal. Garland was coming off a huge age-25 season, in which he'd gone 20-7 with a 2.67 ERA; he would never again come close to replicating those numbers, and he was waived halfway through his contract, ending his MLB career.

Cleveland's mistake with Garland must have served as a cautionary tale around baseball, because there were not many super-long-term contracts for the next 20 years. Dave Winfield famously signed a 10-year deal with the Yankees for over $20 million, but it is arguable how good of a move that was for New York; Winfield was productive with the bat, but his poor defense dragged down his value, the team made the playoffs only once while he wore pinstripes and his tenure was marred by the petty antics of owner George Steinbrenner. When Winfield signed his deal, he was somewhere between where Cano and Choo are now; a consistently productive player signed after his age-28 season. He wasn't as all-around productive as Cano, but he was a bit younger when he signed and he eventually turned in a Hall of Fame career. The end result wasn't amazing, but it wasn't terrible either.

Alan Trammell (1981-87) and Jim Rice (1979-86) also received seven-year deals around the time that Winfield signed with New York, but both of those players were youngsters who were not yet eligible for free agency. Trammell was 23 when his deal kicked in, and Rice was 26; they were the modern-day equivalents of young stars signing away their arbitration years and their first few years of free agency, sort of like Dustin Pedroia's first extension with Boston prior to the 2009 season. In other words, the Tigers and Red Sox were simply gambling that their young stars would continue to develop and produce as they hit their primes, which is generally a good gamble, as opposed to signing aging free agents and hoping that their production will extend into their late-thirties. For this reason, Trammell and Rice are not particularly relevant to this discussion.

There don't appear to have been any other seven-year contracts in the '80s or early-'90s. It only took six years to lock up Mike Schmidt into his late-thirties even though he was already a borderline Hall of Famer after his age-31 season. Eddie Murray became the highest-paid player in the game in 1985, but it took only five years to sign him entering his age-29 season despite the gargantuan numbers that he'd posted in his first eight seasons. George Brett never got more than five years at a time, and neither did Hall of Famer Gary Carter or two-time MVP Dale Murphy.

Moving into the 90s, it took only four years to make 31-year-old Rickey Henderson the highest-paid player in baseball entering 1990, only five years to do the same for a 32-year-old Cal Ripken entering 1993 and only six years for a 28-year-old Barry Bonds that same winter, despite the fact that Bonds was coming off two MVP awards in his previous three seasons. In between, Hall of Very Good stars such as Will Clark, Don Mattingly and Jose Canseco, as well as eventual Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, required only four- or five-year deals to break annual salary records.

Baseball didn't see another seven-year deal until the 1998-99 offseason. Stars such as Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and Albert Belle had continued the inflation of contract lengths, but Mike Piazza was the first since Winfield in 1980 to ink a seven-year free-agent pact. The following table includes all seven-year deals which have either been completed, or which will conclude after the 2014 season, starting with Piazza:

Player

Contract Length

Age in first season of deal

Career aWins+ pre-deal

aWins+ during life of contract

aWins+ per season of contract

Seasons of 5+ aWins+ during contract

Mike Piazza

7

30 (1999)

38.4

20.6

2.9

1

Kevin Brown

7

34 (1999)

47.25

23.9

3.4

3

Ken Griffey Jr

9

30 (2000)

69.5

11.6

1.3

1

Mike Hampton

8

28 (2001)

16.1

6.0

0.7

0

Alex Rodriguez

10

25 (2001)

36.5

70.6

7.1

7

Manny Ramirez

8

29 (2001)

30.3

34.9

4.4

3

Derek Jeter

10

27 (2001)

25.6

43.8

4.4

2

Jason Giambi

7

31 (2002)

28.8

21.5

2.7

1

Todd Helton

9

29 (2003)

27.7

31.4

3.5

2

Carlos Beltran

7

28 (2005)

28.9

31.1

4.4

3

Barry Zito

7

29 (2007)

27.9

4.5

0.6

0

Alfonso Soriano

8

31 (2007)

19.2

15 (1 yr left)

2.1

1

Vernon Wells

7

29 (2008)

21

5.8 (1 yr left)

1.0

0

What lessons can be learned from the results of these long contracts? First off, never give one to a pitcher. Second, try to target players who are still in their mid-to-late twenties in order to capitalize on a few prime seasons rather than just the decline phase of the thirties. Third, don't expect too many elite seasons from the newly-signed player.

That last part is the rub. The conventional wisdom is that a team might be willing to put up with a couple of dead years at the end of a long-term contract in order to get elite production from an established star at the beginning of it. However, the players in the above table were signed for a total of 104 seasons, and yet they contributed only 24 total seasons of five or more aWins+ (granted, there were a few seasons which just missed that arbitrary cutoff, but even lowering the bar to 4.5 aWins+ wouldn't push the tally past 30 or 35 total seasons). That is an average of only about two truly great seasons per seven-year contract; or, put another way, only Alex Rodriguez, in his initial 10-year deal with the Rangers/Yankees, rewarded his team(s) with more than three elite seasons; only Beltran, Manny, Brown and maybe Jeter (if you lower the bar just slightly) even contributed three truly great seasons apiece. That seems like an extremely low success rate given the magnitude of the deals. Shouldn't teams expect greater returns on their very biggest investments, or at least a greater chance at a big return?

What about the current mega-deals in the game today? C.C. Sabathia has made good on his deal so far, with two elite seasons, two more really good ones, and a World Series title, so the Yankees are probably still justified in their spending even if he continues to fall off in the last couple years of his contract. Matt Holliday has been productive and has been to a pair of World Series in the first four years of his deal, and Mark Teixeira may have earned his keep with four good seasons and a ring. But Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are already looking like albatrosses; Joe Mauer has been productive, but is now switching to a less premium defensive position; Jayson Werth hasn't yet lived up to his contract, although he was quite good in 2013, the third season of his deal; Albert Pujols already looks like a disaster of injury and decline; and A-Rod has been far less valuable on his second 10-year deal than he was on his first (great in 2008, followed by a steady decline and culminating in his current issues with injury, age and drugs). The other current long-term pacts are too fresh to judge yet.

The seven-year free agent contract is a relatively new trend in baseball which has only come about on a large scale in the last 15 years. It does not appear to be a very good trend, at least not for teams who want to maximize the value they get for their money; more often than not, these gambles end in disappointment. Furthermore, they are being given to good-but-not-great players like Zito, Wells, Crawford and Werth, and now Ellsbury and Choo, with increasing frequency. With the possible exception of a special case like a 25-year-old A-Rod or a 26-year-old Mike Trout, teams would probably be best served sticking to four- or five-year deals, even for the top players on the market. History does not look kindly on those who exceed that threshold.

(Edit: Two contracts were left out. Dave Stieb signed an 11-year deal with the Blue Jays prior to 1985, his age-27 season. He was good for the first six years and accrued 20.7 aWins+, but that was still a step down from the 29.8 aWins+ he racked up in the six years before the contract. He was essentially finished after 1990, though, and provided almost no value in 178 innings over the final five years of the deal. Mike Torrez signed a seven-year pact as a 31-year-old with the Red Sox in 1978 and posted a 91 ERA+ over the life of the deal while accruing just 10.5 aWins+. So, the conclusions remain the same -- don't sign pitchers for longer than six years, if even that long, and don't sign players over the age of 30 to seven-year contracts.)

More from SB Nation MLB:

Choo, Rangers agree on 7-year deal | What this means to Texas’ lineup

2013-14 MLB free agent tracker | Balfour deal with O’s falls apart

The best free agents remaining by position

Masahiro Tanaka posting decision in "3-5 days"

Predicting the next time the Yankees will be awful

Death of a Ballplayer: Wrongly convicted prospect spends 27 years in prison

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