It's hard to explain how shocking the Kevin Brown deal was in 1999. The Dodgers signed the right-hander to a seven-year, $105 million contract, and the baseball world collectively fainted. The contract included a chartered jet for Brown's family 12 times a year, which seemed unreasonably decadent. Baseball was dying. From a pulse-taking column of the time:
And to many, the embodiment of a sport spinning off its axis will come tomorrow, when Brown and (Randy) Johnson square off at Dodger Stadium in a matchup drawing more interest for its financial ramifications than its pitching intrigue.
From his home in Palm Springs, Calif., retired general manager Al Rosen declares that Armageddon has finally been reached. "It seems at this point, we're out of control," he said.
Johnson got a tidge more than what Ricky Nolasco signed for this offseason. This was, again, 15 years ago. Derek Jeter was already a veteran, give or take. The Internet was around, cell phones … it wasn't that different of a world. Even after adjusting for inflation, the hubbub about those contracts seems quaint.
Which brings us to Homer Bailey, who joined the list of $100 million players with his six-year, $105 million contract on Wednesday. This deal evoked mild surprise in some circles, perhaps gentle scoffing in others. But there hasn't been anything like the Kevin Brown freakout.
As a reminder, though, Homer Bailey isn't exactly a superstar. A handy table, using language Reds fans can understand:
|All-Star Games||Top-5 Cy Young finishes|
|Combined murder victims of Mr. Redlegs||0||0|
I don't know if there's a perfect comparison for Bailey, but Harang does well. Both were big fellers with power breaking balls and strikeout stuff. In Harang's first two seasons with 200 innings with the Reds, he posted ERA+ of 112 and 123; Bailey was at 112 and 110 these past two seasons.
"Basically Aaron Harang" is not usually in any of the binders passed out by Scott Boras, so let's look at what we can learn from the Bailey deal.
Someone would have given Bailey more
That's why the Reds were acting proactively. Another good season from Bailey, or, gulp, his first great season, would have pushed his asking price through the roof. If Bailey finished this season with similar numbers, and without the same question marks that Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez came with, he was going to make money. A lot of money. The free-agent market next year for pitchers is basically James Shields and Max Scherzer, and you know the Tigers are working feverishly to take the latter guy off the market.
Retro Homer Bailey
Retro Homer Bailey
The choice was to pay Bailey like a consistently productive pitcher now, pay him like an ace when he put together his third consecutive productive season, or miss out entirely.
Teams still pay for former-prospect sheen
If Homer Bailey were Triples Gunderson, Triple-A journeyman who emerged suddenly in his mid-20s, there's no way he would get six years. This is the Gil Meche Effect, though you can call it the Darren Dreifort Ultimatum or the Jaret Wright Paradox. It's impossible to separate Bailey, Future Ace from Bailey, Reliable Pitcher.
Because he could really, really get good one of these years. He has the potential, you know. This coulllld be the year.
That's not the only thing the Reds are paying for, exactly. But it cost them a little extra. This coulllllllllld be the year, you know.
$100 million contracts aren't a big deal anymore
The asking price for a good-not-great pitcher is about $16 million per year, as we learned with the A.J. Burnett deal. If you're looking for Aaron Harangs, expect to pay around $16 million per year. You can shave some annual salary off if you're willing to give extra years in some cases, as with Nolasco.
When it comes to healthier pitchers, like Bailey, though? Nine figures. That's the big blind. We expressed surprise at the Freddie Freeman deal because of the size. This is even more stunning. It probably shouldn't be. It's the price of business.
No, really, we're about at the peak of the bubble
I'm going to sound like the folks from 1999, but there's no way around it. Adjust for inflation, and take the massive cable deals into account. Factor in the health of the sport, the Internet money, and the new ballparks around the league. But there's no way we're sitting here in 2029, exclaiming that it's perfectly reasonable for good-not-great pitchers to get $230 million. Salaries ramped up mighty quickly because for decades, players were not getting equitable compensation, at least compared to the sport's revenues. They should plateau at some point, though.
Maybe not. But I have a feeling that in a decade or so, $105 million will still buy you something a lot closer to Homer Bailey in his prime than anything else. In 1999, it bought you an ace. In 2014, it bought you a good-not-great pitcher. In 2029, it'll still buy you more than a generic arm.
There's no way to know that, and that might look as silly as the baseball-is-doomed quotes from '99. But there's a chance we're going to remember the Homer Bailey contract as the first of several to follow. He's the official "good, not great, hardly an ace, but he could be, and someone was going to pay him, so why not us?" pitcher archetype.