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Categorizing the stunning free-agent deals

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I don't know why we act so surprised by free-agent contracts every winter. Salaries are increasing, forever and ever, a big ol' money spiral into the sky. I remember being aghast at Carl Pavano's contract with the Yankees. It was a joke, an absolute joke. It was four years, $38 million for a 28-year-old pitcher coming off a 222-inning, 3.00 ERA, 137 ERA+, sixth-place Cy Young finish. It was downright reasonable by today's standards.

That was just eight years ago. Today Ubaldo Jimenez wouldn't wipe his nose with that contract, and Pavano was coming off a better year. In 2021, the equivalent of Jason Vargas is going to sign a nine-figure deal, and the Twitter outrage won't last for an hour.

But that doesn't mean we can't look at contracts today and shudder. It's the cycle of life. Every winter, every offseason, we go through this. The Royals gave four years to Vargas. The Cardinals gave four years and $52 million to Jhonny Peralta, who was suspended for steroids just a few months ago. Presumably, he won't have those anymore, and they probably made him better than he already was. He might show up in the spring looking like a hungover DJ Qualls. The Cards will take that chance.

It's time to classify the spit-take contracts, then. If Peralta's deal didn't make you spit out your drink, it at least made you mouth "wow." Same thing goes for Vargas, or even Brian McCann. Ervin Santana's contract is going to make you giggle, unless your team is the one that signs him. Let's look at which categories the signing teams fall under.

Our time is running out

Example: Brian McCann and the Yankees

There is absolutely nothing else the Yankees can do. They have to sign free agents for market value. They don't have a stable of major-league-ready prospects to promote, and they don't have a stable of tradable hotshots, either. Everyone on the roster, other than Brett Gardner, is about 50, give or take. But they still won 85 games last year. If they want to get better in 2014, they have to plug their nose for 2018 and figure it out later.

McCann's deal isn't that shocking, to be honest. But he's still a 30-year-old catcher. Sometimes catchers age like Jorge Posada, and sometimes they age like normal catchers. The Yankees can't worry about that. McCann helps them win more than Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli now. That's all that counts.

If the Phillies made a seemingly stupid decision to overpay someone this offseason, they'd qualify under this heading, too. There aren't a ton of palatable options for them other than to throw money at win-now players.

Oodles of young players and tiny contracts

Example: Jhonny Peralta and the Cradinals

Here be Cardinals. But it could apply to the Mariners and Astros, too. One of the biggest reasons baseball has the parity it does without a salary cap is because young players are drastically underpaid relative to their market value. Mike Trout would be a billionaire on the open market. Jose Fernandez would be right behind him.

The Cardinals have Matt Adams, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, and 73 different young pitchers, with Oscar Taveras coming up soon. But they didn't have a shortstop. Rather than risk losing one of the only good shortstops on the market, they guaranteed him a lot of money. Just a ton of clams. And there's no way Peralta is going to be good by the end of the deal. The Cardinals don't care.

The Mariners are going to do this, too. They're going to sign someone to a silly contract, but it'll make sense in context.

Please take us seriously

Example: Jayson Werth and the Nationals

The Nationals were a joke when they signed Werth. They were the Expos without the stability. But they wanted a name-brand player. Werth and his agent were probably skeptical. So they had to pay more. The Giants did this with Barry Zito, and the Royals did it on a smaller scale with Jeremy Guthrie.

Put it this way: If the Astros really wanted to bring Carlos Beltran back, they would need to offer more than the Cardinals. It's probably exciting for a player to imagine himself as a part of the team that turns an organization around. It's probably much, much easier to imagine joining a good team and making it better. For the same money, which one would you choose? So the bad teams have to pay more.


Example: The Giants and everyone on their championship teams

It takes 3.2 seconds for spoiled fans to turn on playoff heroes. Aubrey Huff was a hero in 2010, propelling a team that had never won a championship in their current city. In 2011, he was awful and blocking a prospect. And 3.2 seconds later, he was the worst thing that had ever happened to the franchise.

But that doesn't stop teams from keeping the band together. The Yankees did it year after year after year, losing only Andy Pettitte to the Astros before snatching him back up. Even if it wasn't a good idea to bring Bernie Williams back one more time, the Yankees did it.

Awful morons doing awful things

Example: Gary Matthews, Jr. and the Angels

This is, surprisingly, a small category. These are the match-ups that look awful right away. Not even by the normal standards of surprise contracts. Just an instant, obvious, "Nope, that isn't going to work."

I wasn't wild about the Adrian Beltre contract with the Rangers, but that's been one of the best free-agent deals of the past decade. Same goes for Matt Holliday. But those weren't really awful deals at the time. They were good players going for surprising rates.

Carlos Silva and the Mariners would be one. Gil Meche and the Royals would be another, though that's cross-pollinated with the Please Take Us Seriously category. And the Meche contract looked good for a couple years, even.

The weird thing is, though, that other than the last category, you can argue in favor of most of these stupid contracts. They don't make sense except for most of the time. That's why they keep ticking upward and onward, eventually leading, in 50 years, to Isaiah Kershaw, Jr. becoming the first billion-dollar player.

Or Mike Trout in four years. Boy, I hope my team is the one that gives him that awful contract. It'll make sense at the time.

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