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Phil Hughes and the art of the three-year deal

Al Bello

There have been pay-for-presumed-talent deals before. The Dodgers gave Darren Dreifort a five-year, $55 million contract because he was always juuuuust about to turn the corner. The Royals did the same thing for Gil Meche, and the deal worked out for a little while. And when it didn't, Meche retired, saving the Royals approximately $22 million.

That was, no hyperbole, one of the best moves the Royals made in the last two decades. There will be a big pre-game ceremony in 2027 to honor it.

So it's not weird that Phil Hughes got three years, even though his résumé includes one outstanding season as a setup man, two okay years as a starter, and two years of absolute dreck. The good times were good, and the great stuff was great. That gets you three years in this market, and it's not a bad deal, considering.

But RIVAL EXEC had some questions. From Ken Rosenthal's fascinating column of burning questions:

If Hughes had taken one year and put together a big season, he likely would have received a qualifying offer next offseason and then could have made about the same amount over two years as he will receive over three.

So, one exec asked, what is the problem? Does Hughes not believe himself? Is he concerned about getting hurt?

I think it's even worse than that. If Hughes had a good year -- not great, but good -- he would have made scores of millions. Consider Ricky Nolasco. Last offseason, the Marlins couldn't move Nolasco because he made $11.5 million. That was too much money for a pitcher who had spent the last four seasons being pretty lousy. Now he's making that much in each of the next four years. I'm sure that'll work out fine for the Twins, don't get me wrong.

This isn't about Nolasco, though. It's to point out that if it takes one good year to forget what Nolasco (or Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez) did before, there's no telling what Hughes could have got for a good 2014. Considering his relative youth? He'd zip by that Dreifort contract, easily.

Instead, he went for three years and $24 million. That's expensive enough to make a medium-market team work around it if it doesn't work out. But it's not crippling in a worst-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, it's an absolute coup, an ace for regular-guy prices.

From Hughes's perspective, it's pretty sweet, too. In the worst-case scenario, he makes $24 million. In the best-case scenario, he makes $24 million. After taxes and agents, he still makes a lot of money. Good for him.

That's the thing. How can you nitpick a guy who's getting $24 million guaranteed? We've all watched fools on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? risk guaranteed money to get stiffed on a question about the Tudor dynasty. And pitchers' shoulders are like the Tudor dynasty questions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of baseball. You think you're good, and suddenly you're knee-deep in torn labrums or Princes Rhys ap Tewdwr. So go for the guaranteed money. Every danged time, you fools.

Except professional baseball players at the highest level are supposed to be cocky. Mark Appel didn't get a deal he liked, so he risked guaranteed millions to pitch another year at Stanford so he could get more guaranteed millions. And it worked. I'm sure David Price has rebuffed all sorts of creative offers over the years, starting from the moment he arrived in the majors. He'll probably come out millions and millions and millions ahead because of his confidence and willingness to take a risk.

Me? I'm Evan Longoria. I'm Madison Bumgarner. I look at the offer on the table, and I weigh the miserableness of the worst-case scenario vs. the pretty-awesomeness of the current offer vs. extreme-awesomeness of the best-case scenario, and I go with the guaranteed money every time. Keep that in mind, Maxim, when you're making me an offer. I would be terrified of becoming the Matt Harrington of writing. Always low-ball me.

It seems impossible to ignore the safe play from Hughes, though. Even though we know that pitching is a hazardous occupation, even though we know that any pitcher with millions on the table can turn into a cautionary tale with one pitch. I'm with RIVAL EXEC, even if I shouldn't be. When I saw the Hughes contract, that was my first thought, too. Goin' for the money grab while it's offered, eh? Guess you know something we don't.

The reality is that CAA Sports likely phrased "You haven't been very good at Major League Baseball yet" to Hughes in a gentle way, and a three-year deal seemed like a decent midpoint. If Hughes has that confidence we were talking about earlier, he knows he'll be a free agent at 30, when pitchers still get paid quite a bit.

It's the play I'd make. It's also the play that would make me nervous if it were attached to my team. Phil Hughes is going the safe route, for now, and it's something I understand as a human, and something that would freak me out if I were a Twins fan. What does he fear? What does he know? What is he hiding?

That's unfair. So unfair. Even if pitcher things happen to him, they're probably just a result of him being a pitcher. This shouldn't be that unusual. But it is. When a pitcher takes the sure thing, it sticks out. On the surface, the Hughes deal is a decent gamble for the Twins. It's unquestionably something that will benefit Hughes financially, regardless of what happens next. I'm a weak man, though. And it makes me wonder.

I'm just glad that Rosenthal found someone to express what I was thinking. Even if it's probably wrong.

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