Baseball rarely attracts the interest of the mainstream sports media in the UK, but the news of Giancarlo Stanton’s $325m contract with the Miami Marlins has certainly captured its attention. The largest contract in US professional sport to secure Stanton’s services for another 13 years is extraordinary, but is it a good deal? What are Miami getting for their money and will it help them stake a claim for the NHL title?
Stanton, alongside other hitting prodigies Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, are seen as the new forces in the league. However, in the publicity stakes Stanton is some way behind the other two. In terms of production he is up there with the best, and was second in the National League MVP ballot last season. He is also just 25. Other major contracts awarded to star players generally come around their 30th birthdays and when they end, the player is in their late 30s/early 40s and their production is dropping off. Stanton has the right age profile for a deal of this length.
The twist in the tale
The contract has a couple of interesting nuances. Stanton cannot be traded without permission in a salary dump for which the owner of the Marlins, Jeffrey Loria is somewhat known for when things don’t go well. This doesn’t mean that Stanton will be a Marlin for 13 years. Indeed it will be a major surprise if he is. It just means he gets to choose who he goes to, or who he turns down.
The contract is extraordinarily back-loaded. Indeed, Stanton reportedly earns “just” $6.5m next season, $9m in 2016 and $14.5m the following year. Although large numbers to our eyes, these are not top salaries for MLB superstars. The key to this transaction is that there is an option triggered after six years, where the player can choose to walk away from the rest of the contract. Why would he do that?
Well, if baseball economics suit it, and Stanton is a league superstar, believe it or not, he could possibly command a better deal. But Miami have been smart here. It is an awfully big gamble for Stanton to opt out and believe he will better the reported $218m he is due to receive in the last seven years of the deal. More likely is the prospect of the end of the contract being too much for the Marlins to bear and they will seek to trade their man.
How good is Stanton? He doesn’t hit for average, never having topped .300 in his seasons in the league (the bench mark for a very good hitter) but he does hit for power. This means his hits generally result in more production. In a stat which combines the two, called OPS+, he was ranked 5th in Major League Baseball. This is impressive as he plays half his games in Miami’s new park which is not seen as “hitter friendly” (it is hard to hit home runs due to its size). Last year he led the National League with 37 home runs, and this despite missing the last month of the season.
There is an important added ingredient which makes this deal very interesting. Giancarlo Stanton’s 2014 season ended when he was hit in the face by a pitch on 11 September. This was a particularly nasty injury causing facial fractures and major dental damage. While most observers believe this will probably a non-factor, experienced baseball pundits would have liked to see how he reacted in game play to aggressive inside pitching before committing these sums of money.
The Marlins also have an interesting history which needs to be factored in. They have won the World Series twice since their creation as the Florida Marlins in 1993. After both successes the ownership “dumped salary” (getting rid of their most expensive players and replacing them with cheaper, younger players) and the team went from contenders to whipping boys. In 2012 they moved into a brand new ballpark and spent lavishly on the team to try to contend for the title. That team flopped, and was broken up with all the major names, except Stanton, traded away.
Stanton himself was reputed to be upset at this dismantling of the team and thus his signing on for such a long time is seen as a bit of a surprise. What is promising is that Miami have an excellent crop of young players (who are also cheap in terms of salary) and need just a few pieces to contend. The spin being put on Stanton’s back-loading of the salary is that he is giving Miami room to spend on good players in free agency to become a contender.
The deal is a good one for Stanton – he is virtually guaranteed to see all of that money over the next thirteen years – and not as bad as it appears for Miami, who have been parsimonious over the past couple of years (ranking 29th out of 30 in team payroll in MLB). However, if Stanton is not as good as advertised, or experiences lengthy lean spells, this deal is a financial millstone around Miami’s necks. I may be wrong, but I don’t expect Stanton to be a Marlin in 2020 if he is playing anywhere near his capabilities.
My take is that the Marlins have made it very expensive for one of the traditional power-house teams to take Stanton off their hands later down the line. Miami need to contend quickly, or Stanton is likely to become disaffected in a short space of time. That is not easy in a difficult division and with other clubs likely to spend big to improve in 2015. It is something to watch in the next couple of seasons.