Posted April 18, 2013

Mets hoping Wright can be their rare star who earns big bucks

David Wright, Hot Stove, New York Mets
David Wright's contract is the richest in Mets history. (Charles LeClaire/US Presswire)

David Wright’s contract is the richest in Mets history. (Charles LeClaire/US Presswire)

Mets fans can be forgiven if they have mixed emotions about David Wright’s new $138 million, eight-year contract. On one hand, there’s surely a sense of joy and relief at having locked up their franchise player for what’s likely to be the remainder of his days as an above-average major leaguer (he’ll be 37 in the final year of the deal). On the other hand, the Mets as an organization have a particularly awful track record when it comes to handing out big contracts, one that spans the last 30 years and seven general managers. Given that, one imagines that any Mets fans with a long enough memory might feel sick to their stomach right now, no matter how badly they wanted their team to retain Wright.

To get a sense of just how poorly the Mets have spent their money over the years, I compiled a list of the richest contracts ever given out by the team. That list includes 23 contracts with a total value of $14 million or more, all but three dating from 1997 to the present, and 10 other contracts of lesser value from prior to 1997 which were nonetheless big money for the time, including two contracts which the Mets traded for less than a third of the way through their duration. That’s a total of 33 big-money contracts prior to Wright’s. The first was the $10 million, five-year extension that George Foster signed upon being traded to New York in 1982, which made him the first Met to cross the million-dollar barrier, and the most recent was the $66 million, four-year contract Jason Bay signed prior to the 2010 season, which the Bay and the Mets recently renegotiated in order to secure his release with a year remaining.

Of those 33 contracts, just nine saw the player signed deliver 10 or more wins above replacement (using Baseball-Reference’s bWAR) for the Mets while playing under the deal in question. To put that in perspective, an All-Star season is usually worth around five wins above replacement, and an MVP- or CY Young-worthy season is usually worth seven or more bWAR. Yet, 24 of the 33 big money contracts the Mets have handed out over the last 30 years have failed to produce just 10 bWAR over multiple seasons.

That doesn’t even include the head-scratching deal the Mets gave Bobby Bonilla when they wanted to release him in January 2000, deferring $5.9 million in such a manner that the team wound up owing him roughly $1.2 million a year for 25 years starting in 2011. The Mets traded for the final two years of Bonilla’s contract after the 1998 season, paid him $5.9 million in 1999, and will now pay him nearly $30 million in deferred salary all for a single season of play in which he was worth a win and a half less than a replacement-level player, the kind you can get for the league minimum.

Amazingly, that Bonilla contract proved to be far worse than the record five-year, $39 million contract they signed him to prior to the 1992 season only to trade him during year four after receiving just 8.9 wins above replacement. Even more amazin’, it is just the second worst financial decision in franchise history, behind only the owners’ decision to invest with Bernie Madoff.

There’s a ton of competition for third place, however. Bay’s deal netted the Mets barely more than one win above replacement, while they spent $25 million to get just shy of one win above replacement from second baseman Luis Castillo from 2008 to 2010. Starting in 2004, New York paid $20 million to get replacement-level play from Japanese import Kazuo Matsui for two and a half years. Prior to the 2002 season, the club made an $18 million commitment to outfielder Roger Cedeño, only to trade him halfway through his four-year deal for a replacement-level infielder after he was worth nearly a win less than replacement in the first two seasons. Reaching further back, the Mets failed to net as much as a half-win above replacement from the three-year extension they gave Ron Darling prior to 1989 or the three-year contract they gave righty Pete Harnisch prior to the 1995 season.

Then there were the players who were disappointments off the field as well as on. New York signed Vice Coleman to a four-year deal worth $12 million prior to the 1991 season, then the most expensive contract in team history, but he only managed 1.7 bWAR in the first three years of the contract, was charged with a felony after injuring fans with a firecracker in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after a game in July 1993 and was traded that winter.

In the spring of 1993, the Mets inked Bret Saberhagen a three-year extension worth $15.38 million, the third-largest deal in team history at that point. Saberhagen had good year in the strike-shortened 1994 season, but his tenure with the team was tainted by an incident soon after the Coleman arrest in which he sprayed bleach at reporters in the clubhouse, and lingers on via 25 annual payments of $250,000 incurred when the team deferred part of the salary in the final year of his deal in order to trade him in 1995.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez pitched well enough in the first two years of the $37 million, three-year deal he signed with the Mets after setting the single-season saves record with the Angels in 2008, but in August 2011 he got into a postgame fight with his father-in-law leading to an arrest and a season-ending thumb injury. Rodriguez, too, would be traded before his contract expired.

Still, not every Mets contract has been a bust or an embarrassment. Despite his disappointing performance in the first year and a knee injury which cost him the equivalent of nearly a full season (158 games per Baseball Prospectus’ injury data), Carlos Beltran’s seven-year, $119 million contract, the first nine-figure deal in franchise history, was a success. Over the length of the deal, Beltran contributed 30.2 wins above replacement, a cost of less than $4 million per win for the Mets (anything south of $5 million per win is a good contract in today’s market), and netted them pitching prospect Zack Wheeler via a trade in the final year. New York also did well with its four-year, $42.5 million deal for Tom Glavine from 2003 to 2006 ($3.4 million per win above replacement) and smaller deals in the late ’90s for corner infielders Robin Ventura (10.3 wins above replacement over three years for $23 million) and John Olerud (16.5 wins above replacement over three years for $14.5 million).

Long-term extensions for fan favorites have also panned out. Prior to the 1985 season, the Mets gave Keith Hernandez a five-year extension for his age-31 to -35 seasons and got strong performances from him in the first four of those seasons before the bottom fell out in year five. Mike Piazza’s decline came quicker in his seven-year, $91 million extension, which kicked in with his age-30 season in 1999, but it was more gradual. That deal cost the Mets $5.17 million per win above replacement, a fair price given Piazza’s importance to the team at the time and the fact that he, like Hernandez, helped them reach the World Series in the second year of that contract. Dwight Gooden’s $15.45 million three-year extension for the 1992 to 1994 seasons didn’t pay off, but the Mets were ignoring some major red flags, both on the field and off, with that one.

Those red flags don’t exist for Wright, who, if he failed to mature into the perennial MVP candidate his age-22 to -25 seasons suggested he would, has nonetheless remained a very productive player and is coming off one his best season since that age-25 campaign in 2008. Wright, a career .301/.381/.506 hitter, will turn 30 in the first year of his extension and has been a team leader, model citizen and the face of the franchise on and off the field. He also is already on the team’s list of financial success stories: the six-year contract he signed in late 2006 saw him earn $54.35 million while delivering 28.8 wins above replacement, which works out to a mere $1.9 million per win.

Wright’s new contract won’t be that cost-effective, but if he produces the same 28.8 wins above replacement over the next eight years that he did over the last six, that’s an average of 3.6 bWAR per season. Wright has surpassed that total five times in the last eight years and would come in under that $5 million per win mark. Wright need not be even that productive to make his new contract a good move for the Mets. Both the team and its fans need a sign of stability, a rock in the lineup and in the clubhouse and a player who can either be built around or be a touchstone for fans if the team should continue to crumble around him. By signing this extension, Wright has taken on that responsibility for the remainder of the decade. He should be up to the task.

– By Cliff Corcoran

5 comments
DaveMargolis1
DaveMargolis1

I agree with the commenters who have posted so far. Mr Corcoran's piece is pointless without a comparison to how other clubs (or an average club) fared when handing out big contracts.

acoustic567
acoustic567 like.author.displayName 1 Like

One other thing -- I'm sure you're right that the Mets have done poorly with long-term contracts, but to really know that we'd have to see how other teams have done. It's always a matter of "compared to what."

acoustic567
acoustic567

Year after year, people trot out the Bonilla deferred-payment business as some sort of stupid catastrophe, but I've never understand why, from an economic perspective, it should be viewed that way. Presumably the deferral arrangement was made in 1999 based on the idea that $5.9 million in 2000 was roughly equal to the total of $30 million that would be paid out over a period of 25 years. The notion that the Mets could make a killing by investing the saved proceeds with Madoff was, of course, silly, but I have no reason to think that it was unreasonable to suppose that, assuming normal long-term interest rates, the real value of $30 million over the 25 years would be in the same ballpark as the $5.9 million in 2000. The downside to the Mets, which everybody focuses on now, was obviously that the contract would continue to cost them *something* for 25 years. The upside, which nobody talks about now, was that reducing their immediate liability enabled them (as Steve Phillips has observed many times) to make some moves for the 2000 season that they might not have otherwise been able to afford. That simply has to be factored into any assessment of the value to the Mets of,the arrangement. The Bonilla deal was dumb, not because of the eventual deferral arrangement, but because they should never have acquired him and obliged themselves to pay $5.9 million for each of two seasons. The deferral arrangement adds little to alter that analysis. And even there one has to remember that the Mets got Bonilla for Mel Rojas, another bad contract -- so it's not like there was no benefit to acquiring him.

M20
M20

Not a bad piece. A few reactions:

 

1) Mets fans mostly aren't feeling too sick because it's nice that for once we might actually have a star who stays with us for his whole career.

 

2) The Bonilla decision probably shouldn't be considered second worst to Madoff because the Bonilla decision was made BECAUSE of their Madoff investments. The (clearly flawed by Investing 101) idea was to take the money they wouldn't pay Bonilla that year, invest it with Madoff, and earn returns that would more than pay for Bonilla's yearly payments and earn a little extra cash to boot. Obviously a stupid idea, but one that would make sense to Fred Wilpon, a man of modest intelligence who lucked into his fortune by buying up properties around the country for tax purposes that then ended up exploding in value during the real estate boom years.

 

3) None of the Mets' prior big contracts were given out by Sandy Alderson. In Sandy we trust.