MLB's team-friendliest contracts: Why $215 million for Clayton Kershaw is a steal

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8180/" data-ylk="slk:Clayton Kershaw">Clayton Kershaw</a> is making $215 million on his current contract and it’s still a steal for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)
Clayton Kershaw is making $215 million on his current contract and it’s still a steal for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)

Mathematically speaking, there’s a fairly simple way to come up with a list of the team-friendliest contracts. Essentially, we’re merely looking for the highest ratios of dollars to wins. Our dollars are represented by player contracts, and for wins we use Wins Above Replacement as our proxy, with a win being worth around $8 million last year. Sure, there’s room for judgment. Dollars mean different things to different organizations, and Wins Above Replacement and standard methods for projecting performance over some years are imprecise tools.

But usually the numbers are the best place to start. What follows is a list of the 10 team-friendliest contracts in the major leagues. That is, long-term contracts. The friendliest contracts are probably those of players like Francisco Lindor, a superstar talent still earning the major-league minimum salary, which this year is slightly south of $600,000. Basically the Indians are getting a superstar for roughly nothing, with zero long-term risk.

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Of course, if the Indians don’t somehow get Lindor signed to a multiyear contract, he’s highly likely to garner some massive raises when he’s first arbitration-eligible in 2019, and then especially in 2022 when he’s eligible for free agency. Most of the contracts below achieve two important team goals: provide financial certainty, and forestall free agency for a relatively low cost.

Anthony Rizzo: There’s no shortage of candidates, but acquiring Rizzo might be the best move Cubs president Theo Epstein has ever made. Initially drafted by the Red Sox when Epstein was still in Boston, Rizzo was a big part of the 2010 trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston from San Diego. But just two years later, Rizzo seemed to have been considered expendable by the Padres. Perhaps because he’d batted just .141 in his first major-league season. Whatever the reason, Epstein pounced, essentially trading pitcher Andrew Cashner for Rizzo.

Since then, Rizzo’s been a three-time All-Star and twice finished fourth in MVP balloting. Cashner has not.

Shortly into Rizzo’s second season with the Cubs — and it wouldn’t wind up being a great season — he signed a seven-year, $41 million contract guaranteed through 2019, with the Cubs holding options for 2020 and ’21 at $14.5 million apiece. If the Cubs exercise those options — and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, absent catastrophic injury — they’ll wind up buying out three seasons of Rizzo’s potential free agency for $40 million, or something like $35 million less than they would have to spend on a similarly tremendous hitter on the open market.

Christian Yelich: Yelich is a younger, slightly better-paid Rizzo who plays outfield. Both are working on guaranteed seven-year deals, with Rizzo’s average-annual value (AAV) around $6 million, Yelich’s around $7 million.

Like Rizzo’s, Yelich’s contract includes a team-friendly option: $15 million for an eighth contract year, which would carry him through his Age 30 season, which might also represent the latter stage of his prime. Locking up an outstanding major leaguer for eight years (including the option) for just $65 million? It hardly gets any better than that.

Clayton Kershaw: Kershaw is unique among the players on this list, because he already earns a (relatively) hefty salary: nearly $36 million this year alone, with more of the same from 2018 through ’20. Which makes his marginal value all the more impressive, because even at $36 million per season, Kershaw is a huge bargain, his performance actually worth somewhere around $60 million per season, assuming he remains reasonably healthy. And, yes, $215 million is an awful lot of money. But don’t worry: The Dodgers can afford it.

Kevin Kiermaier: Tack on a $13 million club option in 2023, and the Rays can lock up Kiermaier all the way through his Age 33 season. Now, you might be surprised to find Kiermaier, nobody’s idea of an MVP candidate, so high on this list. But even with the rise of the analytics cool kids, defensive value remains undervalued in both the market and the wider world. And Kiermaier is among the greatest defensive outfielders of this era.

Or has been, anyway. Kiermaier is not a good hitter, with most of his value tied to his fielding prowess. So while his contract can hardly be called risky — there just aren’t enough dollars involved — one might prefer him slightly younger, and slightly less reliant on his Gold Glove defense. By the end of this deal, Kiermaier might actually have trouble justifying his everyday presence in the lineup. But by then, he’ll have given the Rays a huge bang for their bucks.

Chris Sale: Sale actually signed his current deal just before the 2013 season with the Chicago White Sox, so this season is actually the last guaranteed season. But at only $12 million, he’s a huge bargain for the Red Sox, who traded for him last winter, plus they’ve got options for both 2018 and ’19, totaling $27.5 million. Which still figure as tremendous bargains, considering Sale has been an All-Star and finished no worse than sixth in Cy Young balloting in each of the last five seasons.

Madison Bumgarner: Bumgarner might have ranked a slot or two higher on this list, if not for his, umm, recent unfortunate off-day accident that’s reportedly going to keep him on the shelf for the next six-to-eight weeks. But assuming he does come back strong, the Giants will rush to exercise their options for 2018 and ’19. Bumgarner, one of the two or three best (non-Kershaw) pitchers in the National League, will remain a huge bargain at $12 million per season.

Rougned Odor: Is Odor a tremendous player? Nope! But at 23, he might yet become one. But here’s the thing: He doesn’t have to improve much at all to be a tremendous bargain for the Rangers. This season he’s earning just $1 million, even though he’s been an everyday player since he was 20. Odor’s guaranteed deal takes him through his Age 28 season and the Rangers have an option for one more season (2023) at a team-friendly figure of $13.5 million. Assuming the club exercises that option and the contract then expires, the Rangers will have retained Odor’s services for nearly 10 full seasons, and received an immense amount of value if his career follows a fairly regular path. But that, it should be said, goes for everyone.

Carlos Martinez: Pitchers are risky! But Martinez totaled 60 starts over the past two seasons, and seems as healthy as just about anybody else out there. This is the first year of his new contract, which buys out two years of free agency. While his salary this season is a relatively modest $4.5 million, it jumps to $11.5 million in each of the next four years , with $17 million and $18 million club options.

Andrelton Simmons: Like Sale, Simmons signed his contract while with another team; in his case, the Atlanta Braves. Like Kiermaier, Simmons’ glove is what makes him worth the long-term investment, but also makes the investment slightly riskier. Players peak as fielders earlier than they peak as hitters. That said, Simmons still projects as an outstanding shortstop at 30 when his contract expires in 2020.

Paul Goldschmidt: In 2013, Goldschmidt earned only $500,000 while leading the league in homers and RBI, and finishing second in the MVP race. In 2014, when his current deal kicked in, he missed the last two months of the season with a broken hand, but not before playing in the All-Star Game. Goldschmidt bounced back to play in almost every D-backs game in both 2015 and 2016, and he’ll still earn only $20 million combined in 2017 and 2018. And the club’s got a $14.5 million option in 2019, which would carry Goldschmidt through his Age 31 season.

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