Anyone who has ever done a few fantasy baseball drafts with me, or who ever read my analysis when I was a fantasy baseball analyst, knows that there are certain players who I absolutely love. In fact, I just completed a draft in which I couldn’t pass up my boy Chad Billingsley, even if it meant missing out on one of my favorite middle round outfielders this year in Jason Kubel.
If I made a lineup of my favorite fantasy baseball players, my starting catcher would be easy: Joe Mauer. From the time Mauer broke in to the league until 2008, when I decided I didn’t want to spend a top 3 round pick to get him, I had Joe Mauer on every team. Literally, every team. If you wanted him from me, you were drafting him two rounds early, because I was taking him at least one round early. So when I saw that Mauer finalized a deal with the Twins, giving him an eight year, $184 M extension, I was happy for the starting catcher on my favorite fake baseball team: The Kick Their Pujols All-Stars.
Then I got to thinking about the Pirates, and whether such a deal could eventually be possible for my favorite real team. I probably started thinking this because pretty much every Pirates fan was asking “why can’t we ever sign someone to a deal like that”. My first thought was that the Pirates have no one who they could sign to a deal like that.
Mauer is a special case. He’s a star player, and he’s just entering his peak years. Had the Twins failed to sign him, he would have entered free agency at the age of 27, going on 28. He’s been an MVP candidate in three of the last four years, winning the award last year. He’s a Gold Glover and a Silver Slugger at a hard position to fill. You could easily argue that Mauer is the best catcher in the game. Also, with his eight year deal, he’s covered through the age of 35, and it’s likely that he’ll be hitting at that age. He may not be catching much, if at all, but with Minnesota being in the AL, he could move to the DH role for the final years of the deal. Mauer is also a local boy, born in St. Paul, MN, which means the Twins are going to see a ton of revenue from this deal.
The only person I can think of that the Pirates have had like this in recent years was Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez would have been a free agent after the 2005 season, at the age of 27. He didn’t completely do this with the Pirates, but with the Cubs he broke out in 2004 and 2005, becoming a .300/30 HR guy. He’s been an MVP candidate four times since the 2003 trade. I wouldn’t put Jason Bay in this category, simply because Bay was a free agent at the age of 31. You don’t give a guy like Bay a mega-deal, unless you’re a big market team like the Mets and can afford some ugly years when Bay is 34-35 and can’t play defense at all.
Looking forward, I don’t see Pedro Alvarez signing this type of deal, even if he becomes like Mauer. Alvarez is a Scott Boras client, and Boras doesn’t do these types of deals. If Alvarez keeps Boras, he will hit the market the second he’s eligible to, and will sign sometime during the Winter meetings that year, when Boras can play all of the competing general managers against each other, looking for the highest bid.
The best bet going forward would be Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen will be 29 when he is scheduled to hit free agency, and he’s athletic enough that he should be productive both offensively and defensively well in to his 30s. Now a contract like Mauer’s deal is rare, mostly because Mauer is a rare player, but could we expect something big for McCutchen? Maybe a 6 year/$100 M deal like Carlos Lee received in 2008. Or perhaps another page out of the Twins book, with a 6 year/$80 M deal like Justin Morneau received, buying out the final two arbitration years, plus four free agent years at $14 M each.
The reason the Pirates haven’t signed anyone to a big deal like this is because there’s no one to sign. Outside of Ramirez, who was traded away to balance the debt ratio, the only person worth big money would have been Bay, but as I said before, his contract would have hurt in a few years, and a bad contract isn’t something the Pirates need with McCutchen and Alvarez entering their arbitration years.
It also helps the Twins that they’re winning, and drawing over 2 M fans a year. The Pirates are doing neither, which is why a big deal makes no sense at the moment. However, down the line it might make more sense, especially if Andrew McCutchen develops in to a star player, and one of the best center fielders in the game. At that point, the Pirates would need to follow the Twins model and extend McCutchen. It’s not often you get a star center fielder who is free agent eligible at the age of 29, right in his prime. The Pirates can’t afford to let McCutchen sniff the market if that turns out to be the case for him.