First Pitch: The Unfortunate Landscape of Professional Sports

I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan, and a Cal Ripken Jr. fan. Because of that, I got to experience something that is extremely rare in sports these days: watching your favorite player play for your favorite team his entire career.

Earlier today, in non-baseball news, LeBron James signed a deal to return to Cleveland. I’m not a basketball fan at all, but it’s pretty impossible to avoid the drama that surrounds LeBron James in free agency. A few years ago he left Cleveland — his hometown and the team that drafted him — to go to Miami and win a championship. Now that he’s won a few titles, James is returning to Cleveland. While there was celebration over this story, I couldn’t help but find the whole situation to be cheap and uninspiring.

The better story would have been James sticking around in Cleveland. It would have involved James trying to win a title in Cleveland. As I said, I don’t follow basketball much, but I can assume it would have been more difficult to win a title in Cleveland, as opposed to joining Chris Bosh in free agency and signing with Miami, to pair up with Dwayne Wade. In one corner, you’ve got a chance to really do something special, by leading your hometown team to a title, and winning your first title with that team. In the other corner, you’re going to a team that is trying to buy a title, and basically checking off the “Win a Championship” accomplishment just like you’d check off an item you picked up from the store.

I don’t find James’ return to Cleveland special, but that’s because I think the better story would have been him staying there all along. I’m saying this as a person who has no vested interest in anything involving the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, or the city of Cleveland. In fact, most of my experience with Cleveland involves this video.

Unfortunately, the LeBron situation represents the landscape of sports. Fans can’t really get attached to players, because 99% of players won’t remain with their teams. You need a very specific set of circumstances for a player to remain with one team his entire career.

1. The player must be good enough to keep around. This is pretty obvious, as no one really focuses on bench players who spend their career with one team. While this is obvious early in the career, it becomes an even bigger issue later in a player’s career. Will the player age and decline, or will he stay productive through the end? Derek Jeter is a prime example of this. He was a valuable player up until last year. The Yankees got about 17 productive years out of him, saw him miss most of the 18th season, and are seeing a less productive version during his final year. It’s easier to keep a guy like that around. It’s harder when the player starts to decline after 8-10 years.

2. If the player is good enough to keep around, you need one of two team situations.

A. The team must have a lot of money, where the only decision is “Do we want to keep [insert good player here] around?” Example: The Yankees and Jeter.

B. The player must leave a lot of money on the table, giving the team a big discount to remain with them for the long haul. Example: The Rays and Evan Longoria. I’d include Ryan Braun or Joey Votto, but I’m not convinced those teams will hold onto those players for the duration of their deals. Just look at the Rockies discussing a Troy Tulowitzki trade right now as an example of how players with a long-term deal can be talked about as on the move.

Disclaimer: I’m only referencing Major League Baseball here. Other sports have salary caps, salary floors, and revenue sharing, which makes it possible for any team to sign an elite player.

The Pirates have a situation like this coming up in a few years. Andrew McCutchen is one of the best players in the game, and he’s currently under control through the 2018 season. He will become a free agent for his age 32 season. He should still receive a huge contract. By comparison, Robinson Cano just received $240 M over ten years at the same age.

The Pirates won’t be able to afford a $240 M contract, or whatever McCutchen could command on the open market. They’re either going to have to let McCutchen walk, or hope he signs a Longoria-type deal and leaves a lot of money on the table.

It takes a rare person to go that route. Going to the Longoria example, he is set to make at least $117.5 M in guaranteed money from 2008-2023. He could have made triple that amount in his career by avoiding extensions. He would have also been playing for another team by now. But the flip side is that Longoria is set for life, instead of being mega set for life. He also has something rare that most players don’t have, which is the ability to say he has played for one team in his career.

I’m not going to say that Andrew McCutchen should do the same as Longoria. That’s his decision to make when the time comes, and he doesn’t really owe any discount to anyone. It’s also a decision the Pirates have to make. There’s no guarantee that McCutchen would even be the option that makes the most sense when his contract is up after the 2018 season. Of course that assumes he’s starting to decline early, while the Pirates have an elite outfield prospect coming up to replace him. The latter doesn’t seem far-fetched.

I will say that McCutchen (or any player who turns down money and easy championships to stay with their original team) has the opportunity for something extremely rare: icon status. This isn’t an unfamiliar situation in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux is the prime example.

The LeBron situation and the McCutchen situation a few years down the line are a sad reminder of the current landscape in sports. When I was growing up, I knew that I could watch my favorite player play for my favorite team throughout his career. Now? That’s an extremely rare thing. Getting attached to a player now is like getting attached to a hit TV show. You’ll probably only get a chance to enjoy it for 5-7 years maximum before it’s gone. If you’re lucky, you might get a few more years of enjoyment as the show gets extended. But you’re not likely to see many players take the “Simpsons” route and stick around forever.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Allie and Hanson Lead a Night of Home Runs; Glasnow Strikes Out Ten

**Minor League Schedule: Two Doubleheaders Slated For Saturday Night

**Pirates Release Yao-Hsun Yang

**Orlando Castro Promoted to Altoona

**It Looks Like the Pirates Have Lost Wei-Chung Wang to the Brewers

**Barrett Barnes Promoted to Bradenton

**Nick Kingham Shows a Strong Changeup in His Continued Success With Indianapolis

**Prospect Highlights: Homers From Tony Sanchez and Gift Ngoepe, Jaff Decker’s Web Gem

**Austin Meadows Finally Heading to West Virginia

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • pilbobuggins

    Sad but true, any more questions from the peanut gallery asking why baseball needs a salary cap?

  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    I actually think it’s a better story that Lebron is going back home. The guy left home to see “the world” and decided that home may be tbe better place for him. I’d think that most people would die to get out of Cleveland.

    • piratemike

      “most people would die to get out of Cleveland”
      Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: 6 months ago when we were discussing whether the Pirates would ever have a $100 mil player, I suggested a 5 year ext plus a 6th year CO with a $6 mil signing bonus for a total of $101 mil. I adjusted that upward a few months later to about $117 mil for a 6 year extension. Here we go again with Revision #3. His current contract is for $7.25 mil in 2014, $10 mil in 2015, $13 mil in 2016, $14 mil in 2017, and a Club Option for $14.5 mil in 2018 – my recommended extension and the age he will be –

    2018 Age 31 $17 mil
    2019 Age 32 $20 mil
    2020 Age 33 $23 mil
    2021 Age 34 $21 mil
    2022 Age 35 $19 mil
    2023 Age 36 $16 mil

    That’s $116 mil, and add a $4 mil Signing Bonus for a grand total of $120 mil. In some contracts, players have opted to have money deferred and payments begin the first year after retirement. ‘Cutch could very well realize the benefit of doing that, so defer $2 mil per year and if he retires after his age 36 season in 2023 he will be paid per year plus interest beginning in 2024 and continuing through 2029. It would help the player and it would help the team manage the payroll. If I was representing ‘Cutch I would ask the club to match the deferred amount and the total proceeds would still be distributed in 6 equal payments after retirement.

    • Dom DiDominic

      Well thought out structure and seems to fit. Not being critical of your numbers, just any contract to McCutchen or any Pirate long term. Dedicating 21 million at age 34 is very reasonable. McCutchen is a better player than Pujols, Cano and even Cabrera could be argued due to defense.

      Even at this team friendly looking deal, compared to those three, would the Pirates want to put that much into one player? With guys like Meadows & Bell on the way that could be had for a fraction.

      In reality, a ‘fair’ contract to a superstar, may be a bad call for both sides. McCutchen could get more elsewhere & Pittsburgh should not commit that much to one guy. Would be hard to find a contract for a position player in mid to late 30’s (exempting PED’s) that is actually a good deal.

      • emjayinTN

        3D: ‘Cutch is the type of kid who was raised by responsible parents who not only come to the games, but Mom sings the National Anthem probably 2 or 3 times a year. I want somebody like that to be the next Pirate to play his whole career in the Pirate organization. He is starting to be a regular 25 to 30 HR guy without giving up the batting average, on base percentage, or footspeed. I fully expect that he will lose a step or two moving into his 30’s, and therefore move from CF to RF at age 31 or 32, but I would not be surprised if his offensive numbers remain in the Top 20 in the NL well into his mid-30’s. He uses the whole field and has found he can hit for power to C, RC, and RF. A hitter like that may slump from time to time, but the down periods do not last long and are usually followed by a considerable breakout.

        One problem I have with long term contracts to players in their 30’s is that the numbers keep increasing instead of taking a bell curve type of journey – up when you are in your prime and then reaching a max at age 33 and then coming back to reality at 34, 35, and 36. And, Neil Walker has earned a long term contract himself. Not as lucrative as ‘Cutch’s, but substantial.

        • piraddict

          Cutch’s market value will exceed what Pittsburgh can support. NYC is what, 7X our size? I just hope he goes to the American League so we only see him in the World Series.

          • emjayinTN

            piraddict: He has played 5 years with the Pirates ending after the 2013 season. During that time he has been paid $6.5 mil in salary and a draft bonus of $1.2 mil for a total of $7.7 mil. His WAR total is 27.0 which equates to a value of $124.5 mil. He is already at a WAR of 4.6 for 2014 which means he has a great opportunity to match or exceed his 8.2 WAR of 2013. IMO, he has an excellent chance of winning a 2nd consecutive MVP Award in 2014. I think he can be signed now if we get serious, recognize his value to the team and Pittsburgh, and sign him for his entire career right now.

            Tim: Great timing for this article, and ‘Cutch responded right on cue

    • freddylang

      Maybe he could get the Bobby Bonilla contract. That one has to be the greatest contract a player has ever signed.

  • https://www.facebook.com/clementewall21 N_Cap

    If lambo played bball you’d love it

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      What’s the deal with these Lambo comments lately? They make no sense.

  • glassers

    Not to mention all the Pirate Shirts I have bought in the past . Bay , Grilli , as well as others , in todays landscape you have a very difficult time identifying one player with a team for more than three or four years .

  • Lee Young

    This may be an unpopular topic, but looking at Cutch’s Mom and Dad, while great people look like they have put on lots of weight. I have no idea at what age it started for them, but might Cutch start putting on weight later on in his career? Granted he is a world class athlete, but what do his genes ‘say’.

    • piratemike

      Tony Gwynn did alright as a fat guy.:)

    • emjayinTN

      If the past is any indication, I think he has added 20 pounds of muscle since being drafted 9 years ago, and may even be faster now than he was then. As he was coming through the system, I remember the Pirates projecting him as a leadoff guy who would mature physically and mentally to become a solid middle of the order hitter. It has all worked well beyond any of our wildest dreams, and everything I see or hear has him pegged as one of the best representatives of the Pirates in the community – I know how the MLB Network feels about him, and without him.

      Another point – is it 2018 or 2019 when the Pirates re-negotiate their TV deal? The Pirates have become media darlings the past few years and their games are being picked up by the other networks able to broadcast MLB now. How much is he worth?

  • rip55

    cleveland still has payphones?

  • Andrew

    I would add another condition, if you want to keep player long-term you need to win consistently. Baseball with its relatively more meritocratic post-season makes this hard to do.

    Tulowiski is effectively signed for life with Colorado, but it takes more than one elite player to win. At some point his return in a trade is greater than having an elite player on a losing team. Philadelphia is a model in keeping its name brand players around, Rollins and Utley may be icons, but they haven’t exactly kept the fans around.

    While free agency may be unseemly, I think it is better than the reserve clause and collusion.

  • http://www.acme-tv.com LongJohnSilver

    Great article Tim.

    As for James: You can never really go home again.

  • leadoff

    They did not always keep your favorite players around in the old days, Kiner went from one dugout to the other between double headers. It was more trades in those days than free agency. I believe if the Pirates would have tried to trade Clemente there might have been a war on Forbes Ave. In this day and age I have learned to not get attached to any player. You might have a player that would like to stay with his team, but they have agents and those guys could care less about the team that their player is playing for, they are in it for the money. Between the Union, Agents and dumb owners, baseball survives only because it is the greatest game ever invented.

  • freddylang

    Ha! Have seen that video before. There is a second one that is just as good. “Who the f___ still uses a payphone?”

  • freddylang

    Ha! Have seen that video before. There is a second one that is just as good. “Who the f___ still uses a payphone?”

  • piraddict

    Homer Simpson won’t decline with age.

  • Ben Swogger

    Nice article Tim. It will be very interesting to see how the McCutchen situation plays out. What made you take an interest in Bucco baseball growing up an orioles fan?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      I grew up in Altoona and my dad’s family was from Pittsburgh. I followed the Pirates when I was younger. Started following them more after Ripken retired.

      • leowalter

        Where was your home in Altoona Tim ? There isn’t any address there I wouldn’t be familiar with.