Let’s start with a disclaimer: I don’t expect this to happen. If a Scott Boras client turned down a reported $150 million over six years from the Yankees, he’s not going to settle for a one-year contract. Blake Snell is 31, coming off a Cy Young season, with a less-than-encouraging track record for durability. He should ring the bell now; he’s never going to be more valuable. And he probably will. There will be a lucrative long-term deal for him somewhere, at a high enough dollar figure that Boras can sell it as some kind of record.
But it’s the last proper week of the offseason, and the reigning NL Cy Young winner is still out of work. So let’s speculate a little. More than speculate: Let’s imagine what would happen if Snell and Boras decided to throw caution to the wind and try to max out on a one-year contract.
The fun thing about this thought exercise is that there’s very little precedent for it. Pitchers as good as Snell get multi-year contracts, particularly now. Here is the highest-paying one-year deal signed by a starting pitcher in each of the past five offseasons:
Top One-Year Free Agent Starting Pitchers, Past Five Years
You’ve got a couple special situations here: Clayton Kershaw’s never-ending rollover with the Dodgers, Charlie Morton weighing retirement vs. Atlanta, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman taking the qualifying offer in the uncertain post-pandemic/pre-lockout 2020-21 offseason. (Keep that year in mind, it’s going to become important later.) And be honest: How many guesses would it have taken for you to remember that Cole Hamels played for the Braves at all, much less that he had the most expensive one-year deal of any starting pitcher in 2019-20?
This offseason, the going rate for a one-year starting pitching contract is between $7 million and $16 million. The low-end includes back-of-the-rotation vets, as well as pitchers who might not actually be starters at all, like Jakob Junis. Getting over $10 million a year buys name recognition and a little more upside. But consider where the top of the market is now for one-year contracts.
I rag on Snell a lot for not being reliable or durable, but he’s made at least 20 starts in every full season he’s been in the majors. He’s thrown at least 125 innings in five of his last six full seasons. Frankie Montas has had only one season that was within spitting distance of Snell’s peak, 2021, and he’s only hit the 100-inning mark twice in eight years in the big leagues. Montas is also only a few months younger than Snell, and he’s coming off shoulder surgery.
More than that, the team that gave him $16 million this winter is the Reds. The Reds! Ordinarily, the Reds are the kind of organization that wouldn’t validate your parking, but even they think Montas, who’s clearly inferior to Snell, is worth $16 million this year.
The purpose of Snell shortening his contract ask would be to earn more money per year than he would on a long-term contract. Let’s take his reported Yankees offer at face value. That $150 million over six years comes to an AAV of $25 million, which is similar to what the top-earning pitchers have gotten this offseason: $24.95 million a year for Sonny Gray, $24.57 million for Aaron Nola, $27.08 million for Yoshinobu Yamamoto, albeit on a longer contract for Nola and a much, much longer contract for Yamamoto.
Nola’s contract fits with the Phillies’ standard practice of signing players to extremely long-term deals in order to spread the annual salary and tax hit over a longer period of time. That’s how Boras got Bryce Harper what was, at the time, a record total guarantee, $330 million, on a contract that pays $25.4 million per year. That’s less than half a million per year more than the infamous Ryan Howard extension the Phillies had signed a decade earlier. Trea Turner signed for 11 years, which pushed his total compensation to $300 million. It’s the same theory as the Dodgers’ deferred compensation bonanza.
You could read a $25 million-a-year offer to Snell the same way. If Gray, who’s older and not quite as good, is worth the front half of that deal, the Yankees might have considered Snell to be a $35 million pitcher now, but a $15 million pitcher in five or six years’ time. Not only does lengthening the contract spread out the risk of signing a pitcher in his 30s while also reducing the per-year cost (both in real terms and against the competitive balance tax), it actually makes the contract cheaper. Ben Clemens, who learned everything there is to know about money so you and I won’t have to, wrote last winter about the impact of rising treasury rates on the value of a dollar over the next 10 years. In short: The longer a contract is, the more inflation will reduce the practical value of the money paid.
By truncating the contract, Boras would be going in the other direction. He’d demand full value for Snell, right here, right now. And then some, in all likelihood, because Snell would be forfeiting the long-term security a six- or seven-year contract would carry.
It’s not common practice, but it’s been done. These are the highest-AAV multi-year contracts signed by starting pitchers in each of the past five offseasons, with a couple bonuses thrown in:
Top Multi-Year Free Agent Starting Pitchers, Past Five Years
The most expensive pitcher this year is Shohei Ohtani, but come on, he doesn’t count. That leaves Yamamoto in second place, but come on, he doesn’t count, either. He might be the best pitcher in this class who doesn’t moonlight as a designated hitter. He’s also five years younger than your typical free agent starter (which is good), though he’s also short and has never faced major league competition before (which is bad). The highest AAV given to a full-time pitcher from MLB this offseason goes to Gray, who comes in, as I’ve said, just below the $25 million a year that Snell and his camp reportedly turned down.
That’s not the top of the market for a pitcher, however. No, the top of market is just north of $43 million, which is what the Mets gave Max Scherzer over three years in the 2021-22 offseason. That short-term deal reflects the fact that Scherzer was coming off a podium finish in the Cy Young race, as well as his advanced age (he was 37 years old at time of signing).
But the best comparable for a potential Snell deal is not Scherzer’s but Trevor Bauer’s. Bauer bears little stylistic similarity to Snell as a pitcher, but both of their Cy Young campaigns were less convincing than, say, the peak years of Greg Maddux. Bauer won the Cy Young for an 11-start season in which he benefited from a weak schedule and was widely assumed to be using illegal grip-enhancing substances. Snell won the Cy Young while walking a career-high 13.3% of the batters he faced.
Bauer was more durable, but even at the time, there were concerns about his behavior on and off the field. Those concerns pale in comparison to what followed. Bauer, whom multiple women have accused of sexual assault, was suspended a record 324 games by MLB, a suspension that was later reduced to a still-record 194 games by an independent arbitrator. He played out only the first 17 starts of his three-year contract and seems unlikely to pitch in the majors again.
Nevertheless, Bauer’s contract remains the closest thing we have to a template for a short-term contract for a pitcher in Snell’s position. Bauer never intended to serve out all three years of his $102 million guaranteed deal; the Dodgers were to pay him $40 million in the first year, after which he would’ve had the opportunity to opt out, then $45 million in the second year, after which he would’ve had the opportunity to opt out again, then $17 million the third year, which I’m sure he intended to use only in case of injury.
So at the very least, the bidding for Snell on a one-year contract, or a one-year deal with options, starts at $40 million.
In February 2021, the previous record AAV for a free agent pitcher was $36 million, which had gone to Gerrit Cole the previous offseason. That was on a nine-year deal, so the perceived peak value for Cole had to be much higher than that. Now, the record AAV is about 20% higher, thanks to Scherzer. And there are mitigating circumstances that ought to push that value even higher. When Bauer signed, MLB was in the midst of the wobbliest cultural and economic terrain it had encountered in a generation, just four months aft of a pandemic-truncated season with almost no gate revenue, and nine months from a lockout that delayed the start of the 2022 campaign.
Free agent spending exploded the winter after Bauer signed, and with a new CBA in force, the economic outlook of the league remains strong.
If I were Boras, and I were forced to land Snell a short-term deal, I’d compare Bauer’s deal to the other contracts of the era. Most of the top free agent pitchers in the league took short-term deals that winter; if you count Bauer’s deal as the one-season stopover it was clearly intended to be, no starting pitcher got more than $10 million a year on a multi-season contract that winter. In fact, no free agent starting pitcher signed a contract longer than three years at any cost.
So is the appropriate multiplier 20%, to account for inflation at the top of the market from Cole to Scherzer? Or is the appropriate multiplier 100%, which is about how much more valuable Taijuan Walker became between 2021 and 2023? Such a claim would look outrageous, but anyone who’s heard Boras’ stand-up routine knows that he’s not afraid to say outrageous things.
Here’s the problem: Good luck finding a team that’d be willing to give Snell… let’s call it $55 million-plus over one year, but wouldn’t be willing to stretch that out to something like $30 million over six or seven years. The Mets are the obvious custom-breaker, having doled out $40 million-a-year deals to pitchers two winters running. The competitive balance tax means nothing to owner Steve Cohen, who flouts the laws of God and Manfred. But the Mets are licking their wounds this year, and would gain little by paying Snell now, then letting him walk just as the team is regrouping to contend in 2025. The Dodgers have already filled out their rotation, and almost any other owner would balk, so to speak, at meeting such a high price even for a single year.
At this point, I suspect that even beating Yamamoto’s AAV or Nola’s total value by a dollar would get a six-year contract done. That’d make more sense for almost any team than a one-year blowout on a single pitcher. Turns out there’s a reason things are the way they are. Not everything needs to be disrupted.
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