Anthony Rizzo has a .253 average, 25 home runs, and a .765 OPS in 173 career games. For that, the 23-year old Cubs slugger was awarded with a 7-year, $41 million contract, buying out all his remaining arbitration years, plus two free agent seasons. Steep? Maybe. But that’s now the going rate for a budding player of Rizzo’s ilk.
Cost certainty is a term we’ve become familiar with here in Philly as Ruben Amaro tried it for several years with players of all ages. Teams are no longer letting their players inch through arbitration and get closer to free agency.
Because of the arbitration rules, and the rising cost of star players, Rizzo’s contract is almost a must. Instead of seeing Rizzo turn in great season after great season, and see his pay skyrocket due to those arbitration rules, the Cubs decided to give him a long-term deal at a fair value – and one that still makes him a very rich man at 23.
Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Braun all inked similar deals at similar stages in their career, and the teams they play for were happy to do it. There’s obvious risk involved for both sides – if a player turns out to be a bust, you’re paying out the nose several seasons down the road. From the players perspective, he could be giving up tens of millions toward the back end of the deal if he turns out to be the real deal.
No longer can teams rely on building through free agency. As you saw this past season, lots of past-their-prime players hit the market; Josh Hamilton got $25 million per season, B.J. Upton got a ridiculous $75 million contract.
Add to it that players on the wrong side of 30 are seeing a rapid decline due to the crackdown on performance enhancers, free agency is no longer as appealing as it once way.
Ruben Amaro’s job now, as long as he has one, should be to build through the farm system. They’re no longer in a position to expend generous heaps of minor league talent to supply the big league team with star players from other teams. At least not for the time being. Amaro and company will have to find the next group, just as Ed Wade found Ryan Madson, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard once upon a time.
Take a look at next year’s free agent crop. There is only one position player under the age of 30 – Alexi Casilla. It’s filled with early-to-mid 30’s players dying for a multi-year deal, and one in which they’ll likely underachieve in its final season or two. It’s the nature of the game as it’s now constructed. There are few game-changing players becoming available. It now comes down to what you have in your system.