"After my fourth season I asked for $43,000 and General Manager Ed Barrow told me, 'Young man, do you realize Lou Gehrig, a 16-year-man, is playing for only $44,000?' I said, Mr. Barrow, there is only one answer to that - Mr. Gehrig is terribly underpaid."
-Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio, coming off his MVP season in 1939 at age 24.
DiMaggio's quote above is one of my favorites, and it sets the tone for today's topic. The title of this post may seem absurd - our humble, small-to-mid market team making a nine-figure outlay for a player. But consider that, at one point, people also thought it would be impossible for any baseball player to ever make $100,000 a year. In 1949, DiMaggio himself became baseball's first.
Thirty years later, Nolan Ryan became baseball's first $1 million-a-year man in his free agent contract with the Astros in 1979. Supposedly, that contract was going to bring down the game, too.
Kevin Brown broke the $100MM contract barrier with his seven year free agent deal in 1999, and, after this off-season, there have now been a total of sixteen contracts that have broken the magical nine-figure barrier we're discussing today.
Trust me (or the historical trend) when I say, there are more to come. So, which current stars will earn the next nine-figure deals? Could any of them sign with the A's? Click the link to read more.
Many websites keep readers updated on the current FA class, and a few of the most informative ones even keep tabs on the free agent class of '09 (at the conclusion of this '08 season). We're looking a little farther down the road than that today. Thanks to MLB's service time rules and Cot's Contracts, we can, today, project who the biggest potential fish will be on the Free Agent market for the next 6 years.
(This exercise is surprisingly simple - look up a star player, find out how many service time years he's earned thus far in his career, and when that figure reaches 6, he'll be a free agent. I used the word "potential" free agents because, of course, any of these players could sign contract extensions with their current team. But for the most elite young stars - the top 5-10 young players in the game - these extensions will become less likely, as they take notice of Ryan Howard - a player with less than 3 years of service time, who will go to arbitration and earn significant raises three more times before reaching free agency - who won a $10MM victory in arbitration this past offseason).
So, barring contract extensions, what follows is a list of elite players who stand to eventually become Nine Figure Men, due to a combination of their performance and relatively young age.
FA class of '09:
FA class of '10
Miguel Cabrera (turns 27 at the beginning of the '10 season).
FA class of '11
FA class of '12
Hanley Ramirez (turns 28 before this season starts).
Prince Fielder (turns 28 during the season, and a California native).
Jeff Francoeur (27 for the entire season).
Ryan Howard (past age 30, but he could still command $100MM here).
FA class of '13 (players who currently have between 1-2 years of service)
B.J. Upton – (turns 29 in his first FA year)
Alex Gordon (29)
Delmon Young (turns 28 during the season).
FA class of '14 (these players have all cracked the bigs, but will accumulate their first year of service this year):
Ryan Braun (30, and a native Californian).
Billy Butler – (turns 28 during the season)
Justin Upton - (becomes an FA at 26(!), turns 27 during the year).
There is a chance that players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria (another Californian), Andy LaRoche, and Daric Barton all enter this free agent class, but they also could easily spend enough time in the minors this year to delay their free agency into 2015.
(And heck, we gotta draw the line somewhere. I'm not gonna start projecting the Gerber Free Agent class of 2036, headlined by Salb's newborn baby).
There's a lot of talking points for discussion here:
*If we look at some of the most successful marquee free agent signings of the past 15 years - Barry Bonds' first deal with the Giants, Vlad's deal with the Angels, and even, I would argue, A-Rod's first deal with the Rangers (which would have been even better if the team hadn't outbid themselves by $50MM), they have a common theme - position players on the good side of age 28. That's part of why the list I made above focuses on position players, and especially youth.
*Using that criterion, my personal endorsement for the A's first $100MM splurge is...Justin Upton, assuming he reaches free agency in 2014. In fact, this could double that investment, requiring something like 9 years and $200 million. Yes, I am advocating that for the A's, and no, I'm not nuts.
Here's my logic:
*Those terrific FA classes of '12 and '13 might eat up the money of many of the wealthier teams, and leave several of them out of the bidding.
*Of all the players on that list, Upton is the only one who reaches free agency at age 26. That means he's got his entire peak in front of him. It's incredibly rare for this to happen - it means that a player cracked the big leagues as a teenager, and pretty much stayed there from then on. (It also illustrates how remarkable it is that A-Rod reached FA at 25). Studies show that teams almost always pay for past performance rather than future projected performance. In theory, Upton's 27-32 should be better than his 21-26, which means that he could be both colossally expensive and a bargain at the same time.
*Upton plays a position (right field) that is well-suited to make such a large investment in, because his defense won't become a liability over the life of the deal, and he doesn't face the injury risk of a catcher or middle-infielder. Sure, a DH or first baseman would face even less injury risk...but the problem with huge investments at these positions is, they are easily filled with pretty good Freely Available Talent that gets ignored because of their defense (like Jack Cust or Shelley Duncan). Plus, it's nice to leave either first base or DH open for a star at another position who's slightly injured or declining defensively. The Yankees have been somewhat burned by investing in the same types of aging players who all are limited to the lower rungs of the defensive spectrum (which is part of why I'd prefer Upton over, say, Billy Butler of the Royals).
*The fact that this investment is six years away allows for plenty of planning. The A's can't get the cash to suddenly afford Miguel Cabrera in two years. But with six years to plan for a player, and with no payroll "floor" in Major League Baseball, the A's could very easily plan for the future acquisition of a $20-plus million-a-year player. They simply need to complete eschew the mediocre, middling FA signings - the Loaizas and Piazzas - for the next five years, and follow this most recent offseason's blueprint for the foreseeable future. It would be easy to justify a team payroll in the 40-60 million range and playing young players exclusively for the next five years while the team saved millions in order to make their big splurge, right as they are in the middle of their contending cycle.
*I also like the timing of Upton's FA launch. The A's string of one-year renewals at the Coliseum ends in 2013, and although we've heard talk of Cisco Field happening in 2011-2012, I think it's more realistic that it gets delayed a bit, as huge projects often do. Billy Beane has said often that payroll/budget won't see a significant change until the new stadium is a reality and not merely a vision. By 2014, that vision will most certainly be complete.
So I'll leave you with this wishful thought, a vision for the year 2014:
Billy Beane raises team payroll to $100 million (one-fifth of it devoted to his new star player), signs the soon-to-be best player in the game (Justin Upton) to bat fourth, play rightfield and headline a team of burgeoning young talent entering its prime as they open Cisco Field and becoming the new AL West mini-dynasty.
Sounds good, doesn't it?