ST. PETERSBURG — There is a school of thought out there that the Rays bamboozled Wander Franco.
This is partly because, legend has it, the Rays never sign a bad deal. (This is absurdly false.) It’s partly because Franco could be leaving as much as $100 million on the table. (Possible, but only in an extreme outcome.) And it’s partly because some baseball fans have lost their minds. (Undoubtedly true.)
If you believe there is chicanery involved in a contract that guarantees a 20-year-old player $185 million by the time he is 31 — and could be worth even more — then I have three words for you:
Super Joe Charboneau.
Or do you prefer Ben Grieve? Perhaps David Clyde or Gregg Jefferies? Maybe Danny Goodwin? Name me a town, and I will provide a star that faded as quickly as the morning light.
Charboneau was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1980 and was so beloved by Cleveland fans that a song, Go Joe Charboneau, cracked the top 5 on the Midwest pop charts. He got 41 hits the rest of his career. Grieve was once the top prospect in baseball and an eventual Rookie of the Year. He also played with the exuberance of an undertaker. Goodwin was the No. 1 pick in the draft two different years in the 1970s, and turned into that rare breed of a weak-swinging designated hitter.
Now it’s true that Franco is a cut above these examples. Maybe two cuts above. He’s a generational player closer to Alex Rodriguez-style hype than, say, Jurickson Profar’s one-time promise as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect.
Still, history is littered with can’t-miss players whose careers were derailed by injuries (Tony Conigliaro and Pete Reiser), drugs (Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden) and assorted demons (Cesar Cedeno).
I’m not suggesting that Franco is destined to flame out, but projecting a career 10 years into the future is risky business. Ronald Acuna’s contract with the Braves (eight-year, $100 million) was blasted by many as an agent underselling his player, but do you suppose Acuna appreciates that safety net after blowing out his knee last season?
If unforeseen circumstances prevent Franco from fulfilling his considerable promise, the Rays will be carrying a financial burden that has the potential to cripple a low-revenue team. And if Franco goes on to have a Mike Trout-style career, then he would have conservatively cost himself tens of millions of dollars by not hitting the free-agent market in his prime six years from now.
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And that’s the point of signing a deal today. It shares the risk/reward factor between the two parties. And I would argue this contract walks that delicate balance better than most.
Sure, it’s easy for armchair critics to sling arrows. To say Franco should have bet on himself. But Las Vegas is filled with brokenhearted gamblers who played one hand too many.
The circumstances are a little different because these deals involved older players, but Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, David Price, Prince Fielder, Jason Heyward, Jacoby Ellsbury, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Kemp, Jayson Werth, Mike Hampton and Ryan Howard all signed deals of $100 million or more that quickly became albatrosses for their teams.
Those are not theoretical problems, they are real-world financial disasters just in the last 20-plus years.
Not even the Rays have been immune from this risk. There was a time when Evan Longoria’s contract was the most team-friendly deal in baseball. That was back when he was routinely posting a WAR of 7.0 or higher. But as age and injuries became a factor, Longoria’s value turned upside down.
The Rays were so eager to get out from under his contract that they agreed to pay a portion of his salary just to get the Giants to take him off their hands. And with the money they saved on Longoria’s contract, they were able to sign players such as Charlie Morton on the way to the 2020 World Series.
The Rays have made similar moves on long-term deals with Matt Moore, Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Blake Snell, moving all of those players in trades once the money-versus-production turned cockeye.
In a perfect world, the Rays will never trade Wander Franco. (And while we’re fantasizing, they will be playing lots of games in a gorgeous new stadium in Ybor City.) Because that means his performance will justify the money he is being paid years down the road.
In that scenario, Franco will still be an attractive free agent when the contract runs out in his early 30s. Maybe his next deal won’t be as long, but there’s no reason to feel sorry for a player who could be eyeing a second contract that exceeds $150 million or more.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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