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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is Giancarlo Stanton’s Massive Contract with the Miami Marlins a Big Mistake?

Multiple outlets have reported that the Miami Marlins are on the verge of reaching a landmark contract extension with their young outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The 25-year-old slugger is about to ink a deal that could pay him a whopping $325 million over the next 13 years, which would be the largest pact in professional sports history. While he is a rising young star and one of the most personable players in the game, there are a number of reasons to believe that giving him this kind of contract is a big mistake.

The big right-handed hitter has batted .271 with 154 home runs and 399 RBIs in 634 games over five seasons. 2014 was his best year to date, as he hit .288 with a league-leading 37 homers and 105 RBIs in 145 games, while placing second in the National League MVP race. Unfortunately, his season was brutally ended on September 11th in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch that caused numerous fractures and other injuries requiring surgery.

Stanton is freakishly strong and athletic, is by all accounts a wonderful person and teammate, and has already shown he can produce at a high level in the majors. Thus, it would seem he is the perfect candidate to push the biggest contract envelope. However, there are no guarantees in sports that a player is ever going to live up to any contract, and in particular, the marriage of the young outfielder and the Marlins may make an even riskier proposition than usual.

Can the Marlins Compete with Stanton?

ESPN’s Buster Olney (subscription required) recently wrote that the Marlins view Stanton as “their Cal Ripken.” Having been drafted by the organization in the second round of the 2007 draft, he is already nearing a decade with the franchise. His popularity and production make him the most obvious candidate to be the face of the organization but it will obviously come at a large financial investment.

Although Miami was the recipient of a heavily publicly-funded stadium in 2012, they have often been thrifty when it comes to spending on the talent they put on the field. In 2014, their payroll of $46.4 million was just a notch above the Houston Astros and their $44.4 million, which represented the lowest in baseball. Only once in the past 15 years has the Marlins’ payroll been in the top-half of teams in the majors, with that one season being 2012—when making a positive show in the wake of the controversial new venue was a virtual necessity.

Stanton’s yearly average salary with his new deal would represent well over half of what the Marlins spent on players last year. The team certainly has more money to spend, but not the same as those in larger markets like New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Baseball is simply never going to draw that kind of attraction in Florida. Would there be enough meat left on the proverbial bone to surround him with the talent to make for a contending team? If history is any indication, he could wind up like Ripken- in receiving a lot of earned credit but not a lot of postseason appearances.

Do You Give a Third of a Billion Dollars to a Player Coming Off Such a Serious Injury?

Reports about Stanton’s recovery from his bean ball incident have been encouraging. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be ready well in advance of 2015 spring training. However, what we know about him is physical; the mental recovery has yet to be seen. Taking a pitch to the face is akin to being involved in a serious accident. It’s trauma, plain and simple. Having the courage and mental toughness to get back in the batter’s box and attack pitchers with the same laser focus and aggressiveness is no easy task.

The Boston Red Sox had a young outfielder named Tony Conigliaro, who led the American League with 32 home runs as a 20-year-old in 1965. He was well on his way to being one of the team’s best players ever when he was struck in the face by a pitch in 1967. He returned in 1969 but was never the same. Granted, he suffered some permanent damage to his vision but there was certainly a mental component to it as well.

It’s not to say that Conigliaro and Stanton suffered equally physically debilitating injuries as much as it is to point out that there are many complex components to returning from such an experience. While the body may indicate to a player that he is able to come back, the mind may have something entirely different to say on the matter.

One can only hope that Stanton comes back stronger and better than ever. That being said, giving him the largest contract in professional sports history before he has played one competitive inning since the beaning seems rash. Since he is under team control through arbitration for the next two seasons, there was no urgency in getting a deal done this offseason.

Getting a little more information and context are never bad things when negotiating landmark contracts. The Philadelphia Phillies gave slugger Ryan Howard a $125 million extension in 2012, two years before he was due to be a free agent. Since then, his production has fallen off a cliff.

All contracts in sports are gambles. There are simply no sure things. It all comes down to taking smart and calculated risks. With the way Stanton’s 2014 season ended, it seems like an extraordinary leap of faith to lock him in before seeing how and if he bounces back.

Is Stanton Actually a Superstar?

Stanton is an excellent player. However, it’s reasonable to ask if he is a superstar—particularly is he one who will sustain his production for a reasonably lengthy period of time.

There is little doubt that Stanton is one of, if not “the”, premiere power hitters in the game. By just about any metric, he hits the balls harder and farther than anyone else, but what about his others skills?

He is a good but not great defensive player. At 6’6” and 240 pounds, he presently gets pretty close to maximum value in the outfield with his body type. It will be interesting to see how long he can maintain his ability with the glove or if he will eventually recede into a DH skill set—which would be problematic with the Marlins playing in the National League.

Injuries have played a significant role during the early stages of his career. In his first four full seasons, he has missed a total of 114 games, with most of those being due to various ailments. It’s fair to wonder if he can consistently stay healthy, as the amount of money he will be making for a team of Miami’s financial inclinations would mean he needs to be on the field as much as possible.

While Stanton makes his fair share of contact, he is also a prolific whiffer, having struck out 742 times in 2,640 career plate appearances. That’s good for once every 3.56 at-bats, or about once per game on average. That figure has not changed appreciably as his career has progressed, but could it as he ages and his bat speed eventually reaches the point where it inevitably slows?

Baseball Reference’s player comparison by age indicates that Stanton’s current closest comp is former Texas Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez. Gonzo was definitely an excellent player but never developed into the Hall-of-Famer some had him pegged for earlier in his career. He was through being an impact player after his age-31 season and was out of baseball at 35. If nothing else, that’s a reminder of how expectations don’t always get fulfilled and how quickly a player can decline.


The immediate take away should be that Giancarlo Stanton is one of baseball’s bright young stars and should be congratulated for landing his huge new contract. However, as Uncle Ben once famously told his nephew Peter Parker (we’ll forget that Voltaire actually coined the phrase), “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s for that reason and that reason alone that picking through the player and the deal with a fine-toothed comb is a necessity.

As mentioned previously, every contract in professional sports comes with its own risks and concerns. These become magnified as the deals get longer and the expenditures increase. About to get a guarantee for an historic amount of money, the spotlight is about to shine on Stanton with the luminescence of a pulp detective interrogation room lamp. Here’s hoping that the deal works out for both sides, but in the meantime there are a number of reasons to question whether or not it is a big mistake.

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