It is almost universally agreed that Evan Longoria's contract is the most team-friendly in major league baseball. The crazy thing about Longoria's deal is everyone realized that it was a huge bargain for Tampa Bay about three months into his big league career. That also happened to be about three months after he signed the contract. Not good if you were the agent. The other reason people look at Longoria's contract so favorably is he is four years into what was essentially a six-year deal. The results have been posted. There is no guessing at this point. Longoria has put up the numbers.
In his top-ten list today, Jeff Passan agrees on Longoria and then lists Andrew McCutchen's deal, signed this spring, as the second-most team-friendly. Passan uses a big caveat in creating his list. He excludes anyone who is still in their zero-three years of service time (Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg) or guys whose contracts only buy out arbitration years (like Clayton Kershaw). This muddies the waters for me. The zero-three guys I agree with, but part of the reason Longoria's contract was so great for the Rays is that he is making $4.5, $6, and $7.5 million in his three arbitration years, which will conclude after the 2014 season. It is also the reason Cutch's contract is so valuable to the Pirates. Andrew McCutchen will make $4.5, $7.25, $10 million in the three arbitration years that the Pirates bought out, concluding in 2015.
The huge difference between the two contracts is that after Longoria becomes eligible for free agency, his deal includes team options with almost no guaranteed money. Conversely, the Pirates are on the hook for $28 million in Andrew McCutchen's first two years of would-be free agency. McCutchen will be 29 and 30 those two years and should still be in his prime, but that is a significant amount of money if things, for some reason, don't go as planned. As great as Andrew has been this year, and I think it would take a pretty significant collapse for him not to win the MVP award at this point, we are only a half-season removed from a second half where he hit .219.
Ironically, last year, if you had told me that an outfielder from the Bucs would make this list a year later, I would have been sure it was Jose Tabata. The Pirates only owe Tabata $12.5 million in guaranteed money through 2016 and then have three team options that will undoubtedly look very cheap if they ultimately chose to exercise them. In fact, there is a non-zero chance that Tabata's contract is more team-friendly than McCutchen's to the Pirates right now. Tabata's going to make $8 million over the next three years, McCutchen $21.75 million. And the gap continues to widen as we go out further. Of course Tabata's 2012 has been hugely disappointing, but he only turns 24 this week (insert age joke here). There is still plenty of time for him to payoff quite handsomely for Neal Huntington and the Pirates.
But the reality is, if you want to look at team-friendly contracts, there are two other Pirates under contract who are clearly better deals today than Andrew McCutchen. The reason these are better deals is the limited risk that the Pirates have in the deal. The first is Jason Grilli. In sports there is no-such thing as a bad one-year contract. Sure, a team may not get value, but a one-year deal, by definition, can't be an albatross going forward. Grilli has put up fantastic numbers. Yes, McCutchen is more valuable for the money he is making this year, but probably not in terms of his overall contract because there is uncertainty going forward. The second is A.J. Burnett. Burnett is making $16.5 million in each of the next two seasons, but the Pirates are only paying $5 and $8 million. Burnett has probably earned all of that and more with his work already this season. If he were to put up similar numbers next year ... well, let's just say thank you, Yankees.
All of this is not to say that Andrew McCutchen's deal doesn't look like a great one for the Pirates. It does and Huntington would sign it one hundred times out of one hundred if he had to do it again. But, there are significant dollars to be paid in the out years that provide real risk to a team like the Pirates and their operating budget. Could it end up being the second-most team-friendly in baseball? Sure, but we won't know that for a least a couple more years. Four months of fantastic baseball isn't enough to make it such today.