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The past, present, and future of Contract Curse

An historical overview, current rumination, and future speculation of the Phillies Contract Curse.

On January 31, ESPN ranked the worst current contracts in MLB, highlighting the single most egregious one on all 30 teams. The likes of Miguel Cabrera (Tigers), Albert Pujols (Angels), and Troy Tulowitzki (Blue Jays) grace the list, all of whom are in decline from their glory days. Such bygone All-Stars have contracts worth $154 million, $87 million, and $37.5 million respectively, but they weren’t awarded massive lump sums for no reason. These three in particular were extremely meaningful to me in my coming-of-age as a baseball fan; Pujols was an unrelenting power hitter on my 2005 Backyard Baseball team, and both Cabrera and Tulo were early draft picks on my 2010 fantasy team. Outside of the realm of computer games and amateur sports gambling, each of them were making historic accomplishments at the plate and in the field.

But 2010 was nearly a decade ago, and now these big contracts feel like a waste. For one, they dry up funds that could otherwise be allocated towards securing younger talent (though some teams manage to have enough leftover cash to score fresher crops, like the Angels, who could afford the pride of Millville, NJ while Pujols’ contract winds down). Also, many players with outrageous contracts have fallen victim to injury with age, and teams are left having to pay millions to a guy who contributed little to nothing to his team’s success that year.

It’s a classic case of Contract Curse.

Contract Curse: When a talented player is awarded a lengthy contract worth a boatload of money and later goes on to disappoint his team and fans by playing so god awfully you wonder how they were ever good enough to be worth that much money in the first place.

ESPN selected Jake Arrieta’s contract as the worst in the Phillies clubhouse right now. With two years and $45 million remaining on his contract (originally signed for three years and $75 million), the former Cy Young Award winner has not given a performance remotely worth $45 million. Last season, Arrieta finished with a record of 10-11, a 3.96 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP. He lead the league in characteristically bad categories, like number of wild pitches thrown (11, second most in the league) and errors (4, second most in the NL). These stats mirror his abysmal start to his MLB career with the Orioles, though back then he was making $488,000, not $30 million.

While I concur that Arrieta’s contract turned out to be a worst case scenario for the Phillies, I don’t think he suffers from Contract Curse. This was poor negotiating on Klentak’s part. Arietta wasn’t worth $75 million going into 2018.

One could make the case, however, that center fielder Odubel Herrera suffers from the affliction. Following the 2016 season, Herrera signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract. He batted nearly .300 in 2015, and was solidly batting in the .280s in 2016 and 2017. Though he hit more home runs in 2018 than he did in seasons prior, he was no longer a source of consistency that the Phillies needed so desperately at the plate, batting only .255 on the season. His defensive performance last season was decidedly poor, with a fWAR of -0.4. What makes Herrera’s case of Contract Curse a mild one is that $5 million a year is a “modest” salary for a professional baseball player. This contract isn’t destroying the Phillies pockets, but the principle of disappointment remains. Should Herrera improve defensively and put up offensive numbers like the ones he did in 2015-2017, we can write 2018 off as a fluke and claim a false diagnosis of Contract Curse.

As I was scrolling through ESPN’s list, I was painfully reminded of the ghost of Contract Curse’s past that still haunt me as a Phillies fan. In my lifetime, the most devastating case of Contract Curse for the Phillies has been Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension (Yahoo Sports and The New York Times harshly but perhaps accurately surmised that this contract was the worst in all of MLB history). Howard’s 2006 MVP season still remains one for the books, when he batted .313 (unusually high for a slugger) and hit a career-high 58 home runs and 149 RBIs. From 2007-2009, Howard was a consistent powerhouse; his combined average was .266 (more typical for a power hitter), and he hit an average of 46.66 home runs and 141 RBIs. Even in his best of days as an offensive leader in the league, he also led the league in strikeouts (Howard struck out 199 times in 2007 and 2008). This trend of striking out persisted into Howard’s contract era, but his offensive performance never regained strength, and his WAR was negative in four of the five seasons encompassed in his contract.

Now looking towards what is left of the 2019 free agent market, the rumor mill has been buzzing over the likely possibility of Bryce Harper landing in Philadelphia. While most would warmly receive a Harper Phillies jersey, there is some dose of skepticism towards the 26-year-old All-Star and whether or not he’s worthy of a Machado-size contract. Though I feel some excitement towards the Harper prospect, I am worried that he could be the future of the Phillies’ Contract Curse if he does in fact sign with them. This is due to the volatility in his performance over the past four seasons.

In 2015, Harper really did seem like the once-in-a-generation kind of player; 9.9 WAR, .330/.460/.649. His WAR dipped to 1.6 the following season, only improving offensively in the stolen bases category, contradicting the notion that he’s the best player in baseball right now. 2017 was similar to 2015; 4.7 WAR (not 9.9 but an improvement from 1.6), .319/.413/.595. Last season, though, was more of the same as 2016, yet Harper’s been dominating the free agent spotlight, holding out for his golden contract all the way into spring training. His egotism coupled with his volatile performance from season to season makes Harper a ripe candidate for Contract Curse.

In that case, let’s hope it’s not with us.