Earlier today, Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos told MLB Network Radio’s Jim Bowden that he wasn’t interested in a contract of more than five years for Prince Fielder. Anthopoulos followed up this admission by suggesting that because of the team’s unwillingness to offer a longer deal, they’re unlikely to land Fielder.

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Chicago Cubs are also interested in a shorter deal for the free agent first baseman, with Theo Epstein expressing a willingness to “pay high dollars in exchange for shorter terms.”

The thinking in this case is that given Fielder’s relatively young age for entering free agency, a five year deal in 2012 would allow him one more pay day ahead of the 2017 season when he would still only be 32 years old. However, anyone who believes that this “thinking” isn’t of the wishful version on the sole part of baseball clubs that don’t want to get stuck in the later years of a long term contract is deluding themselves.

There’s a reason that the Miami Marlins caused a stir in the Albert Pujols negotiations when they raised the terms of their proposed deal to include a tenth year. Players want security as much as they want money and just as teams are willing to pay money up front as a means of avoiding terms that involve more money and more years, so too are players willing to collect on what will potentially be less money in order to gain a measure of security.

If we look to total wins above replacement over the last three seasons for first basemen we find the following six players in order: Pujols, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeria. Of those players, three have sold off a significant portion of their non-arbitration, free agent years.

  • Miguel Cabrera: $152.3 million over eight years (covers three arbitration years);
  • Adrian Gonzalez: $154 million over seven years; and
  • Mark Teixeria: $180 million over eight years.

Pujols is getting set to sign a ten year deal, and Votto won’t see free agency until after the 2013 season. Given the lengths of the contracts to those comparable players, why would Fielder sign a short term contract that guarantees him less money, even if the average annual value is slightly more?

Of course, there are teams that are out there wanting to mitigate their risk, but none so much as to tempt a player to give up security.

Already this off season, we’ve seen a short term, high average annual value deal fail to woo Jose Reyes (a free agent of similar age to Fielder), resulting in the team that made the initial offer double the years they were proposing.

In order to justify handing out a long term deal, an intelligent front office will look at the deal as though it’s a mortgage. First of all we must realize that players talent levels decline from their peak as they get older. A well-planned, long-term contract will underpay for the player’s value in the beginning of the deal and overpay for his value in the end. Similarly, at the beginning of a mortgage, the payments mostly cover interest, but as it nears the end, most of the equity gets paid off.

Tom Tango offers us the hypothetical scenario of a true talent 4.0 WAR player signing a six year contract for $78 million dollars who declines at a regular rate of .55 WAR each season. If you only look at the first three years of the contract, it’s a fantastic deal. If you only look at the final three years of the contract, it’s a horrible deal. However, if you think of the back end of the deal as deferred payments for the value from the front end, it is a fair deal.

Wins $/win EarnSalary ActSalary
4.0    $5.00    $20    $13
3.5    $5.25    $18    $13
2.9    $5.51    $16    $13
2.2    $5.79    $13    $13
1.4    $6.08    $9     $13
0.5    $6.38    $3     $13

This is part of the rationale for short term contracts with higher average annual values not being the bargain for the player that they might otherwise appear to be. A lot can happen in the next five years for a player like Fielder, but no matter what, it’s unlikely that he’ll offer the same value to teams that he’s offering at this very moment. He knows it and teams know it. They should also know that his best bet for making the most money is taking what’s essentially the deferred payment structure above right now, rather than risk another free agent signing period when his value could be much more depressed.