Commentary

Carl Crawford not in the driver's seat?

Jayson Werth's mega-contract could limit the options for top remaining free agent OF

Originally Published: December 6, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Nothing in baseball is ever as simple as it appears. Remember that.

You can never count on A leading to B, let alone making it all the way to C. Remember that, too.

So let's just say not everybody in baseball is on board with the knee-jerk reaction to Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million, Richter scale rattler of a contract with Washington on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireCarl Crawford might have to settle for less money than what Jayson Werth received in the contract he signed Sunday.

And that knee-jerk reaction, you'll recall, was this: "Boy, that's great news for Carl Crawford."

Hey, that sure seemed logical on the surface, obviously. But now listen to the reaction of a prominent agent Monday, after he'd had a little time to think about it:

"When I heard people saying how great the Werth contract was going to be for Crawford, I thought, 'Hold on,'" the agent said. "I mean, it is, obviously. If that's what Werth is getting, he should get more. But here's the question: If the price just went up, who can pay it?"

Exactly.

The realistic effect of Werth's mega-contract is that it might actually give Crawford fewer options, not more. So why is that? We'll explain in a moment.

But first, another instant reaction to the Werth deal was: "It affects Crawford but not Cliff Lee." Uh, we might want to rethink that one, too.

There were rumblings Monday, in the wake of Werth's deal heading into his 32-year-old season, that Lee -- who is just eight months older than Werth -- will now be looking for seven guaranteed years, not six.

In the end, that might not happen. But in any negotiation that centers around the Yankees, it's amazing how the bar can start jumping north at any given moment. Given how driven the Yankees are to sign this guy, don't be too quick to dismiss this talk. You might regret it.

Finally, who is the player with potentially the most to gain from Werth's contract? It might be none of the above.

It might, in fact, be Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was the clear face of their team before Sunday.

The Nationals clearly are counting on Zimmerman and Werth to lead their franchise into its first golden age, to create a winning, professional atmosphere for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to walk into some day. So does it make sense for the Nationals to take care of Werth and then not do the same for Zimmerman when the time is right? Of course not.

Now, it's true Zimmerman can't be a free agent for three more years. But remember, the Rockies were in the same position with Troy Tulowitzki this winter -- and added seven years to his deal. And "it's that Tulowitzki deal," one agent said, "that has everyone buzzing."

So the ripples will no doubt be flowing in all directions once the ramifications of Werth's contract really sink in. But -- to bring us back to where we kicked off this opus -- the ripple effect might be felt least, in some ways, by the guy who was supposed to benefit most …

Carl Crawford.

Here's why: Let's just say the speculation is accurate that if Werth is a seven-year, $126 million kind of player, Crawford now becomes an eight-year, $180 million kind of player. How many teams in this sport give out eight-year, $180 million contracts? For that matter, how many teams ever have?

When I heard people saying how great the [Jayson] Werth contract was going to be for [Carl] Crawford, I thought, 'Hold on.' … But here's the question: If the price just went up, who can pay it?

-- A prominent agent

Short list.

The Rangers did it a decade -- and one owner -- ago, for Alex Rodriguez. But 10 years later, while they might be interested in Crawford, they now appear to be out of the lifetime-contract market.

The Twins just handed out an eight-year, $184 million contract to the face of their franchise, Joe Mauer. But it will be a generation, if ever, before they give out another one like it.

Beyond those two, there have been only three other contracts in history that totaled at least eight years and at least $180 million. All three have been doled out by one team.

Guess who?

Yep. The Bank Account That Steinbrenner Built. Of course.

Over the past decade, the Yankees have tossed a 10-year, $275 million deal at A-Rod; a 10-year, $189 million contract at Derek Jeter; and an eight-year, $180 million bonanza at Mark Teixeira.

In other words, if you've done the arithmetic correctly, you know they've handed out more contracts in that neighborhood than all the other franchises in history combined.

Get the picture?

But let's leave dollars out of this for a moment. How many other teams have signed any free agent to any eight-year contract for any amount? Once again, the list is short.

The Red Sox for Manny Ramirez (eight years, $160 million). The Cubs for Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million). The Rockies for Mike Hampton (eight years, $121 million). And, once upon a time, the Indians for Wayne Garland (eight years, $2.3 million) -- but that was 34 years ago, in the infancy of free agency.

That will do it.

So if Crawford, who is only 29, is hell-bent on getting more years and dollars than Werth, the size, the shape and the pace of his negotiations could be much different than anybody figured 48 hours ago.

We've heard the Angels have made Crawford their No. 1 priority, for instance. Where is the precedent for them to give out an eight-year contract? Right you are. There is none.

They haven't gone beyond five years since the six-year, $80 million Mo Vaughn disaster in 1999. They've never handed out more than the $90 million they gave Torii Hunter in 2008. And there have been no indications they're prepared to blow by that five-year barrier for Crawford, either -- not yet, at least.

Or how about the Red Sox? With Werth off their board, they need Crawford now more than ever. But the longest contract signed under this ownership group was six years -- and their contract talks with Adrian Gonzalez just hit the wall because Gonzalez was looking for eight years and Teixeira dollars.

So are the Red Sox about to sign two players to eight-year contracts in the same offseason -- after giving out none since the Manny deal?

"Don't count them out," said one of the agents quoted above. "But I doubt it."

OK, how about the Tigers? They have definite interest. And they have definite Ilitch family dollars to spend.

But they've already committed $89.25 million this winter to Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta. And they already have one player on the payroll who's working on an eight-year contract -- Miguel Cabrera (who is three years into an eight-year, $152.3 million extension). So can the Tigers venture into this neighborhood? Hard to say, but not likely.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Scott Rovak/US PresswireCould Cliff Lee secure himself a seven-year contract? We shall see.

All right, what about the Rangers? Can they tie up that many dollars for that many years, even if they lose the bid-a-thon on Lee? Hard to imagine. Remember, they have Josh Hamilton to take care of first, presumably. Right?

So if Crawford's price tag is really going to be eight years, $180 million -- or even eight years, $160 million -- we ask again: Who can pay it?

"You know the answer," one GM said Monday. "There's one team."

Guess who?

Yessir, those Yankees would still be a great guess.

"When the numbers get that high," the same GM said, "you start knocking more and more teams off the list until there's just about nobody left. It's like when you go to a casino. Everybody's at one table -- and then you know how you look over and there's that private room, behind the glass, with a baccarat table and an armed guard by the door? Most of us don't get to go into that room, and that's what this is like. At a certain point, there's almost nobody left who can play the game."

So think this through logically. How much has Crawford's world changed?

What seemed likely to happen a few days ago was that the group of teams we've just laid out would arrive at these meetings and bear down on a Crawford deal in the range of five or six years at $19 million to $20 million a year.

At those rates, Crawford figured to be the first outfielder off the table, leaving the field open for Werth to take a slightly lower deal.

But now, everything is all mixed up. Now, it's Werth who has seemingly set the market for Crawford instead of the other way around -- and set it at a level that could leave Crawford with a choice he never saw coming:

Keep his options open and take less money than Werth -- or let the money drive him to whatever team can pay him.

You can decide for yourself whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. You can decide for yourself whether it means he's destined to be a Yankee. All we know is it's not the aftershock most of us saw coming when the Jayson Werth earthquake hit Sunday afternoon.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com