Do Owners, GMs Learn From Bad Contracts?

Earlier this season, Mets owner Fred Wilpon explicitly compared the impending free agency of Jose Reyes to the contract that Carl Crawford signed last winter. That seven-year, $142MM deal was supposed to be beyond Reyes' reach.

But as the season has worn on, it has been Crawford who hasn't been worth "Carl Crawford money". The disappointing left fielder has tallied an OPS+ of 86 and just 18 stolen bases entering Monday's games, and so it has become fashionable to declare that general managers and owners will learn from Crawford, an admittedly similar player to Reyes, and avoid a similar payout in both length and worth of contract to Reyes this coming offseason.

This led me to wonder: had owners ever learned from a disastrous free agent deal before? Simply put, had any first-year collapses in performance by one player kept another, similar player from receiving a similar amount of money?

Take Darren Dreifort, for example. Through the 2000 season, the 28-year-old Dreifort had mediocre career totals – an ERA+ of 98 – but posted a 105 ERA+ just prior to hitting free agency. The Dodgers, intent on keeping him, signed Dreifort to a five-year, $55MM contract.

It didn't take long for the deal to look like a loser – Dreifort pitched to an ERA+ of 78 over half of 2001, then missed the rest of that season and the next one with an elbow injury. If the Crawford/Reyes thesis is to be believed, all of baseball shied away from such contracts for pitchers, particularly ones roughly Dreifort's age with a similar track record of success, right?

Not even if we narrow it to Los Angeles' own division. In the winter of 2001, the San Francisco Giants, who had a front row seat for Dreifort's failings, signed Jason Schmidt to a five-year, $41MM contract. Schmidt was 28, the same age as Dreifort, and his career ERA+ was 99 to Dreifort's 98. Even his breakout season was similar, with a 107 ERA+ to Dreifort's 105. That the Schmidt contract worked out far better than Dreifort's is beside the point; the Giants had no way to know that at the time. They simply had Dreifort's celebrated contract in their short-term memory, and did not hesitate to commit to Schmidt for the same duration anyway.

In reality, we can play a similar game with virtually every terrible free agent contract. Vince Coleman, for instance, signed a four-year, $11.95MM contract with the New York Mets prior to the 1991 season. He played in only 72 games during his first season in New York and saw his stolen base total drop from 77 to 37. Nevertheless, Otis Nixon, a speed-reliant player three years older than Coleman, signed with the Braves a year later for three years, $8.1MM.

That lesson didn't take a decade earlier, either. Speedy outfielder Dave Collins, fresh off of a 108 OPS+ age-28 season, signed a three-year, $2.475MM contract with the Yankees to help replace Reggie Jackson prior to the 1982 season. A year later, the Yankees dumped Collins (along with a package of players that included Fred McGriff) on the Blue Jays when he put up an OPS+ of 80 in New York. And yet, even as Collins was getting dumped, the Houston Astros signed Omar Moreno, an inferior player to Collins (also speed-reliant, and a year older than Collins when he signed) to a five-year, $3.5 million contract.

So forgive me if I don't believe that Jose Reyes will receive a lesser payday thanks to the struggles of Carl Crawford. As usual, Reyes' contract will be dictated by the market for players at his position and whether teams with money have a desire for Reyes, not owners and GMs mindful of recent comps that soured. If a team wants Reyes, that team will conclude this situation is different. It wouldn't particularly surprise me if that team even turned out to be the same one that signed Crawford.

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