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The (potential) downside of Giancarlo Stanton

Right now, Giancarlo Stanton is great. He may not always be great.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, Giancarlo Stanton had what was probably the best season of his career. Wins Above Replacement, both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs variety, say so. It was his best season by Offensive Runs Above Average (he posted a higher wRC+ in both 2012 and 2014, but in fewer plate appearances) and according to the FanGraphs math, his 6.9 fWAR translates to a contract value of $55.5 million.

While the Miami Marlins famously made Stanton the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball history following the 2014 season, this does not mean that the team expected Stanton to be the greatest player in Major League Baseball history—most players reach free agency slightly past their primes, and many top young players sign extensions during their pre-free agency years in order to guarantee a large payday while simultaneously lowering their cost ceiling. They expected him to be really good, and to this point, he has been.

Over the first three years of the contract, by FanGraphs’s measurement, Stanton was worth $101.2 million to the Miami Marlins, who paid Stanton $30 million. Most baseball contracts are backloaded, particularly those which have player-initiated opt-out clauses in them, but the Stanton one is particularly lopsided—of the $325 million guaranteed to Stanton, just over 9% of it came in the first 23% of its term.

This is a significant part of why Stanton was guaranteed so much money—his opt-out clause, which comes into play following the 2020 season, is an inherently player-friendly provision, as detailed on Saturday by Craig Edwards. But the Marlins knew when they signed him that if Stanton eventually opted out, they would come out ahead, probably by a pretty substantial margin. A six-year, $107 million contract for an MVP candidate is an absolute steal.

Giancarlo Stanton is due to make $77 million over the next three seasons, which means that in order for Stanton to be worth the money over the first six years of the contract, he needs to be worth $5.8 million in value over the next three years. In player value terms, this is between 0.7 and 0.8 fWAR, but because the cost of a win is increasing, let’s round down to 0.7 fWAR that Stanton must be worth over the next three seasons (it’s probably actually less than 0.7). 375 position players were worth at least 0.7 fWAR over the last three seasons. Stanton will probably be worth more than 0.7 fWAR over the next three seasons.

Any team that acquires Giancarlo Stanton is assuming the risky part of his Marlins contract—three years for $30 million is a bargain for an average player, much less for Giancarlo Stanton. But teams are no longer looking to acquire the 13-year, $325 million contract of a player entering his prime with an opt-out after six years (a pretty divisive contract in the first place)—they’re looking to acquire a 10-year, $295 million contract of a player near the end of his prime with an opt-out after three years. The latter is a more risky contract for a team.

This doesn’t inherently make the contract bad, just less awesome. In order for Stanton to be worth as much surplus value from 2018-2020 as he was from 2015-2017, he would have to be worth about six-and-a-half wins per season—possible, but not likely (which isn’t a negative reflection on Stanton, really—exactly one player is projected for more than 6.5 WAR next season according to Steamer, and you probably know exactly who it is without being told).

But Stanton is projected for 5.3 WAR, and if he maintains that level of performance for the next three seasons (his projection would probably decline by 2020, his age 30 season, but it’s not a preposterous evaluation of him), he will be worth the contract. Whether he is worth the potential prospect cost to the Cardinals is a separate issue, but 15.9 WAR for $77 million is a bargain. It’s a little bit less of a bargain if you believe that Stanton is replacing a player closer to league average than replacement level in Stephen Piscotty, but even at league average, 9.9 WAR for $77 million is a good deal, and that’s before considering Piscotty’s value as a bench player or trade bait (not to mention that Stanton’s marginal wins could easily be the extremely valuable win difference between missing and making the postseason). And then Giancarlo Stanton would opt out of his contract because he would make more money in free agency.

The threat of Giancarlo Stanton opting out does not make him undesirable to the Cardinals—they should want him to opt out because it means he was worth his cost for those three seasons. But it does severely limit the upside of the contract for the team. Barring the unlikely scenario that Stanton’s age 28-30 seasons are unspectacular enough that he chooses not to opt out and then his age 31-37 (and 38, to avoid a $10 million buyout on a team option year) seasons are underpays enough to justify the mediocrity of his theoretical prime, a team’s best-case scenario is three years of a highly-compensated but ultimately worth-it player. The worst case scenarios, however, border on disastrous.

The worst case scenario is that Stanton gets hurt immediately and never plays and the Cardinals are out over $300 million, but this is highly unlikely (and this argument could be used to argue against literally any contract in baseball history). But that Stanton could be hampered by injury is hardly a stretch. Although Stanton missed just three games in 2017, he has a checkered injury history—when he went to the Disabled List in mid-August 2016 with a season-ending groin injury, many were lamenting the seemingly wasted potential of the slugger.

Evaluating oft-injured players too often ventures into judgments of character, so to be clear—Stanton almost certainly did everything he could reasonably do to play. But he did miss time, and that did hamper his value, even as he was a terrific hitter when healthy. By his healthy 2017, Stanton was tied for the 3rd best position player in baseball by fWAR. Going back to 2016, he ranks 26th (behind George Springer, Christian Yelich, and Kyle Seager—good players but generally not considered elite ones). Back to 2015, he ranks 25th. And back to 2014, a four-year stretch which includes an MVP win and an MVP runner-up finish, he ranks tied for 12th.

When healthy, Giancarlo Stanton is a great player, firmly in the “best players not named Mike Trout” tier of players. But his health cannot be assured, and this doesn’t just endanger his present but could create an albatross down the road. Acquiring Stanton may still be a good idea—the odds that the contract is worth the cost are likely higher than the odds that the contract works out poorly. But if the contract works out poorly, it could be a disaster.

Two off-seasons ago, re-signing Jason Heyward was treated as an unalloyed good, and when he signed with the Chicago Cubs, fans used Heyward as a proxy for the Cardinals and for St. Louis; it felt like rejection of everything they loved. But Heyward regressed, to put it lightly, at the plate, and in retrospect, it looks like a positive for the Cardinals that Heyward did not accept their offer. That so much of the Stanton story is about him potentially waiving his no-trade clause has turned the pursuit into more than acquiring an impact player—acquiring Stanton has become a way to validate the team’s worthiness.

But this isn’t LeBron James in “The Decision”, where his NBA-legislated maximum salary would be considered a tremendous bargain by any team. This isn’t free agent Shohei Ohtani, the two-way NPB sensation who will cost hundreds of millions less than his market value this off-season. Stanton may be worth the cost but trading for him is hardly a no-brainer “yes” for the Cardinals.