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The Diamondbacks And Large Contracts: Boon Or Bust?

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Mar 1, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero (26) during photo day at Salt River Fields.  Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
Mar 1, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero (26) during photo day at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

As will be officially announced by the Diamondbacks later today, catcher Miguel Montero has signed the biggest contract in the history of the franchise. The deal, running through 2017, is reported to be for $60m, which breaks the previous mark of $52.4, set by Randy Johnson when he signed for Arizona, as a free agent, before the 1999 season. What has the team's track record been with regard to large contracts like this one? Have they worked out to the benefit of the Diamondbacks? Or have the risks associated with such a large gamble not paid off?

After the jump, we'll look at the big contracts signed in the desert, and see whether they turned out, in hindsight, to be justified.

Here is a list of all the Diamondbacks' contract for $30 million or more which I could find. It's possible there may be one or two missing, let me know if so - I certainly stumbled across a couple in the course of my research that I would not have remembered! Only guaranteed years are included in the total cost, not options such as the Randy Johnson one for 2003. Figures are from a variety of sources, mostly through frantic Googling. Upton's contract is tagged with a star because it's less than half-way through at the time of writing.

Player Length Cost Years bWAR
Miguel Montero 5 $60m 2013-2017 ???
Randy Johnson 4 $52.4m 1999-2002 29,9
Justin Upton 6 $51.25m 2010-2015 8.1*
Troy Glaus 4 $45m 2005-2008 14.3
Matt Williams 5 $45m 1998-2002 7.9
Jay Bell 5 $34m 1998-2002 8.7
Randy Johnson
2 $33m 2004-2005 13.6
Russ Ortiz 4 $33m 2005-2008 -5.4
Todd Stottlemyre 4 $32m 1999-2002 1.1
Eric Byrnes 3 $30m 2008-2010 -1.9
Luis Gonzalez 3 $30m 2004-2006 4.4

If there's a trend to be found here, it's that overall, the more expensive the contract, the more likely it is to pan out for the team, which would give some cause for optimism about the Montero extension. The previous record-holder, our first signing of the Big Unit, turned out to be a phenomenal steal, with Johnson providing the team with almost thirty WAR. Even allowing for inflation over the intervening years, the $1.75 million per WAR cost is an extremely decent investment. Similarly, Upton's contract looks good: if he simply continues at his current rate, he'll produce 21.3 WAR over its term, easily a good return on its price.

Hands up all those who'd forgotten that we originally signed Troy Glaus for four years? Yep, me too. Of course, it didn't work out, Glaus being shipped off to Toronto after just one season. The subsequent details concerning Glaus's use of steroids make me suspect this might have been a factor in the decision to sever the long-term commitment. However, all told, it wouldn't have been a terrible deal at all: over those four years, Glaus averaged 142 games, 30 homers, 90 RBI and a 123 OPS+, justifying the cost.. However, that's largely where the good news ends. With the exception of Johnson's extension, the rest of the list range from borderline to very, very ugly.

However, the problem is mostly that they were given to players on the far side of the aging curve. None of the players concerned were younger than 31 for the first season. The deal Matt Williams and Jay Bell signed, for example, covered both their seasons from age 32 through 36; for Todd Stottlemyre, the contract covered ages 34-37, and Luis Gonzalez was even older, at 36 on Opening Day 2004, the first game covered by his extension. [That deal was likely one of Jeryy Colangelo's charitable contributionss, Gonzo having been seriously underpaid previously] Those are all a lot older than Montero, who'll be 29 when his extension begins.

On the other hand, catcher is a position perhaps subject to more wear and tear than any other, and this is also a long extension. It'll be Montero's age 35 season by the time it finishes, and no catcher that age appeared even in 100 games in the majors last season, Rod Barajas's 98 being the highest total. But the year prior to that, four such mature players reached 110 games - Ivan Rodriguez, Bengie Molina, Jorge Posada and Jason Kendall - so it is not impossible. Health is the key, and is largely a crap-shoot.

I haven't yet seen the breakdown of the amounts to be paid out, but if we assume an average cost per WAR of $5 million over the life of the deal, it would mean that Montero would need to produce 2.4 WAR per year for it to be a break-even scenario. He reached that mark in 2009 (3.1) and 2011 (3.8), and is on course to do so again this year, being at a 2.8 WAR pace thus far. As others have noted, replacing Montero with a catcher of comparable ability on the free-agent market would probably be as expensive, if not more so given the likely competition this winter, from markets far larger than Phoenix.

Piecoro also points out that if the team had been more aggressive over the winter, they could probably have got the deal done cheaper. But then contracts like the ones signed by Victor Martinez (4/$50m) and Yadier Molina ((6/$75m) went down, and the market changed in Montero's favor. Still, it's further evidence that the team feels they are heading towards a sweet-spot of pitching excellence that should help them compete in the coming seasons, and the time is now. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed that the decision pays off more like the Johnson and Upton contracts, rather than some of the others.

Finally, worth noting that the team are certainly beginning to stack up the commitments going forward: in addition to whatever Montero gets, here are the numbers for the next couple of seasons:
2013: Justin Upton $9.75m; Chris Young $8.5m; Jason Kubel $7.5m; Trevor Cahill $5.5m; Aaron Hill $5.5m; Willie Bloomquist $1.9m; John McDonald $1.5m = $40.15m total
2014: Upton $14.25m, Young $11.5m team option, Cahill $7.7m, Kubel $7.5m team option = $40.95m total.
Add in Miggy, and you're likely looking at fifty million in money already on the books for both years, if those team options for 2014 are exercised.