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Monday, November 20, 2006
Cubs Sign Alfonso Soriano for 8-Years, $136 Million: Does His Age Matter?

The Chicago Cubs have signed Alfonso Soriano to an 8-year, $136 million contract. The free agent outfielder had what many consider to be an excellent 2006 season, hitting 46 homers, 41 doubles, 95 RBIs, and stealing 41 bases. On the other hand, he batted an uninspiring .277, struck out 160 times, and his OPS of .911, while impressive, was only 13th in the National League. But the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908--the 100 year anniversary looms--and fresh off a 66-96 season, it's probably fair to assume that GM Jim Hendry has to make a splash this off season for his own job security.

Soriano's contract is the fifth-largest in MLB history, behind Alex Rodriguez ($252 million for 10 years), Derek Jeter ($189 million for 10 years), Manny Ramirez ($160 million for eight years) and Todd Helton ($141.5 million for 11 years).

But what makes Soriano's contract so interesting is that he'll be 31-years-old when the 2007 season begins, and presumably in the latter portion of his prime. In contrast, when they signed their mega-deals, the players noted above were in, or about to enter, their primes: Alex Rodriguez was 26, Derek Jeter was 27, and both Todd Helton and Manny Ramirez were 28. Granted, their contracts--other than Ramirez's--were for longer terms than Soriano's, but at least their employers were clearly paying for what was to come.

So are the Cubs paying Soriano more for his past accomplishments? That begs the question of when a player's prime occurs. Seattle Mariners GM Bill Bavasi says it begins at age 27. Kevin Whitaker of Between the Lines says it's between ages 26 and 30, with age 27 typically a player's peak year. Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it's between ages 28 and 32.

Economics professor J.C. Bradbury has conducted some empirical research on baseball players' primes and he also links to some other studies (which generally find that players peak between ages 26 and 28). Bradbury finds that most players peak at age 29, although superstars tend to peak between ages 31 and 32.

Regardless of when a player's prime occurs, Soriano's career path will not necessarily follow the typical trajectory. In fact, he'll probably continue to put up excellent numbers for several years to come, and even if he is no longer a 40/40 threat by age 34 or 35, he could still be a very productive player--34-year-old Manny Ramirez is still one of the most feared hitters in baseball and 36-year-old Jim Thome hit 42 homeruns last season.

But an 8-year, $136 million contract for a 31-year-old still seems very risky, especially one whose speed is such a significant portion of his value. Then again, if the Cubs win the World Series with Soriano, there is no doubt the fans will think he was worth every penny.

Update: See Jonathan Weiler's remarks on Sports Media Review.


Great post. Some good points in taking us to issue of performance and wages, in this case at "superstar" level. American sports have this great feature: you can virtually know how good a player is by analysing his stats (superstars tend to have the best numbers at some point), which for some reason does not happen in Europe. Apart from goals or tries or whatever score, which can hardly be described as a relevant item for all positions in the field, players in Europe are paid and transferred on the basis of their perceived value and not whether they have delivered the goods (which is apparent from stats).

It would be a great development if European Sport paid attention to stats as Americans do. Not least because it would probably be a telling factor in changing the way clubs are run. After all, investments should be justified.

Blogger Luis Cassiano Neves -- 11/20/2006 9:51 AM  

It seems like Soriano and his agent based his demands on what Beltran got in 2004 (7/119 for average annual value of 17 million/year).

That he ended up getting the contract, plus an extra year, is ludicrous.

First of all, Beltran is a better player (more walks, for starters).

Second, Beltran is about 3 years younger and his contract expires after his age 34 season (I believe). The Mets essentially locked up Beltran's peak years.

And last, the Cubs are likely going to play him in center, where he's never played, but may be average, and bat him leadoff, which will be a poor use of his power, in addition to being a bad place to place a guy with a career OBP of .325.

It's almost as if the Cubs were using Soriano's old birthday (he "aged" 2 years upon being traded to the Rangers).

Blogger Satchmo -- 11/20/2006 10:04 AM  

Pro sports throw away money...literally. There's no way that his salary should've increased by that much. So what if he had a "breakout" season or whatever.

Blogger ADB251 -- 11/20/2006 12:06 PM  

Thanks for these excellent comments.


Great points. I had no idea that the "Moneyball"/statistics-based approach to sports hasn't caught on in Europe. I wonder what might be some sociological explanations for it being popular in the U.S. but not in Europe? Might it be that American sports lend themselves better to statistical analysis, or is there something else going on? I really don't know, but it would make for a thought-provoking examination.

Satchmo (Will),

Great contextual points about Soriano's contract. I think you've hit on a number of reasons why the Cubs might regret this deal.


I agree, the increase in Soriano's pay is jarring and not seemingly rational. But I guess a player's market-value truly is the most a team will pay him when he is available.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 11/20/2006 9:54 PM  

How much credit should Soriano's agent be given for this contract? I am guessing during negotiations his agent avoided the issue of age as much as possible. Also, I would assume that in contemporary athletics, athletes are playing sports for a longer period of time and at a higher level. Many good examples of this come in "low-contact" sports like baseball, but other good examples come from hockey with players such as Chris Chelios, Nicholas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr, and Rob Brind'Amour all performing among the best in the NHL at an older age. I think it is players such as these who justify general managers' decisions to offer and agree to contracts like Soriano's.

Blogger WMUpsci_student -- 11/20/2006 10:50 PM  

Do not forget that baseball, like all pro sports today, is furiously working on drugs, HGH, masking agents... that will continue to extend the "shelf life" of these players. When looking at a baseball player today, their prime easily extends into their 40's. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are prime examples.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/21/2006 6:38 PM  

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