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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.