Bob Smizik: Freeman contract shows full bargain of McCutchen deal

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No one should be surprised at the continuing saga of baseball-salary madness. Those seemingly outlandish contracts would not be offered if there were not the money to back them up. Despite the ever-escalating salaries, MLB teams not only are not going bankrupt, they are awash in profit.

The latest contract to grab the headlines and stagger the imagination was the eight-year, $135 million deal for Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who in three seasons never has hit more than 23 home runs and only once pushed his OPS above .800. But Freeman is guaranteed to make an annual average of $16.9 million through the 2021 season.

This contract has relevance for the Pirates.

• It further reinforces the belief that Andrew McCutchen is among the best bargains in MLB.

• It does the same to the notion that Pedro Alvarez will be out of Pittsburgh in three years or sooner.

The Pirates have maintained for some time it would be difficult for them to pay market-value salaries for top players and they’ve rarely, if ever, done so. The McCutchen deal is further proof of that.

It’s difficult to compare contracts because age and service time also must be factored and they’re often not the same. McCutchen, for example, signed his contract in March of 2012 when he was 25, a year away from arbitration and four years from free agency. Freeman, 24, signed his deal in his first year of arbitration and three years removed from free agency.

But any way it is viewed, McCutchen's six-year, $51.5 million contract, with its annual average of $8.58 million, is a bargain. The Pirates are to be commended for presenting a package that was enticing enough, with the lifetime security if offered, for McCutchen to sign, but yet was also good from their end.

Some will castigate the Pirates for being cheap, but that is utter nonsense. McCutchen is a smart guy. He was represented by a respected agent. It was a good deal for both sides -- but a better deal for the Pirates.

When ESPN expert Tim Kurkjian was asked to explain why the Braves gave such a contract to Freeman, one of the first facts he mentioned was that Freeman finished fifth in the 2013 MVP voting. Of course, McCutchen finished first -- and third the year before.

No one would dispute McCutchen, despite being three years older than Freeman, is the better long-term asset. He is a completely proven player. His numbers will vary over the years, but there is almost no one who does not foresee him being one of the best players in the game for years to come. Freeman has steadily improved in his three seasons but few would be prepared to say with certainty he will be one of the best in the game for years to come.

To show how fast salaries are spiraling, in 2008, Justin Morneau, also a first baseman, had almost identical service time as Freeman but was coming off not just a good year but an MVP-season with the Minnesota Twins. He signed a six-year deal that averaged $13.3 million.

So what will the market be for Pedro Alvarez when the Pirates attempt to extend him long-term or when he hits free agency after the 2016 season?

Much depends on how Alvarez’s career progresses. If it doesn’t progress well, the Pirates won’t likely be interested and this discussion is moot. But if he continues to be a big-time home-run hitter -- he led the NL with 36 last season -- and improves his overall offensive skills, his contract would be -- a semi-educated guess -- in the annual range of $16 million to $18 million.

Could the Pirates do that? Not likely. Could they entice Alvarez into the kind of contract that McCutchen accepted? With Scott Boras as his agent, not likely.

Losing players to free agency is a fact of MLB life. It happens to almost all teams. After last season, for example, in the NL Central St. Louis lost Carlos Beltran and Cincinnati Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo to free agency.

Both teams are relying, for now, on their farm systems to replace Beltran and Choo. The Pirates always have planned for such a contingency.

• • •

And there’s one more point of relevance for the Pirates in the Freeman story. He parlayed two above average and one outstanding season into $135 million. What happens, as many fans expect it will, when Gregory Polanco does even better in his first three seasons.

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