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David O'Brien

The psychology of young players and long-term contracts

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – So here’s the question: If you give a young player a lucrative, multi-year contract long before he gets to free agency, and in some cases even before he becomes eligible for arbitration, is there a risk of the player feeling added pressure to live up to the contract?

Because as you can imagine, there is already quite a bit of of pressure involved in being a professional athlete. It’s not even remotely as easy as they make it look, playing in front of crowded stadiums and much-larger television audiences, trying to meet the expectations of others while providing for your family, avoiding injury, and exploiting a relatively small window of opportunity that is the typical pro-athlete career span, before your skills – and earning potential — start to fade.

Andrelton Simmons was still at least one year away from arbitration eligibility when the Braves signed him last week to a seven-year, $58 million contract.

Andrelton Simmons was still at least one year away from arbitration eligibility when the Braves signed him last week to a seven-year, $58 million contract.

The other school of thought is that pressure – specifically, the potential to help a kid relieve some pressure – is a big reason why teams should give long-term contracts to especially talented young players. That by giving a giving him a long-term deal that buys out some arbitration and free-agent years, you can remove one of the large worries that might otherwise rattle around in a young player’s noggin and free up his thinking to focus on the task at hand, rather than whether the team has him in its long-term plans and how an injury might affect his future when he’s on year-to-year contracts and whether he should play with this nagging injury when there’s a chance it could turn into something bigger and why whould I risk my long-term future by playing with such an injury when I’m only guaranteed to get paid through the end of this season and a serious injury would seriouisly jeopardize my future earnings potential and…

OK, I think you get the point, right? It’s easy to see that side of the debate, just as it is to see the other side.

And the answer to the initial question we posed? It depends on the player.

That’s not a cop-out, but just a reflection of the simple fact that psychology is highly complicated, and some players will react differently to having long-term security than others will.

Among the many issues that general managers and their staffs must consider when determining whom they should offer long-term contracts is, does this guy have the right mindset to benefit from such a deal, and perform at a level as high or higher than he might if he was playing on year-to-year contracts? You know, because if they are year-to-year, some guys might be more inclined to bust their butts trying to make sure he has the best stats possible and can make maximum dollars once he gets to arbitration and/or free agency. Or so goes the thinking.

And then there is the issue of injuries. Not a small issue, this one. Because while it’s impossible to predict most serious injuries, and any pitcher is only one pitch away from catastrophic injury and any hitter only one bad step away from major knee or ankle surgery or a badly dislocated shoulder or whatever else, it’s not impossible to see in some athletes a history of nagging sort of injuries that tend to keep that player off the field for a good portion of the 162-game season. And while insurance almost always covers a big chunk of a major injury that lands a player on the 60-day disabled list, insurance doesn’t cover the salary of a player who’s always going on the DL with nagging injuries like muscle strains or sprains.

So there’s that consideration, as well.

Personally, I’m of the belief that with the majority of top young players, the positives of long-term deals far outweight any potential negatives, both for the player and the team. Because in almost all cases these elite-level player wouldn’t be top young players –prospects perhaps, but usually not accomplished big-leaguers – if they didn’t have a lot of personal pride to begin with and weren’t highly motivated to excel, whether or not they are getting paid commensurate to their performance.

Craig Kimbrel was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, but avoided going to a hearing when the Braves signed him to a four-year, $42 million contract with a fifth-year option.

Craig Kimbrel was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, but avoided going to a hearing when the Braves signed him to a four-year, $42 million contract with a fifth-year option.

In other words, just as there are few players, in my opinion, who would let disappointment over a contract adversely affect their performance, there are also very few who let a huge, long-term contract make them “soft” and lead to them never reaching their potential. Because these guys have egos as well as the aforementioned pride, and they want to out-perform their peers. Not to mention, if they’re surrounded by other talented players on a good team, they push each other to excel and reach the team’s goals as well as their own.

Which brings us to the Braves the $280 million guaranteed that the team gave this month to five players 25 or younger in multi-year contracts — four of those contracts ranging in length from four years (plus an option) to eight years.

Jason Heyward got the spree started with a two-year, $13.3 million deal on Jan. 4, and a few hours later the floodgates opened when first baseman Freddie Freeman signed a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract. Then in the first week of spring training, starting pitcher Julio Teheran got a six-year, $32.4 million deal with a seventh-year option, and closer Craig Kimbrel signed a four-year, $42 million deal with a fifth-year option.

The fifth extension, and perhaps the bargain of the bunch in terms of potentially club-friendly contracts, was the seven-year, $58 million extension that shortstop Andrelton Simmons signed last week.

In a span of 2-1/2 weeks, the Braves completely changed the perception of their franchise, quashing the notion that they couldn’t afford to, or just weren’t willing, to spend the kind of money it would take to keep together many of the core members of their talented young team. They showed that they could and would, signing four of those players to long-term deals that will carry into the new era when the team moves into a planned new ballpark in Cobb County in 2017, with an expected spike in revenues associated with that new ballpark being a big driver in these contracts, most of which see a large increase in annual salary coinciding with both the players reaching would-be free-agent years as well as the move into the new park.

The timing for a new ballpark – or, rather, for the revenues they expect from the ballpark and surrounding retail/entertainment complex — couldn’t have been much better for the Braves in that respect, as it came at just the right time when most of the above players would’ve been reaching free agency and been too expensive for the Braves to fit into a payroll that hovered around $90 million for more than a half-decade and will now rise considerably above $100 million by the time they play their first season in Cobb County.

So here’s where all of this blog was leading? What do the players and the Braves think about the psychology, as it were, of long-term deals for young players who weren’t even close to reaching free agency yet? (In the cases of Teheran and Simmons, they were still a year or two away from even being eligible for arbitration.)

And here’s what they said themselves when asked that question in its various forms.

Andrelton Simmons: “I’m not going to change the way I go about my business. I’m still going to play hard. So I’m just happy to have their confidence to invest in me….

“I wouldn’t think (the contract would result in added pressure). I mean, everything has a little effect. But I would think if anything, I should feel more calm and confident now….

“Yeah. We all know what we have in these guys (who’ve signed long-term extensions), and it shows that the Braves really want to win. That’s what we want to play for, so I think giving us that confidence, that trust, it will make us want to do even better on the field.”

Craig Kimbrel: “I wanted to stay here with a group of guys that I came up with and am comfortable with. And in the game of baseball, it’s who you’re around, it’s the team you’re on, it’s the guys you’re surrounded by. We have an awesome core here, and I feel like this is a core that can work for a long time….

“My goal is to show up and do better than I’ve done in the last three years. Each and every year that I show up, I want to do better than the year before. And that’s not going to change….

“It’s relaxing to know that all I have to worry about for the next five years is showing up and winning. And that really is all I think about, is winning. When I get the ball in my hand, I want to walk off the field with the game won. And that’s all I have to think about for the next four or five years.”

Freddie Freeman: “I think a couple of days ago Frank Wren said it best. He said they gave me this contract for a reason, and not to go out there and try to prove that I’m the player I already am. Go out there and try to get better. I’ve progressively gotten better the last three years, and hopefully I can stay healthy and continue to do so. Not try to put extra pressure, just go out there and keep doing what I’ve been doing….

“This is a team I always wanted to play for. They drafted me when I was 17 years old, so I don’t know anything else, and they’ve treated me with utmost respect. It’s just something I wanted to do. They let me know they wanted me here, so it’s my pleasure, I’m just glad (the entire front office) believed in me.”

Julio Teheran was still two years from arbitration eligibility when the Braves signed him last week to a six-year, $32.4 million contract with a seventh-year option.

Julio Teheran was still two years from arbitration eligibility when the Braves signed him last week to a six-year, $32.4 million contract with a seventh-year option.

Julio Teheran: “I’m happy with the contract. The first thing when I find out they wanted to (offer) me the contract, was to talk to my family and have all my family be on the same page. We all had the same position – it’s guaranteed money, and that’s going to be, like, less pressure for my career. Just go out there and try to be the same pitcher. I don’t think the contract’s going to change the pitcher that I am. Just try to go out there and compete, win some games. I’m going to be relaxed now…

“I feel happy, I feel excited. Now that I know my family is taken care of, I’m just going to go out there and try to have fun….

“It doesn’t change my goals that I have in mind. It’s a little bit more money, but the same kind of pitcher, the same mentality that I had….

“I feel like I’m the big part of my family now. There’s going to be a little more emotion. That’s going to help me a lot this year.’

Jason Heyward: “In my head that says basically to me, let’s go play some baseball. Let the front office and the agent take care of (contract talks).

“I’m just excited that I don’t have to worry about the (arbitration) process any longer. Baseball has a business side to it when it comes to dollars and cents. That’s not why I play. Not what I want to discuss when I’m trying to prepare for a season and to help the team get to the playoffs….

“For me it clears things up, as far as not being concerned about what’s going to happen with arbitration this year or next year. I know I have a job to do and I know what I mean to the team in the clubhouse and being on the field.”

Fredi Gonzalez: “I think it’s got to take that pressure off. I think all these guys, early in their career they’re playing for a contract, or they’re playing for longevity, playing to help their families out. And now, for the most part they don’t have to worry about that. They just have to go out and pitch or play and have fun like we used to do when we played for a hamburger and a coke. So I think it takes that pressure of their mind.”

• Here’s a great one from My Morning Jacket, which you can hear by clicking here.

“REMNANTS” by My Morning Jacket

Remnants of the empire
Artifacts of love

My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket

Will I meet the designer
What will he dream up?

Remnants of the empire
Gravity awake
What’s held down to the ground
Next round goes into space

Raising up the empire
Innocence and faith
What will hold you up
And what will stand in your way, way?

Then I saw a new Heaven
Formed in the bleeding light of dusk
All souls, all faiths
Always we were one

Raise a bayonet in the dark
For all the human race
Watch out, watch out, watch out, watch out
You can go my same way

Taking out the empire
Watching from afar
It’s not too late, never too late
To make our new fate

Then I saw a new Heaven
Formed in the bleeding light of dusk
Then I saw a new Heaven
Formed in the bleeding light of dusk
All souls, all faiths
Always we were one, ow!  

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