By Sam Belden
While the MLB hot stove is burning bright, some of the biggest baseball news to come out of this week had absolutely nothing to do with the current crop of free agents. According to multiple reports, superstar outfielder and 2015 National League MVP Bryce Harper, who will hit the open market after the 2018 season, is after a $400 million contract of at least 10 years. Whether or not he eventually gets it, this initial demand seems to have stifled talks of an extension with the Washington Nationals, at least for now.
While $400 million is an exorbitant sum, baseball fans shouldn’t be surprised by Harper’s demands — we’ve known about his prodigious talent and potentially massive earning potential for years. But in today’s MLB, the wealth is shared, and even the most unlikely players can pad their bank accounts beyond belief. Want proof? Look no further than Rich Hill and Mark Melancon, two veteran pitchers who signed big contracts this week.
Hill, 36, signed a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the richest teams in the league. Acquired at this year’s trade deadline, Hill’s time in Chavez Ravine was limited by recurring blisters on his throwing hand, but he was effective when healthy, posting a 1.83 ERA in six regular season starts. While his throwing motion is suspect and his last season with more than 150 innings pitched came in 2007, the Dodgers chose to take a gamble on Hill to the tune of $48 million over the next three years.
This multi-year deal should put a lid on what has been one of the wildest odysseys through the sport of baseball in recent memory. Once a top prospect for the Chicago Cubs, Hill underwent shoulder surgery in 2011 and Tommy John surgery in 2013. He returned near the end of 2014, posting an ERA of infinity in two appearances for the Angels before signing with the New York Yankees and providing solid relief down the stretch.
After the season, Hill became a free agent and began working out with his old American Legion team in Massachusetts. While he had been a sidearm reliever for the past several seasons, he started throwing over the top again and got inspiring results. However, no team would give him a rotation spot for the 2015 season, not even in Triple-A. Hill could have made around $15,000 a month as a minor league reliever, but he instead signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League for around a sixth of that salary, choosing opportunity over stability.
The gamble worked — after making just two starts, both of them scoreless, Hill attracted the attention of the Boston Red Sox and was signed. He made four sterling starts down the stretch, got a one-year deal with Oakland for 2016, and the rest is history. Despite an injury-plagued career, Hill will be able to head towards retirement with lifelong financial comfort all but assured.
While Melancon didn’t have to overcome nearly as much adversity to reach this point, his story nevertheless has a rags-to-riches feel. Drafted by the Yankees in the ninth round of the 2006 draft, the reliever was once best known as one of the players traded in exchange for Lance Berkman at the 2010 deadline, a deal that did little to help the Bronx Bombers. He had a solid year with the Astros as a 26-year-old rookie in 2011 and an abysmal year with the Red Sox in 2012; that offseason, he was traded to the Pirates as part of a package for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt.
After arriving in Pittsburgh, Melancon wasted no time transforming into a different pitcher, posting a 1.39 ERA and 16 in saves in his first year. In all, he racked up a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves over 260.1 innings for the Pirates before being traded to Washington at this year’s trade deadline. There, he continued to dominate, setting him up for a big payday this offseason. He got one earlier this week, signing with the San Francisco Giants for $62 million over four years, the largest-ever contract for a relief pitcher to date.
While Melancon’s career was never in dire straits like Hill’s was, it was on a path towards an eternity of middle relief mediocrity. By smashing expectations, both players were able to grab a piece of the vast sums of money that flow freely in modern baseball. At this rate, Harper will be taking home that $400 million check, and then some.