On Wednesday, it was announced that Giancarlo Stanton, otherworldly slugger who has played just 23 games over the last calendar year, would be sidelined until at least Opening Day due to a calf strain. This was an eye-roll moment for most Yankees fans who have already clung to Stanton as overpaid-lazy-player du jour, but it is also, frankly, a huge loss to an otherwise-still-great Yankees team.
Stanton’s injury history is nearly scroll-like at this point, tallying up to hamstring issues, an aching shoulder, a biceps tear, and now—the calf. In spite of all of this, Stanton still had a .379 wOBA last year, and he still has an .856 OPS as a Yankee, despite the now-whining about his durability.
It’s a tricky situation for the Yankees and fans alike, and I think it’s a bit more complicated than people would like to believe. Likely, Stanton will opt in to the rest of his contract after 2020, meaning that the Yankees will be paying an additional $244 million from now through 2027. On one hand, that could be a pretty bad, an Albert Pujols-level contract. On another hand, it’s not as simple to say it’s the same as whiffing on a big free agent deal.
Remember, Stanton largely fell into the Yankees’ lap. After he rejected deals that would send him to either St. Louis or San Francisco, there was simply no other team available that could withstand the immediate salary impact of Stanton, had a need, and for whom Stanton himself would waive the no-trade clause.
It was, if it all does end up working poorly, a bad stroke of luck. Based on all of the information we had at the time, one would take the Stanton contract presented in front of you in December of 2017. Considering the rising price of free agents that would become Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Gerrit Cole’s asking price, it was a fair price considering the Marlins chipped in $30 million themselves and all the Yankees had to really sacrifice was Starlin Castro, with no love lost on the infield side of the roster.
It’s a weird situation where it was a deal-you-can’t-refuse, yet the trajectory of the actual deal has nosedived almost immediately and with little warning. Sure, Stanton has had injuries in the past—from hamstring strains to knee surgery in 2012 to being struck in the face in 2014, which wasn’t in his control, but the sheer piling-on of injuries is not the usual progression, even for a player hitting that all-important 30 years-old.
The Yankees have seemingly shifted their medical staff in bringing Eric Cressey into the fold, but that still doesn’t stop the likes of Severino and Stanton missing time, if it’s even possible for him to have that kind of control. Even if better strength and conditioning methods do give ancillary benefits to the roster as a whole, there will still be injury-riddled players if that’s their propensity, and Stanton (at least for now) fits into that mold.
That also introduces the wrinkle, a la Jacoby Ellsbury, of collecting handsomely in insurance money; one would have to imagine they collected $20 million or more last year. This on one hand lessens the financial impact of such a deal to the point where its worst effect, at its root, is the player’s performance lost.
Which is all big contracts are about, to go at this in a circular manner. You sign stars to get star-level performance, not to get a good financial deal. And even if you get a bad financial deal, ultimately the sunk cost is a feature and what the team misses most is the 2017 player who hit 59 home runs, and could have hit 60+ had he played a full season with the even-more-juiced ball. Bad contracts do not matter to franchises of this size, but every day of peak-Stanton not seen on a ball field is a bigger loss than any dollar amount on paper that’s lost.