Baseball's overdue correction

Baseball's overdue correction

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MLB owners and general managers have been doing their best Takeru Kobayashi impersonations this season, eating fistfuls of overpriced contracts the way the 145-pound eating champ packs away hot dogs at the annual Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest in New York.

The only difference is, Kobayashi's earned minor celebrity status by cramming franks down his throat every Fourth of July while baseball's owners and GMs mostly earn criticism and ridicule from fans and local media when they're forced to swallow millions of dollars just to purge unwanted players from their rosters.

Take the Anaheim Angels, for example, the reigning world champs. Last year the Angels were second in the AL with a 3.69 team ERA; this year, they're fourth but the ERA has swelled to 4.15. Staff ace Jarrod Washburn certainly has contributed to Anaheim's team struggles, with a jump in ERA from 3.15 last season to 4.69 through 23 starts this year. Starters Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey also have posted higher ratios in 2003, as has closer Troy Percival. But Washburn, Ortiz and Lackey are 28, 30 and 24, respectively, and, more importantly, they only make about $6.5 million combined this year. Percival, meanwhile, is still considered one of the premier closers in the game.

In other words, their jobs are safe. Kevin Appier's job, on the other hand, was not.

Appier, a 15-year veteran who came to the Angels in a trade for Mo Vaughn prior to the 2002 season, won 14 games last year with a 3.92 ERA in 188 innings of work. It's been a far different story for Appier this season, though, going 7-7 in 19 starts with a 5.63 ERA and 17 home runs allowed in only 92.2 IP, as opposed to just 23 for the entire 2002 campaign.

But the number that really stands out on Appier's scorecard is 11.5, as in the $11.5 million the Angels were paying the right-hander for his services this year. Shelling out that kind of loot for a 14-game winner with an ERA below 4.00 is tolerable. Shelling out that kind of loot for a .500 pitcher with an ERA sneaking up on 6.00 is intolerable.

So last week, unable to find anybody desperate or drunk enough to trade for him, the Angels simply cut Appier, which wouldn't exactly be newsworthy if Anaheim didn't still owe the 35 year old more than $15.6 million in guaranteed money through next season. And since any team that claimed Appier would then be responsible for that considerable chunk of change, he slid through waivers and became a free agent.

Enter the AL Central-leading Royals, with whom Appier spent the first decade of his career. Now that the right-hander was a free agent, Kansas City signed the former Angel and only has to pay him about $100,000 for the rest of the season. Even better -- or worse, if you're an Anaheim fan -- Appier's former team is responsible for his entire 2004 salary of $12 million.

In other words, the defending World Series champions are paying Kevin Appier $15.6 million through the end of next season... to pitch for the Kansas City Royals.

Don't feel bad for the Angels, though -- they knew that this was exactly how the scenario would play out once they cut Appier loose last week. Apparently, they realized, "Hey, since we have to pay this chump all this money anyway, why don't we pay him to pitch like crap for someone else?" And that's exactly what they're doing.

Angels management decided it made more sense to pay Appier to leave than to pay Appier to stay.

But that's not an innovative decision, not this year anyway. Free-agent spending reached astronomical heights a couple years ago, as represented by that $252 million monstrosity the Rangers inked Alex Rodriguez to before the 2001 season. Manny Ramirez got $160 million over eight years from the Red Sox just days later. Earlier that month the Rockies coughed up $121 million over eight years for Mike Hampton and the Yankees threw $88.5 million at Mike Mussina before giving a seven-year, $120 million contract to Jason Giambi the following December. It was like everybody had suddenly started playing with Monopoly money.

But it wasn't simply the superstars who were getting fat -- marginal players like Denny Neagle, Andy Ashby, Derek Bell, Todd Hundley, David Segui, Charles Johnson, Jeffrey Hammonds, Rick Reed, Turk Wendell, Alex Gonzalez, Marvin Benard and Darren Dreifort all cashed in with multi-year, multi-million dollar deals that eclipsed their actual values before the 2001 season. Then Chan Ho Park, Marty Cordova, Steve Karsay, Sterling Hitchcock, David Weathers, Jay Powell, Tino Martinez, Todd Van Poppel, Moises Alou, Aaron Sele, Matt Anderson, Roger Cedeno and Pedro Astacio all got much more than they were worth the following winter.

But times have changed and it seems baseball's actually not immune to the problems that have plagued the economy. The sport finds itself wading through an economic correction after years of overpaying for secondary talent, and teams that are hampered with these inflated contracts are desperate to make a clean break and start from ground zero again.

It started last winter when the Rockies agreed to pay a record $49 million of Hampton's remaining salary just to be able to ship him off to the Braves in a three-way deal. The Marlins, the third team involved in the Hampton trade, will pay $30 million to the lefty over the next three years but because Florida also purged the contracts of Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson, they actually saved about $23 million in the end. Atlanta, meanwhile, was on the hook for $5.5 million of Hampton's salary over the next three years but will then have to shoulder the entire load of his 2006, 2007 and 2008 salaries, which comes to a clean $43 million.

Got all that? Bottom line is, the Rockies forked over a ton of cash just to kick Hampton's overpaid fanny to the curb and make room for the emerging Shawn Chacon and some other young starters like Aaron Cook and Chin-hui Tsao.

Look at what the Mets have done in the past month, trading Roberto Alomar to the White Sox and Jeromy Burnitz to the Dodgers for mediocre prospects and eating more than $7 million in the process. The Rangers dealt Carl Everett to the Sox for a handful of average minor leaguers and lost $3.5 million, and while they received some good prospects in a trade with the Marlins for closer Ugueth Urbina, Texas still lost about $1.75 million in that deal.

But hey, getting questionable talent in such trades is better than simply paying out the nose to dump a player and not getting anything in return. The Detroit Tigers went Appier on Damian Easley earlier this season, cutting the overpriced infielder while still owing him more than $14 million. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who gave Easley a look before cutting him on June 4, were themselves in the hole for $9.25 million after booting veteran outfielder Greg Vaughn. Arizona still owes retired third baseman Matt Williams more than $6.5 million after cutting him on June 1, the Rangers cut reliever Todd Van Poppel and still owe him nearly $5 million, and the Brewers owe Jeffrey Hammonds more than $4.5 after releasing him on June 4.

So where did all this sudden fiscal responsibility come from? Owners finally realized that they went a little crazy with the checkbook a few years ago and it became painfully clear that debilitating contracts like Hampton's and Easley's were preventing certain franchises from making significant improvements on the field. And with attendance numbers undeniably sagging, team execs recognized that they weren't going to sell tickets if the product on the field didn't draw fans to the turnstiles.

Because of these variables, sellers on the trade market have been forced to accept less value in return for their bargaining chips than they would have even one year ago because buyers understand that they've got the upper hand with desperate owners looking to crawl out from under their piles of wasted money. Look no further than Roberto Alomar for a perfect example. 

In December of 2001 the Cleveland Indians, in their own strip-down and rebuild process, sent Alomar and a couple minor leaguers to the Mets for outfielders Matt Lawton and Alex Escobar, reliever Jerrod Riggan, left-handed starter Billy Traber and first baseman Earl Snyder. Of the five players the Tribe got back, only Lawton had any significant major-league experience while Escobar and Traber were both top prospects at the time of the deal. When the trade was announced, it was widely assumed that, while the Mets would benefit greatly from the addition of Alomar's potent bat and golden glove (oh yeah?), the Indians got an impressive package of young talent in return.

Fast forward to July 1 of this year and look at what the Mets got from the White Sox for Alomar: relievers Royce Ring and Edwin Almonte along with minor league infielder Andrew Salvo. Plus, the Mets have to pay some of Alomar's remaining salary. And while Ring is considered a very good relief prospect, Almonte and Salvo are both sub-par minor leaguers.

Not exactly the same caliber of players the Mets surrendered 19 months earlier to get Alomar, is it? Granted, he wasn't the same player with the Mets that he was with the Indians, but in a more charitable market even the 2003 version of Robbie Alomar would've netted more value in trade.

And look at what the Indians got for Bartolo Colon (and pitcher Tim Drew) when they dealt the hard-throwing right-hander to the Expos last year: first baseman Lee Stevens, infielder Brandon Phillips, lefty pitcher Cliff Lee and outfielder Grady Sizemore. Stevens, a 10-year veteran, was added for salary purposes, but Phillips, Lee and Sizemore were all top-notch prospects. Phillips in particular was dubbed the best infield prospect in baseball by many insiders, and while he struggled this season with the Indians, the kid still is just 22 years old and has plenty of time to develop. Sizemore, meanwhile, has delivered sensational minor league numbers this year, as has Lee, who will likely find himself with the big-league club soon.

Again, fast forward to this season and of the big-name starters that were dealt before the trade deadline, nobody even came close to bringing in as much talent as the Indians were able to secure for Colon last year. Sure, maybe Sidney Ponson, who the Giants picked up from the Orioles for Damian Moss, Kurt Ainsworth and Ryan Hannaman, isn't the same caliber of pitcher that Colon is, but judging by what's come across the transaction wire this year, it's safe to assume that no GM was willing to unload three blue-chippers like Phillips, Lee and Sizemore. Because they knew they didn't have to.

(Incidentally, all you Indians fans who have been riding GM Mark Shapiro since his first day on the job, take note. The process admittedly has been painful but you've got to give the man credit for his timing -- by gutting the team last season, he sped up the rebuilding process by a few years. At least. While teams like the Mets and Rangers have been forced to settle for B-level prospects this season, Shapiro got in just before the market collapsed and emerged with what many say is the best minor-league system in baseball. It may not show in the standings, but this team is more prepared to compete for a World Series by 2005 than it was before the Alomar trade.)

It's amazing when you think about how different baseball's financial landscape looked just a couple years ago. Guys like Mike Hampton were getting $20 million a year; guys like Darren Dreifort and Denny Neagle were getting $10 million. Today, teams are willing to absorb millions of dollars just to eradicate those kinds of contracts.

And even when a GM finds a taker for his overpaid garbage, another hurdle often remains: the no-trade clause. The Rangers had two separate deals worked out for oft-injured and oft-grumpy outfielder Juan Gonzalez this year, and Gonzalez nixed them both because of the no-trade clause in his contract. Texas reportedly also had a deal on the table for first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, but he too killed the deal with his own no-trade clause.

Why teams ever agree to these clauses is beyond me. They give players an obscene amount of power in personnel decisions, allowing them to potentially roadblock moves that would otherwise benefit the franchise, which is exactly what happened to the Rangers with Gonzalez and Palmeiro. A no-trade clause can be just as obstructive as a gaudy contract; combine the two, though, and you've got a general manager's worst nightmare. Why even create that possibility?

If it's the only way to get a player to sign, I'd say, "sayonara" and move on. Oakland's unwillingness to include a no-trade clause with their final offer to potential free agent Jason Giambi reportedly was the reason he left town. Seems to me Oakland's survived despite his exodus. You may ask me, "What have the A's won without Giambi at first?" 

I'd respond, "What have the Yankees won with Giambi at first?"

For so many years we've been forecasting the ruin of baseball due to carelessly excessive spending, and while George Steinbrenner still seems to miraculously sail along unaffected by the sport's choppy waters, it's both refreshing and reassuring to see most owners now paying for their past mistakes.

We'll never have a perfect system in baseball, not while guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses remain intact. But we're better off now than we were when A-Rod, Manny, Hampton and Giambi signed their contracts. Let's just hope the improvement continues.

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