Rolling the dice with risky deals

Long, expensive contracts can paralyze teams

December 08, 2010|By Phil Rogers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nobody boos when their team overspends.

Nobody rushes to write a check for season tickets when their team trades its most popular player for three guys known only to immediate family and Baseball America subscribers.

Fans and the teams they follow always are looking for immediate gratification, no matter the cost. There is, however, one underlying catch to the plan.

"There's not going to be any less desire to win next year than there is this year,'' White Sox general manager Ken Williams said as he was working to blow his budget with the signing of two of baseball's most productive first basemen.

In other words, you're going to have to do it again and again and again. The danger is that at some point, if you keep dancing with Scott Boras and running through blinking yellow lights, all of the four- and five-year contracts and old, injured players are going to come crashing down on your head. This is happening to the Cubs, who asked for trouble when they gave Alfonso Soriano eight years and Carlos Zambrano five.

Not many people complained at the time, of course.

Nationals fans aren't upset Boras landed a seven-year, $126 million deal for Jayson Werth, who was essentially a wing man for the Phillies. Fans of the Yankees and Rangers will be outraged if their teams don't win the bidding war for the 32-year-old Cliff Lee, even if it takes a seven-year commitment — the same kind CC Sabathia received at age 28 — to get a deal done.

With Major League Baseball moving toward adding two more teams to the playoffs, more and more owners are digging deeper and deeper to avoid feeling left out in October. Their idle time in 2010 so offended the Red Sox they traded three of their best prospects for Adrian Gonzalez and then started working on a contract extension expected to be at least seven years, $160 million.

A second-place season is an affront to a fan's system.

"You see it in football too,'' says Steve Phillips, the former Mets GM who is now a talk-show host for Sirius. "Two coaches have already been fired who got their teams in the playoffs last year, including one who almost went to the Super Bowl. The economy might play into it. Owners are looking at doing everything they can to keep their fans happy.''

As a result, the price of poker is going up. That's bad news for teams like the Cubs and Rays, who are cutting their payrolls, and for teams like the Cardinals and Brewers, who may have misplayed their hand with their leading men.

The Brewers at least know it, and are listening to offers for Prince Fielder. But the Cardinals have to be getting awfully nervous about Albert Pujols. The time to sign him to a long-term contract was a year ago. In the current market, why should he take any less than the Alex Rodriguez gold standard — a 10-year deal worth $27.5 million a year? And can the Cardinals fill out a deep roster paying him and left fielder Matt Holliday almost $45 million?

Along these lines, some are suggesting the White Sox's talks with Paul Konerko have turned bad because Konerko has suddenly become greedy. Huh?

He made $12 million a year ago, true. But why should he now take less than the $14 million a year Williams agreed to pay Adam Dunn? Konerko is three years older than Dunn, true, but he outhit him and is a much better defensive first baseman. Oh, and he's the unofficial captain.

If the White Sox weren't willing to lose Konerko to the Rangers or someone else, they shouldn't have let him get to free agency.

Props to second-year GM Jed Hoyer of the Padres for not letting this awkwardness play out with Gonzalez.

A lot of people think the Padres should have hung on to Gonzalez for at least the first few months of 2011 in the hope of duplicating the magic that led them to the threshold of the playoffs. But free agency already had claimed Miguel Tejada, Yorvit Torrealba, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia.

Hoyer was following one of baseball's ultimate truths — that success is almost always about having more good, young players than the other teams. That's the way the Rangers and Rays went from bad to good.

Hoyer made the hard call. Few Padres' fans applauded it, but two or three years from now they may be giving him a standing ovation.

progers@tribune.com

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