On Friday I wrote about many contracts – and one specifically lacking. And, over the weekend, that one player got a new deal. Ian Desmond, he of the turned down 7/$107M offer, took a 1-year deal to play leftfield for the Rangers. So, he gets to change teams, change leagues, and change positions, all for the right to play on a one-year deal for $3M less than he made last year. The hits just keep on coming.
This deal was the topic du jour over the weekend, culminating with former Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden saying: “I have never seen a worse contract, ever.” Strong words indeed. I think Desmond is a good guy and a good player, so I hope that he plays well and gets a nice multi-year deal next Fall to at least make up for some of that lost money.
After I posted on Friday, I thought more about the deal Dexter Fowler ultimately signed with the Cubs. Apparently, the sticking point on his deal with the Orioles was that Fowler wanted an opt-out clause after the first season (Yoenis Cespedes got one of those from the Mets, and Scott Kazmir got one from the Dodgers). The difference is that neither the Mets nor the Dodgers were required to give up a draft pick to sign their respective deals (Cespedes remained with the Mets, and the Astros did not make Kazmir a Qualifying Offer). For the Orioles to give Fowler $11M to play in 2016, commit themselves to another $22M, give up their first-round draft pick and the money allocated thereto, just to have Fowler potentially walk next November, was a bridge too far.
And, upon further reflection, it may very well be that Fowler got exactly what he wanted, and more:
He stays with a team he knows.
He has a better chance to win with the Cubs than the Orioles (even though the Orioles do look to be competitive in the stacked AL East).
He continues playing CF (in Baltimore, Fowler would have moved to RF because Adam Jones lives in CF at Camden Yards).
He gets an opt-out after one season (remember, it is a mutual option for Year 2).
If he utilizes the opt-out, he will make $13M this season (remember, there is a $5M buy-out).
And here is the kicker: After looking at all of the deals being done, I am sure his agent convinced him that there is no world in which he won’t get him 2/$20M in the open market after 2016. Or, said differently, the worst Fowler could do over a three year period would be 3/$33M. That sounds a lot like the deal he turned down from Baltimore.
Of course, Fowler is taking a performance risk; he is taking an injury risk; and after seeing Ian Desmond’s deal, he may be taking a market risk. But, it just may be that having the chance to break the Curse of the Billy Goat was worth all of those risks (oh, and a guaranteed $13M if it all goes to hell helps as well).
Which brings us to the other story of the weekend: Gerrit Cole not being happy with his $10K raise. A brief explanation: Players with less than three years of service time in the Major Leagues are obligated to accept the contract offered by the team. Cole has less than three years of service time. He was paid $531K last season, and was offered $541K this season (as point of reference, the MLB Minimum is $507.5K). The Pirates claim to have a policy about these types of things, and Cole and his agent (more about that in a minute) think an exception should be made for a guy of Gerrit’s stature and skill level.
It is a valid argument, but one that, upon closer inspection, doesn’t hold water. Here are just a few reasons why:
At $541K, Cole is still the Pirates highest-paid pre-arbitration player.
As a mid/small market team, the Pirates need to count nickels, and not give away C-Notes just to make one player happy.
Cole received an $8M signing bonus when drafted by the Pirates in 2011.
In 2013, Mike Trout, in the same position as Cole (but not, because by then he was already one of the best players in baseball and just won the Rookie of the Year Award), received $510K.
But, the most important reason why this doesn’t hold any water is that Gerrit Cole is represented by the Dark Knight himself, Scott Boras. Boras nearly always (always?) brings his players into Free Agency, hardly ever (has he ever?) gives a team a hometown discount, and extracts every ounce of value (plus an additional pound or two; see Fielder, Prince in Detroit; Ellsbury, Jacoby in New York; Werth, Jayson in Washington) from an acquiring team. You can bet that when Cole hits arbitration in 2017, and the open market of free agency in 2020, Boras won’t remember any beneficence on the part of the Pirates in the Spring of 2016. No, Boras will don a mask, wield a gun, and empty some team’s vault for his prized right-hander.
The last chapter of this book has not yet been written. It may be that the Pirates cave to the pressure and throw Cole an extra $100-$200K (Boras wanted a deal of at least $650K) just to make him happy. But they really shouldn’t. Gerrit Cole is a member of the MLBPA who negotiated the CBA, and he will most certainly be the beneficiary of that CBA in a few years’ time.
Sometimes, young Gerrit, patience is a virtue.
Teams started official Spring Training games today.
I try to teach my kids patience. It is an uphill battle – has been since birth – but I constantly try.
Delayed gratification, I explain to them, is the best kind. A bird in the hand is only half as much as two in the bush, I calculate for them. Just wait another minute/hour/day or so. All good things come to those who wait, I try to reassure them. I tell them we can walk down the hill and fuck them all. (Okay, I don’t actually tell them that.)
[**Bonus points if you can pull that reference. The answer is below.]
But sometimes patience can be its own worst enemy. Patience isn’t always a virtue.
Take free agents. Each year I make a mental note of guys who simply “blew it” by being patient, by not taking the bird in the hand.
I started this after the 2008 season, with Jason Varitek and my beloved Red Sox. The Boston captain was finishing up a 4/$40M contract, and was offered salary arbitration. By all reported accounts, an arbitrator would have awarded Varitek between $8-$10M for a single season. Jason and his overlord (er, agent), Scott Boras, decided it would be better to test the free agent market. Guess what, there were no takers for a 37-year old catcher who hit .220 the previous season. He then came back to the BoSox, hat in hand. The Red Sox offered a 1-year deal at $5M, with a team option for the second year at another $5M, or a player option for $3M. Simply put, Varitek cost himself at least $3M, and potentially $5M, in 2009 alone. And, in all likelihood, gave the Red Sox the lovely buy-one/get-one free deal, because the Red Sox got Varitek for two years at $10M. Well played sir, well played.
This issue has come into specific relief the last few seasons with advent of the Qualifying Offer (“QO”). For the uninitiated, it goes like this: when a player’s contract is over, his current team has the right to make him a Qualifying Offer, which would be a 1-year deal at the average salary of the top 125 players from the previous season. The player has one week to accept or reject. If he rejects, he becomes a free agent, and – this is the kicker – any team that signs him must forfeit – to the other team – their highest available draft pick in the upcoming draft. In addition to losing the draft pick, the acquiring team also loses the dollar allocation that goes with that pick. So, come June, the free-agent acquiring team will not only have less draft picks, they will have less money to spend on the picks they retain. In short, there is a high price to pay for any free agent who previously rejected a QO.
In some cases, losing the pick and the compensation is a no-brainer. If you are spending $200M+ on David Price or Zack Greinke, you are not going to let a little thing like a few hundred grand and a prospect stand in the way. But, if you are looking at a fringe guy, you will think twice about signing him.
With that as the backdrop, through the 2012 off-season, not only had no player ever accepted a Qualifying Offer, no player had ever felt negative repercussions for not doing so. That all changed after the 2013 season. In 2013, general managers started getting smart.
Here is the thinking:
From the current team’s perspective, there is no issue with making a Qualifying Offer. General Managers live by the credo that there is no such thing as a bad 1-year deal. You liked the guy enough to pay him last season, so why not pay him again. If you wouldn’t offer him a deal anywhere near the value of the Qualifying Offer (again, the average of the top 125 salaries), then you let him run off into free agency. But if he is worth the price, you make the offer and you win either way. (And, in many cases, you hope he signs elsewhere, as you then get the draft pick and the financial allocation attached thereto).
From the acquiring team’s perspective, you put a great deal of value into your draft picks and your draft dollar allocations. If the player isn’t worth both the money and the loss of a prospect down the road, you hold your water.
After the 2013 season, teams made Qualifying Offers to 13 players. Say yes, and the player was guaranteed $14.1M. Not too shabby. Some guys decided to roll the dice; and three, in particular, crapped out:
Stephen Drew, coming off a lackluster season with the Red Sox in which he hit .253, thought more than $14.1M was waiting on the open market. By May he (and his overlord, er, agent, Scott Boras) figured out there wasn’t. The Red Sox threw him a lifeline and signed him to a 1-year deal at $10.2M. That would be a loss of $3.9M. But, it gets worse for Drew. Since he missed all of Spring Training and had to come in cold in mid-May, he had another lackluster season in 2014. He was traded midway through the season from Boston to the Yankees (think how bad he must have been for the BoSox to send a player to Bombers mid-season), and hit a swarthy .162. The Yankees resigned him for 2015 for $5M (a gift). Drew, too, liked the buy-one/get-one concept, as he could have played 2014 for $14.1M, but chose to play 2014 and 2015 for $15.2M. Poorly played sir, both in the boardroom and on the field.
Maybe playing in Seattle is really that bad. How else to explain that Kendrys Morales could have stayed in the Pacific Northwest and earned $14.1M in 2014. Instead, he played the field. On June 7th, the Twins finally threw him a life raft, and signed him for $7.4M. He did hit .218 with 8 homers, so that worked out pretty well. And you want the best irony: six weeks after he signed, the Twins traded Morales back to the Mariners. Enjoy Starbucks, Kendrys, you just have $6.7M less to spend at Pike Place Market. (Ed. Note: Morales was also represented by Scott Boras in this catastrophe.) (Ed. Note #2: I guess Morales got the last laugh, as he signed with the Royals in 2015 and won the World Series. That said, he got paid $6.5M in 2015; another 2 for the price of 1 deal.)
The Boom Stick was also feeling his oats after the 2013 season. The Rangers offered Nelson Cruz $14.1M to play mediocre left field and hit homers in North Texas for another season. Cruz said no. When no multi-year offers were forthcoming, Cruz accepted a 1/$8M deal with the Orioles. Simple math: Cruz left $6.1M on the table. He did end up leading the league in dingers, and got himself yet another qualifying offer of $15.3M, which, of course, he turned down. He eventually signed a 4/$57M contract with the Mariners, so I guess all’s well that ends well.
Talk about your life lines. The Royals went way outside their comfort zone after the 2013 season (remember, this was pre-World Series appearances), and made a Qualifying Offer to Ervin Santana. Santana said no, and went to market. Unfortunately for him, the market was closed. A month into Spring Training, the Braves offered Santana a 1-year deal at, you guessed it, $14.1M. Literally/financially, nothing lost/nothing gained. Incidentally, the Braves finished 17 games out of first place; the Royals went to the World Series. I hope Santana enjoyed his baseball-free October.
After the 2014 season, 12 Qualifying Offers were made, and none were accepted. Here is a list of the players to whom QOs were made, and the deals they eventually closed:
Max Scherzer: Turned down the Tigers, signed with the Nationals for 7/$210M
Victor Martinez: Turned down the Tigers, but then re-negotiated with them and closed at 4/$68M
Hanley Ramirez: Turned down the Dodgers and suckered the Red Sox into 4/$88M
Pablo Sandoval: For reasons that may never be known, rejected the Giants QO and then the Giants $100M offer, and signed with the Red Sox for 5/$95M
James Shields: Everyone expected Shields to be the first player to accept a QO, but he declined, and signed with the Padres for 4/$75M
Russell Martin: The Pirates broke their bank in an attempt to retain Martin, but he chose to go home to Canada for 5/$82M
Nelson Cruz: This guy’s got nothing on Kenny Rogers (the singer) – he gambled again, and, as stated above, was rewarded with a 4/$57M deal with the Mariners
David Robertson: Bailed on the Yankees and signed with the White Sox for 4/$46M
Ervin Santana: Like Britney Spears, he did it again; this time he got what we wanted: 4/$55M with the Twins
Francisco Liriano: Rejected the QO, but worked out a 3/$39M deal with the Pirates
Melky Cabrera: Turned down the Blue Jays, and chose the White Sox for 3/$42M
Michael Cuddyer: This one is fascinating. Coming off a 4/$42M deal with the Rockies, he received a QO, and turned it down. He ended up signing a 1-year deal with the Mets for $8.5M, and then retired. Granted, he made more than $79M in his 13-year career. But who couldn’t use an extra $6.8M as they ride off into the sunset? Apparently Michael Cuddyer, that’s who.
Finally, after the 2015 season, some players (agents?) started to wise up – but not that many. Teams made 20 Qualifying Offers, and 17 were rejected. But, that means that 3 players took the money and stayed:
Matt Wieters of the Orioles was the Jackie Robinson of Qualifying Offers. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, the catcher decided $15.8M for a season in the comfy confines of Baltimore, rehabbing and getting himself in position for a bigger payday, made a lot of fiscal sense.
Colby Ramus quickly followed suit with the Astros. He has bounced around a bit (3 teams in 8 seasons), worn out some managers (see, LaRussa, Tony), but then found a home on Tal’s Hill. $15.8M with a team that has a great shot of winning its division was a safe bet.
Brett Anderson decided, after going 10-9 with a 3.69 ERA, to take Guggenheim’s $15.8M to stay in Southern California. Seems like a good choice – especially since (a) there weren’t (m)any suitors and (b) he may be one of the best (of the bleak list of) free agent pitchers available next season (after Stephen Strasburg, the quality falls off precipitously).
Which brings me to my favorite story of this young season, and the inspiration for this post: the curious and costly case of one Dexter Fowler. Fowler roamed centerfield for the Cubbies last season, and got a taste of success with this young core. Theo Epstein offered Fowler $15.8M to do it again in 2016; Fowler said no. And then no one called. After pitchers and catchers reported, there was word that Fowler’s patience was about to be rewarded: the Orioles were going to give Fowler a 3/$33M deal. But then, out of nowhere, Fowler resigned with Cubs – for WAY less money. The Orioles were mad – they thought they had a deal; the Cubs were ecstatic – they saved a bunch of money (see below); and reporters and teammates were confounded – they were all duped.
If, during the first week of November, Fowler had simply said “yes”, he would be paid $15.8M for this season. But, as we know, he didn’t. Instead, four months later, he decided to take that same 1-year deal, but just for $7.8M less. What?!? The deal has a mutual option for 2017 at $9M, and a buyout of $5M. So, in essence, Fowler could get $13M for this season, and still be a free agent next season (i.e., only a loss of $2.8M (not counting the time value of money)); or he can be paid $17M for 2016-17, or just $1.2M more than he would have received for 2016 alone. And his agent had the temerity to send out an incendiary press release about the deal!?
Fowler may be happy to be “home” and playing for history, but I am sure he would rather be doing that with another $7.8M in his pocket over the course of the next few months.
And just when you thought it was safe to go back to the diamond, we have the case of Ian Desmond. Desmond turned down $15.8M to play SS for the Nationals in 2016. Spring Training is now two weeks in, and Desmond is still looking for work – he is unsigned. Oops!! Oh, and it bears mentioning that after the 2013 season, Desmond turned down a 7/$107M offer from the Nats. He thought it made more sense to sign for 2/$17.5M, and keep his options open. Double oops (actually $89.5M oops)!!
Hisashi Iwakuma turned down the $15.8M QO from the Mariners, and thought life was good with the Dodgers. The Bums were going to sign him for 3/$45M, but then he failed his physical. The Mariners took him back for $12M. Net loss, $3.8M.
Howie Kendrick turned down the Dodgers’ QO, tested the market, and got no takers. He resigned with the Dodgers for 2/$20M (or, just $4.2M more than he would have gotten for 2016 alone). But, alas, there is always a kicker. The Dodgers 2-year deal actually has deferred money, with no interest. Howie gets $5M/year over four years. Thus, Kendrick is playing 2016 for $10.8M less than if he had just said “yes”.
Axl Rose preached “just a little patience”. But some of these guys have been walking the streets at night, just trying to get it right, and they have failed . . . miserably.
Now, don’t shed any tears for any of these millionaires; and maybe these decisions seem inconsequential when you have eight figures in the bank. But I still don’t understand (a) how players let these things happen and (b) why more agents aren’t fired every season.
Okay, now we all have to go back to our pedestrian lives, spend $109 to renew our MLB.TV accounts, and get ready for that underpaid umpire (average salary: $120-$350K/year) to say:
p.s. The answer to the trivia question can be found here:
The season ended November 1st, just 114 days ago. In some ways, it feels like yesterday; and in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago. But one thing is certain, as players report to training camp, your team, my team, your buddy’s team, your rotisserie team (Millenials, look it up), won’t look the same.
Not counting free agent signings, since November 5th, there have been roughly (sometimes the deals are split into multiple parts) there have been 62 trades involving roughly (again, it is not an exact science) 161 players. Said differently, it was as if each team completed at least two trades, and more than six full 25-man rosters turned over, in 3½ months. You may want to read the SI Baseball Preview issue (that is the one that comes after the decidedly non-sports edition) a little more carefully this year.
As the players take the fields across Arizona and Florida, you may need more than a scorecard to keep track of all the new names on the backs of all the new uniforms. By October of each season, we feel solid in our knowledge of the teams and the players on the field. But then the World Series ends, and the off-season begins. The Hot Stove has become a rite of passage, another integral part of the game. Do any of us long for the time when the Reserve Clause was in effect and we knew who would show up each Spring because they were on the roster the previous Fall? The business of baseball has become so huge, so costly, so treacherous, that teams need to continually make upgrades (see, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Giants, et al.) or persistently make downgrades (see, Phillies, Brewers, Braves, et al.).
In short, the only constant is change.
The subtitle of this Blog is “Baseball as Life”. With Spring upon us (at least in Florida, Arizona, and Southern California), and baseball season knocking on the door, and with the litany of things going on in my life, lately I have been spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about life . . . and change.
Whenever I meet a parent-to-be, I give them the cold, hard truth that (a) the first three months after birth will suck, no matter what, and (b) as soon as you get the hang of any given phase, your child will move out of that phase and you will start anew. As with your favorite baseball team, in parenthood, the only constant is change.
The books we buy for our overly-coddled, pillow-protected, helicopter-hovered children try to explain that “change is strange”. But kids are resilient; they adapt and move on. It is us parents that need to read those books.
I remember a few years back when I was lamenting that a nanny who had been with our family for many years intended to leave. “How will the kids react?” I wondered. But, really, it wasn’t the kids I was worried about . . . it was me. How would I cope with a new person in my home, fixing our meals, driving my kids? The kids, they were fine – change wasn’t strange for them; change was strange for me.
As with a new starting pitcher or a new lead-off hitter, we must deal with the changes that happen around us each and every day. Because we are “old” and set in our ways, each change feels monumental. However, our kids live in a world of constant change – change doesn’t faze them. Kids are less dogmatic and more willing to accept something new, so change isn’t strange, it is just part of who and how they are. They see changes every day: they attend new schools; girls they have known since pre-school now have boobs; boys they used to bathe with now have hair in different places and deeper voices; they have new coaches and new teammates. Change is their constant, and they just roll with it.
But every so often, changes occur that have a lasting impact – on both us and our kids. Recently I (and friends and family) have been touched by many life events – both mitzvahs and misfortune. In just the past few weeks, I have attended a bar mitzvah, hosted a bar mitzvah, attended a funeral, paid respects at a Shiva house, and visited a dear friend in the ICU. Each one of these “experiences” represented a major life event, and represented a life-change, writ large. These changes were both strange and scary.
This isn’t Greinke signing with the Diamondbacks or the Yankees getting Chapman for the bullpen – these were life and death situations that adults – let alone kids – have a hard time dealing with.
Every night for what seemed like two weeks I would come home spent. I must have looked as haggard as I felt, as my kids repeatedly asked “what’s wrong?” and “are you okay?”.
But how do you explain to a child that their friend’s father passed away, without raising all sorts of fear in them – especially when this man’s death brought up all sorts of fears in you?
How do respond when your child – with bright-eyed optimism – asks if the friend you visited in the hospital is getting better?
How do you conceptualize the idea that “giving up” is sometimes noble and dignified, and not cowardly or weak?
How do communicate the pride you feel watching your child on the Bima, knowing all of things you know, but are simply incapable of putting into words.
As we watch our children grow and reach certain milestones, we kvell at their accomplishments. But when we step back and realize how much time has passed since _________ (fill in the blank), we cannot help but get slapped in the face by the backhand of mortality.
And, as good parents, we must address our own mortality in private, away from our kids, so as to protect them from unnecessary concern or worry. Dealing with aging is not a change that our kids cotton to; seeing a parent move more slowly, or not be able to participate like they used to, or creak as they get off the couch, are not changes that our kids just accept. Seeing a parent get sick, and have to go to the hospital, and take all sorts of medicine, is not okay to kids. It scares them. And it disconcerts us. And so are the days of our lives.
The seasons change, the players change, the uniforms change, and our connection with our kids change. And maybe the start of the new season is – like Spring itself – an opportunity for renewal, for a fresh start; a chance to knock that rust off our relationship with our kids and figure out how to deal with the “new” them. I blinked and my little boy was wearing a suit and tie and carrying the Torah. I know I will blink again and he will be wearing a mortar board.
I often joke that my life feels very much like Groundhog Day. The days bleed into each other, the weeks become months, the months become years. But, without me even knowing it, slowly, incrementally, everything is changing. While it may all feel the same, in fact, the only constant is change.
So go home, grab a pencil, and mark your kids’ heights in the door jamb – you will be shocked at what you see.
And then grab the latest issue of Baseball America, or SI, or Baseball Prospectus, and see what changes happened since the Royals hoisted the World Series trophy on November 1st – you will be shocked at what you read.
And then grab your kid, a beer, and a dog, and settle into the bleachers (or box seats, if that’s how you roll), and enjoy another season of the greatest sport on Earth. Because, even in a world where the only constant is change, some things simply don’t: the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, and roar of the crowd . . . and for one more season, the sound of Vin Scully’s voice.