Mike Trout’s Contract and the Needless Uproar

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There’s been an absurd uproar and reaction of shock that the Angels chose to renew Mike Trout‘s contract for $510,000. This is strange considering that the constant storyline surrounding athletes is how overpaid they are. For the most part, it has little to do with their performance. Players who are at the top of the baseball pay scale like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto and Felix Hernandez are the examples given of players who are either not going to fulfill their paychecks with extended production into their late 30s or are considered anomalies and accused of PED use if they do perform.

In the realm of public perception, they can’t win. Of course they win in their bank account, but through no fault of their own, no matter what they do, it’s not going to be good enough.

Pujols’s contract is called a backend nightmare because he’s going to be paid $59 million two seasons after his 40th birthday.

A-Rod is breaking down physically, has $114 million due him with the very real possibility that the Yankees will eventually cut their losses of him and his constant sideshow of embarrassing drama, paying him to leave. They won’t even have the benefit of the extra income they thought they, as an organization, would accrue as A-Rod broke home run records. He probably won’t break the records at all and if he does, they’re sullied beyond all recognition due to his admitted PED use and recent allegations that their use has been ongoing.

Votto will be 30 in September and his 10-year, $225 million deal doesn’t kick in until 2014. He’ll be paid $25 million annually from age 35-39 and $20 million at 40. Plus Votto’s playing for a mid-market club, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom that contract might preclude them from putting commensurate talent around him.

Hernandez is a pitcher whose prematurely announced contract was put in jeopardy by red flags found in his elbow during his physical. By the time the contract news had been strategically leaked, neither he nor the Mariners could back out and protective language was inserted to shield the Mariners if he gets hurt.

Those who take down-the-line contracts to remain in their current venue are so rare that it’s a worldwide stunner when they make the decision that they don’t need to be the highest paid player in the world and that $85 million can buy just as much stuff as $200 million. Jered Weaver and Evan Longoria are players who have made that choice. They’re a rarity.

No matter where you stand on the issue of athletes’ pay, the way baseball functions can be manipulated to advantage the player, the club, or they can come to an agreement to share the risk with a preemptive, long-term deal. Once a player has exhausted his amateur eligibility, he’s at the mercy of the organization that drafts him. For the first three years of their major league careers, they’re paid at the whim of the team. The next three years they’re eligible for arbitration. Then they can become free agents. If they choose to do as Longoria did and sign a contract to give up their opportunity at arbitration and have their first couple of years at free agency bought out with guaranteed years and options, they can have a nice nest egg of $10-20 million regardless of whether if they flame out as players or become stars. It’s a gamble they take. It’s a gamble the team makes. It applies to everyone from Trout to the last player taken in the draft who manages to make it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee or is a late-bloomer and has a 20-year career.

You wouldn’t know that, though, from the indignant reaction to the Angels deciding to renew Trout’s contract for $510,000. Does Trout’s near-MVP season in 2012 have any bearing on the Angels’ decision to raise his salary by $28,000 from what he made as a rookie? Should it?

The Players Association makes the rules for all the players and it’s the players who instituted these rules. It allowed MLB to implement draconian constraints on newly drafted players because of the proffered reason to cut down on the huge signing bonuses amateurs receive. But the real, primordial reason is a “screw those guys” attitude that permeates established players and would, in a financial form of plausible deniable hazing, let the drafted players work their way up to making big money. It’s long been a point of contention for veteran major leaguers to see some kid taken at number 5 in the draft being handed an automatic $8 million bonus for nothing other than being a good amateur or having great tools. They dealt with it the best way they knew how. Of course it blew up in some of their faces as solid pitcher Kyle Lohse is sitting out because no one wants to give up the draft pick to sign him.

Eventually it affects everyone. These are the rules. The Angels aren’t beholden to an abstract code of right and wrong. They don’t have to give Trout a long-term contract extension if they don’t want to and they renewed his contract for an amount determined on their own volition. They don’t have to apologize or explain.

If Trout plays even 75% as well as he did in 2012, he’s going to get a $200 million contract from the Angels or someone else. He’ll have his freedom in five years. For now, he’s tied to the club that drafted him and that club can pay him whatever they choose to pay him under the parameters of the basic agreement. They decided on $510,000 and that’s what he’ll be paid. Or maybe they’re already planning a long-term contract to pay him for the next 6-8 years and buy out his arbitration years and free agency. Until that happens, his salary is what it is.

Is it fair?

Is it unfair?

It’s neither. These are the rules. It’s not slave wages and there’s no reason for the explosion of public ridicule for the Angels operating within the pay structure in Major League Baseball.

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King Felix’s Mariners Deal Will Get Done Because It Has To Get Done

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The dual-sided coin of big signings leaked to the media before they’re “officially” official is landing incoveniently for both the Mariners and Felix Hernandez now that there’s a sudden snag in the finalization of his $175 million contract extension with the club. Did he fail the physical? According to this Geoff Baker piece, that’s what it sounds like. But we won’t know until we know even though, technically, it’s not our business. More information will be whispered to various media people by unnamed sources and it will, of course, wind up in front of the fans’ prying eyes.

This puts the sides in an equally unfavorable position. The Mariners were basking in the glow of the positive aspect of keeping their franchise arm through the 2019 season. Hernandez was becoming the highest paid pitcher in baseball and wouldn’t have to worry about being traded or heading into free agency.

The Mariners were presumably worn out from having to answer the phone with, “Hello? Seattle Mariners. Felix Hernandez is not available, how may I direct your call?”

GM Jack Zduriencik’s typical conversations must have gone the same way, fending off Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman’s advances as he tried to cajole, beg, demand and whine Hernandez away from the Mariners. Given his history with the Cliff Lee switcheroo and pawning Michael Pineda off on the Yankees, if Hernandez were truly suffering from a potential elbow problem, Zduriencik would’ve traded him to the Yankees long ago. The Yankees would’ve taken him, signed him and it would’ve been their problem for the future.

Now it’s the Mariners’ risk. They’ll have to live with it.

Buster Olney writes that there is “concern” about his pitching elbow. Of course his workload and the number of innings he’s pitched were referenced with context in the above-linked ESPN piece. Its relevance is cherrypicking considering clubs like the Nationals have taken great pains to limit the number of innings for their young pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg only to see them blow out their elbows anyway. Why point to Hernandez’s workload with the unsaid implication that it’s eventually going to be a problem with long-term durability when there have been pitchers who’ve gotten hurt with lighter touches and others who haven’t despite being “abused?”

This highlights the gray area of giving a player a massive contract and the new practice of making sure the player isn’t signing it with a foreseeable injury already in place and ticking like a time bomb. We saw it earlier this winter with the Red Sox and Mike Napoli as a $39 million deal over three years became a $5 million base salary with $8 million in incentives for one year because of a hip problem. In fact, the Red Sox were something of a pioneer in this practice. Whereas other clubs were signing players without worrying about the future and getting torched for it as the Mets did with Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox made it their life’s work to install protective language in the event of injury. They did it with John Lackey and Napoli. It’s a sound business practice even if it’s going to upset the fans and put players in a situation where they have to shop their services elsewhere. Just as easily as it gets out into the public that a deal is “done,” it can also hinder a player if he tries to go somewhere else if an injury is found and disclosed before he signs.

Deals of this kind would be better for all parties if they weren’t leaked to the media prior to official completion, but every reporter worth anything has his sources in management and with player agents. It benefits the club and the player to have the information out to prevent cold feet, second thoughts or a better offer from someone else. It benefits them, that is, until something unexpected like this happens.

This is bad on multi-levels for each side and why the Mariners will eventually sign Hernandez. The Mariners had their one star locked up and are trying to give their increasingly irritable fanbase a reason to think that brighter days lie ahead.

Now that’s on hold.

With this news, Hernandez’s trade value is slashed significantly. The Mariners would get a big package for him if they chose to deal him now since he’s signed through 2014 and, as far as we know, is healthy enough to pitch in the short-term. It’s nowhere near what they’d get if the trading team thought they were getting him and keeping him for the long-term.

For Hernandez, it’s become public knowledge that there’s something going on in his elbow. If this contract fell through, Hernandez might tell the Mariners to trade him; he might start becoming concerned about what this news is going to do to his value if he winds up on the free agent market, and rightfully so. How would it look for a team to have warning two years in advance that there’s something off in the elbow, then signs him for $150+ million and having him get injured? They’re not getting full insurance on the contract with this out there until he’s been checked and given a clean bill of health from multiple doctors.

The leaks made for a few days of big headlines, but boomeranged on both Hernandez and the Mariners. What was a happy marriage is a shotgun wedding. The deal will get done because now it has to get done.

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

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If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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Trade Felix Hernandez!

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At least that’s what Ken Rosenthal suggests in his latest posting on Fox Sports.

On the surface, it makes sense.

In that same vein, while it was self-serving, Yankee-centric and gutsy-when-it’s-not-his-neck-on-the-line, the proposed trades of Cliff Lee and Carlos Gonzalez from Joel Sherman (that I discussed in my prior posting) weren’t pure idiocy in theory—someone other than Sherman could make a coherent case for them if they weren’t wearing their Yankees footed pajamas while writing it anyway. They’re not going to happen and Sherman, in spite of his puffed out chest of what “he’d” do if he were a GM, wouldn’t have the nerve nor the intelligence to run a team, let alone run it correctly with the fearlessness he openly says he’d have.

But if a team was operating in a vacuum and if there weren’t other concerns like fan reaction; attendance; media response; and player perception, the Mariners would be better-served in the long-run to trade Felix Hernandez for 4 prospects including a big league-ready, blue chip bat.

The inherent problem being that a team isn’t run in a vacuum and the Mariners have been self-destructively cognizant of outside forces.

GM Jack Zduriencik has made some mistakes in his tenure; his reputation took a beating when the Yankees accused him of reneging on an agreed-upon trade for Lee in the summer of 2010; and he was clearly dishonest in his recollection of the circumstances surrounding the Mariners’ acquisition of the accused sex offender Josh Lueke from the Rangers. But he’s not to blame for Ichiro Suzuki still being on the club. He wasn’t at fault for the ignominious career closure of Ken Griffey Jr. And I’m starting to believe that the decried and silly re-acquisition of Russell Branyan in 2010 was more a byproduct of upper management telling him to “do something and I don’t care what it is” than an actual baseball maneuver.

I’m sure that Zduriencik would consider dealing Hernandez; that Hernandez would welcome a trade to a contender. It takes a toll on a great pitcher to constantly have to pitch shutouts to have a prayer of winning a few games. Hernandez’s record in 2012 is 4-5; in 2010-2011 he went 27-26. He won the Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record when, if he were with a good team and pitched similarly, he would’ve won 25 games.

This season he should have around 8-9 victories.

As much as stat people try to diminish the importance of wins in the grand scheme, it matters to players to have a gaudy record. For every Brandon McCarthy who understands and tries to implement advanced stats, there will 10 players who think like Jeff Francoeur and say that on base percentage isn’t important because it’s not up on the scoreboard when hitters come up to the plate.

If available Hernandez would set off a feeding frenzy that would make a school of sharks stop and stare with stricken awe. He’s got a limited no-trade clause (10 teams) and is signed through 2014 with $18.5 million in 2012; $19.5 million in 2013; and $20 million in 2014. He’d want an extension if the Mariners try to trade him to a team on his no-trade list, but what would the Yankees give up for him? The Mets? The Dodgers? The Red Sox?

The Phillies’ problem with Cole Hamels’s pending free agency would be solved right there and then. Get Hernandez for the rest of this season and beyond; let Hamels walk.

Any team would want Felix Hernandez and the Mariners could get a ton for him.

But many times players’ desires and team on-field needs are far down on the list as to whether a trade is considered and consummated.

By those parameters and that the Mariners will lose one of their longtime gate attractions in Ichiro after this season makes it a practical impossibility that they trade Hernandez.

The only variable is if Hernandez asks for it. That would change the landscape just as Roy Halladay‘s trade request did for the Blue Jays. If it happens, it won’t be until the winter. It’s not a mid-season deal and the Mariners would need to start a press blitz to explain that it was Hernandez’s decision and not theirs.

It’s not just about baseball. It’s about PR as well.

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Mid-Season Trade Candidates for 2012—Felix Hernandez

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Every year at around this time, I pick a few players who normally wouldn’t be available on the trade market and envision scenarios in which they’ll be dealt.

In the past two years, I’ve been right on two who were considered untouchable—Dan Haren and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Let’s spend Christmas with postings on players who fit this profile for mid-season 2012 and start with Mariners righty Felix Hernandez.

The Mariners are still getting calls on Hernandez and they’ll continue to get calls on Hernandez.

Until the Mariners are in a position where they need Hernandez to compete, teams will puruse him; at some point, the answer may change from “not available” to “I’ll listen” and they’ll let it be known he can be had.

How could it happen?

There are ways.

GM Jack Zduriencik could decide that his best asset will yield the biggest return and a team like the Yankees gets crazy and offer 4-5 players for him; or—and this is the most likely scenario—Hernandez grows frustrated with working so hard for a team with no chance of contending and seeing his prime years go to waste that he quietly asks to be moved.

That’s the key word: quiet.

If it’s out there that Hernandez is in play, the Mariners have to trade him; if it’s kept quiet, they can sift through the offers and make a decision based on what best fits their needs.

The Mariners are sort of on the right track and have been sabotaged by bad luck, tragedy and mistaken judgments both personal and professional. Dustin Ackley’s going to be a star; Michael Pineda is an impressive power arm; unless ownership forces Zduriencik to keep him, they’re going to be free from Ichiro Suzuki in the near future as the mercurial right fielder’s contract is up after 2012; and right now, they’re in the market to spend some money on Prince Fielder.

But the Angels and Rangers are tough competition and by June or July, the frustration could lead to the point of the pitcher saying enough’s enough.

And I think it’s going to happen. He’s signed through 2014 and he’s coveted. The Mariners can rebuild the team in one shot if they get the right package and judging from what the Padres were able to pry loose from the Reds for Mat Latos and what the A’s got from the Nationals for Gio Gonzalez, Hernandez could acquire a greater bounty of blue-chip players.

For a team that’s unlikely to contend for 2012 and probably 2013, what good will it do them to have Hernandez fronting the rotation in his contract year of 2014 when they might—might—be ready to make a playoff run?

It wouldn’t. Hernandez is never going to be more valuable to them than he will be in July of 2012 and if they’re hovering around .500 or worse and out of the race in an impossible division, it makes sense to move him for a group of players who will assist them in multiple areas when they are ready to win.

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