The other day I was in line at the local deli, waiting to pick up some things for Thanksgiving when I couldn’t help but overhear two men talking about the Yankees. In particular, the men were complaining about — who else? Alex Rodriguez. Both seemed intent that the Yankees “get rid of that bum.” Said one, “He should give that money back. All of it. He should be ashamed taking that money and playing the way he is … he’s terrible! I would give that money back if I were him,” at which point the conversation segued into a colorful bashing of the Jets, which, hilarious as it was, is neither appropriate nor relevant to our discussions here.
So, as the men continued their ranting and I stood in line, I got to thinking about players and the contracts they are given. We all have complaints about this topic: who is worth the money? Who isn’t? How much money is too much money? Can anyone really earn close to half a billion dollars worth of contracts? More often than not, we criticize the player for taking an incredible amount of money without producing. But are we blaming the player when we should be blaming a front office?
A player only has a finite time that he can play. Often that time is quite short. Between injuries, declining performance and the never-ending rash of incredible talent from the minors in the form of the Bryce Harpers and Mike Trouts and Mike Olts, not everyone can be a Derek Jeter or a Cal Ripken and have a career that spans the better part of two decades, or ever longer. A player and his agent should be able to negotiate the best possible deal for the well-being of the player. In other words, it is of the utmost importance to financially maximize whatever time in the majors that a player has, even if that means that ultimately, the team will be paying for past performance rather than expected future returns. As a result, players are cashing checks for millions of dollars on contracts that never see the actualization of in terms of performance versus money paid.
Case in point: Alex Rodriguez. At the age of 32, and given the second $250+ million deal of his career, Alex was paid in large part for his past performance, including a plethora of All-Star appearances, many Gold Glove Awards (although you can place as much stock in Gold Gloves as you’d like, depending on your determination of whether or not they are popularity contests or valid measure of defense), a couple of MVP awards, and, most importantly, the projected home run title based on past home run performances. Granted, much of this was achieved before Rodriguez’s admission of performance enhancing drug use, but the premise still remains that A-Rod would be producing markedly less from ages 32-42 than from ages 22-32. Scott Boras negotiated the contract for his client, and did an incredible job. It is an agent’s job to advocate for his client, and get the best deal possible. It’s not his fault that the front office or team signed on the line of an abject disaster of a deal.
The front office of the Yankees, and front offices around baseball, holds the keys to the kingdom. Some draw the line in the sand, such as Oakland and Tampa, and absolutely refuse to pay their players in those high-end deals. (You could really argue that those teams don’t pay those players true market worth anyway, but that sort of proves my point, too.) Others find ways to outbid one another and themselves in the process — was anyone else offering Prince Fielder that kind of money last year? Nowhere even close. As long as front offices continue to set the bar by handing out mammoth contracts for top-end talent such as CC Sabathia, Albert Pujols and Cole Hamels that in turn will lead to ridiculously large contracts for second-tier players, and so on. It’s up to the front office to set the tone about contacts, not players or agents. Players and agents shouldn’t be held responsible for the financial folly of front offices.
What would you have an agent and/or player do? ‘No, Mr. Steinbrenner, my client would like you to know that his offensive production will likely decline over the coming years, and you’ll probably have to drop him in the lineup, causing a HUGE distraction. My other client will likely develop arm issues from throwing 200+ IP per year, so that seven year deal will probably be four. And my other client will deal with myriad injuries and some concussions and will never reach his full ability due to no fault of his own. So, yeah, you should probably deduct that from the top of all those contracts. How does that sound to you?’ That agent would be fired in about two seconds. That whole shtick sounds like a page out of the What Never To Do During Negotiations handbook (which was probably written by Mr. Boras).
Players and agents should never be targeted for the enormous contracts that they negotiate. It isn’t up to the player to make fiscally sound decisions; it’s up to the agent to maximize financial gain, regardless of the soundness of the decision. It is, however, up to the front offices to manage expenditures and reset the balance of player salaries in order to justifiably pay players what they are worth, at present and for future performance, as opposed to giving them the largest offer on the table or paying for past accolades.
I don’t know if this is even possible, as it would take a collective movement within Major League Baseball to do (and any coordination of doing so is collusion, which is prohibited in the CBA) or a really, really brazen GM to take a stand. However, doing so might be better for the game, in terms of paying players what they are worth for the duration they will be worth it, in order to refresh players more easily on rosters and keep teams competitive. That said, the risk is high, and ownership might not go for it. Until then, those two men at the deli and other baseball fans will sit around criticizing players and agents for certain deals. But in reality, we can’t blame the players or agents…blame the front office.