We can only hope that years from now, baseball’s general managers will look back on last weekend’s blockbuster trade between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox and see a watershed moment for the game.
I am not talking about the Dodgers obliterating the very concept of a “budget,” driving their payroll into New York Yankees territory: a gob-smacking $192.6 million in 2013. I am talking about baseball executives finally learning their lesson. I am talking -- admittedly, a bit optimistically -- about GMs saying no to Scott Boras.
I am talking about the end of the era of the huge, stupid long-term contract.
To review: Los Angeles sent a handful of players the casual baseball fan has probably never heard of -- James Loney, Ivan DeJesus Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Jerry Sands and Allen Webster -- to Boston. In exchange, they received three big names and their big contracts: Adrian Gonzalez ($127 million through 2017), Carl Crawford ($102.5 million through 2017) and Josh Beckett (a relative bargain, just $31.5 million through 2014). The Dodgers also got utility infielder Nick Punto and $11 million in cash.
Touting the benefits of the deal, Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said Gonzalez and Crawford “are entering the prime of their careers.” Not true. Gonzalez is 30; Crawford is 31. Most ballplayers reach their peak at 28.
The Dodgers are in a pennant race. Their new owners are throwing money around like a super-PAC. Maybe they are trying to prove a point to their fans, who had been reduced to watching the team’s previous owners, Frank McCourt and his now ex-wife, Jamie, turn the storied franchise into a sordid reality show. (“They’re rich, they’re spiteful and they own the Dodgers!”) Maybe this trade -- not to mention some of the other high-priced acquisitions the Dodgers made during the season -- really will help the team make the playoffs, even the World Series.
I don’t see it. As Jonah Keri argues persuasively, there’s no reason to expect Gonzalez and Crawford to get better at this point in their careers, all the more so because they are leaving one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball for a pitcher’s paradise. As Keri notes, of the meager 18 homers Gonzalez hit at Fenway Park since the start of the 2011 season, just six would have reached the bleachers at Dodger Stadium. Crawford won’t play the rest of this season anyway after having elbow surgery. As for Beckett, who is 32, anyone who has seen him “pitch” recently -- let alone made the mistake of drafting him for their fantasy team -- knows that he is a disaster. (He made his Dodger debut Monday night, giving up 3 runs on 7 hits in 5 2/3 innings to the Colorado Rockies, the third worst team in the National League.)
Red Sox fans, having sunk to emotional depths not experienced since 2003, or 1986, or maybe 1978, finally had something to celebrate. Yes, they still have a losing team, but at least it’s one they won’t be stuck with well past the 2016 Olympics. On Sunday, the day after the trade, they gratefully cheered on a lineup with journeyman Pedro Ciriaco batting lead-off. The joke being retweeted by Sox fans was that Magic Johnson -- a minority partner in the Dodgers -- was now more popular in Boston than Larry Bird.
The irony is that it was the architect of the Red Sox 2004 championship team, Theo Epstein, who created this mess. Having assembled his famously scrappy World Series winner with the likes of Mark Bellhorn, who earned less than a half-million dollars, and Bill Mueller, who was coming off knee surgery, Epstein became a victim of his own success. He suddenly had money, and he spent it. He tried to buy himself a dynasty. Instead, he built an expensive time bomb and narrowly escaped to Chicago before it exploded.
Epstein wasn’t the first general manager seduced by the prospect of locking up a star player for an eternity, and he probably won’t be the last. These crazy contracts have been proliferating ever since 2000, when the Texas Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million deal. Almost invariably, they are signed when players are at their peak -- just before age starts to erode the eyesight and fast-twitch muscle fibers required to hit big-league pitching. Fat, long-term deals for pitchers in their prime -- see, for example, Mike Hampton, Jarrod Washburn, Barry Zito and countless more -- are even more senseless.
These contracts haven’t been all bad for baseball. Necessity bred invention. We all know this part of the story: Teams that couldn’t afford to enter the arms race had to find more creative ways to stay competitive.
Another legacy of these contracts, however, was a lot of fan resentment. There’s nothing quite like watching a player gradually succumb to his own physical limitations, while knowing that he’s still making bags full of money and, for good measure, blocking the path of a promising young prospect in your team’s minor-league system. (Recall that Angels rookie Mike Trout, a legitimate MVP candidate, got his shot at a starting job only after the 33-year-old, $21-million-a-year Vernon Wells got injured.)
Now the Red Sox have conveniently compressed more than a decade’s worth of baseball history into a neat parable. The moral isn’t that money doesn’t matter. It’s that spending large amounts of it to ensure that players in their prime will wear your uniform for years to come doesn’t turn your team into a perennial contender. It turns it into the baseball equivalent of an overcommitted state pension fund.
This offseason, 31-year-old Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers, one of baseball’s top home-run hitters, will hit the free-agent market. His agent will no doubt be looking for a huge long-term contract -- which is to say that he will demand that Hamilton continue to get paid like a star well past the point when he actually is one.
GMs: Do yourselves and your fans a favor. Don’t do it.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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