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Bill Shaikin / SUNDAY REPORT

Some clubs can afford to wait

May 18, 2008|Bill Shaikin

It is as if Bud Selig invaded the set of "The Price is Right," grabbed the microphone from the public-address announcer and merrily summoned players to win a grand prize.

Hanley Ramirez, come on down! Ryan Braun, come on down! Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Chris Young, James Shields, come on down!

Everyone hits the jackpot! No consolation prizes, just cash for all, millions upon millions. That's $200 million in all, guaranteed, for six players yet to appear in an All-Star game.

Ramirez got $70 million from the Florida Marlins on Saturday, after two years in the big leagues. Braun got $45 million from the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, after one year. Longoria got $17 million from the Tampa Bay Rays last month, after one week in the show.

The price is right? For the Marlins and Brewers and Rays, for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, sure. For the Dodgers and Angels, no.

Everyone loves a bargain, the Dodgers and Angels included. But, by signing the Russell Martins and Casey Kotchmans to long-term contracts so early in their careers, the local teams would risk squandering the significant financial advantage they enjoy over their rivals in Milwaukee, Miami, Denver, Phoenix and St. Petersburg, Fla.

"You have a lot of advantages when you're a bigger-revenue club," said Mark Attanasio, the Brewers' owner. "You can afford to wait."

Here's why: Teams control a player for six years, with salaries determined solely by the club for the first three years and subject to salary arbitration for the final three. Then a player can try free agency.

"You have to get to them early," Attanasio said. "The sooner you can get to them, the more you can keep the contract at a manageable level.

"Once the players get a smell of free agency, it's very hard to do anything. At that point, the Yankees and Red Sox can afford it, and clubs like ours can't."

The Dodgers and Angels can too. We'll get back to them in a moment.

Ryan Howard won in arbitration this year, and he's making $10 million. Francisco Rodriguez lost in arbitration this year, and he's making $10 million too. In baseball, the going rate is almost always going up.

In the three seasons he would have been eligible for arbitration, the Brewers guaranteed Braun -- the National League rookie of the year -- $4 million, $6 million and $8.5 million. He'll forego free agency for two years too, for $10 million in 2014 and $12 million in 2015.

Carlos Silva, an ordinary innings eater, signed as a free agent last winter for $12 million a year. The Diamondbacks have Brandon Webb, the best pitcher in baseball, for $6.5 million next year and $8.5 million in 2009, in what would have been his first year after free agency.

The trade-off is simple: The players get the security of guaranteed dollars, and the teams get a discount while assuming the risk of poor performance or injury.

"You see those contracts, and to me the risk is substantially rewarded," said agent Scott Boras. "They may be paying 30 cents on the dollar."

Boras says he has been approached by players years after they signed such a deal, regretting how many millions they might have lost. He said teams generally limit such offers to premium players.

"The teams are not usually wrong about their talent assessment," he said. "If the teams aren't wrong about their talent assessment, then someone is wrong for taking it."

That kind of talk chafes at Paul Cohen, the agent for Longoria and Tulowitzki.

"I think the people who look at it that way consider clients widgets," Cohen said.

Consider Tulowitzki, batting .152 and on the disabled list because of a torn quadriceps. He should be fine, but he's set for life if he's not. And, if he's not, Cohen said, it won't help him if other clients are setting salary records.

"People don't get what a real fiduciary responsibility is," Cohen said.

That works both ways too. The Cleveland Indians could not afford cleanup batter Travis Hafner without a hometown discount, and he obliged. Now he's batting .228, and the Indians don't have another $57 million to match the money they owe him through 2012.

Pat Gillick, the Philadelphia Phillies' general manager, did not endorse the Brewers' commitment to Braun.

"If the guy goes in the tank, they're sitting on a contract they can't move," he told reporters in Philadelphia.

It is good that small-market teams are spending shared revenues rather than pocketing them, better still that teams are betting on the future performance of a 24-year-old rather than paying for the past performance of a 34-year-old.

But the Angels and Dodgers can pay market rate, and they're better off paying year by year, minimizing the risk and saving the biggest bucks for free agents, or soon-to-be free agents.

The Angels signed Gary Matthews Jr. to play center field for $50 million, then signed Torii Hunter to play there one year later, for another $90 million.

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