Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mistake, Trend, Habit

There's an old saying: Once is a mistake, twice is a trend, thrice is a habit. Well, we're in the midst of a trend ladies and gentleman. Last year Ryan Howard, the reigning MVP was renewed (unilateral decision about salary made by the team) by the Philadelphia Phillies, at $900,000, around double what they are required to pay him. This is was most likely not the first time this has happened, but he is certainly the highest profile player to do so. Many players have looked at the Phillies willingness to pay Howard $900k as a precedent for their own cases. This year, three notable young players have expressed displeasure with their contracts being renewed for significantly less than they think they deserve. The big three? Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. Fielder was renewed at $670k, roughly 50% more than the Brewers are required to pay, and he was extremely vocal in his unhappiness. Hamels received $500k from the Phillies and deemed it a "low-blow". Papelbon is using Howard's $900k as a benchmark and saying if he doesn't get something close to that, he'd rather make a statement and be renewed for the minimum.

This type of behavior is worrisome to me. As players with less than 2 full years of service time, they have no leverage aside from pouting, which apparently they are going to employ in full force. This is how baseball works though, you are underpaid your first 3 years, then comes arbitration, and generally, a raise in pay where you are paid amongst your peers, followed by free agency, where there is a tendency to be paid above your worth. Above all of that though, is that they are being paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a sport and a game, and they bitching and moaning about this. This type of behavior isn't going to endear them to their fans who earn considerably less (on the whole), and spend part of that money just to watch them do their job, which is to play a game. The only rationale for teams be giving players with such little service time so much money is that they hope the player will return the favor when negotiating a longer term deal for free agency years. While I can see reasoning in this line of thinking, I can see very little. Todays player looks out for himself before anyone else, it's rare to see the kind of loyalty that we expect of our young players. When free agency arrives for a player they will allow the original team to remain competitive with all other offers, but the concept of the hometown discount is overblown. I find it hard to believe that if the original team were to make a competitive offer in free agency or right before, the prospective free agent would refuse to deal with them because of a mere $400k earlier in their career.

Before I conclude, I'd like to commend players like John Maine, Hanley Ramirez, and B.J. Upton who have been gracious about their contract renewals. Upton even received $10k less than he did last year after hitting .300-24-82 with 22 steals. He also indicated that it would not impact any future negotiations. This type of attitude is refreshing to me, as this has become an increasingly a me-first industry.

I know that players have a right to ask for more money in case their bodies break down, but that's just more assumed risk for the team. The salaries they receive are more than many families make on two incomes, so it should be enough for them at this early point in their careers. There is a case to be made for either side of the argument, but I would have to come down on management's side on this one. Let's just hope this trend doesn't turn into a full-fledged habit next year.

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