Why Eating $38M Is No Longer Unprecedented

Source: Rick Madonik /Toronto Star

After Troy Tulowitzki was released by the Toronto Blue Jays many seemed to be surprised given the amount of money that was left on his contract, $20M in 2019 and $14M in 2020, with a club option of $15M for 2021 or a $4M buyout. This means that they owed him $38M with 2 years left on his contract. After lengthy discussions about what to do moving forward, the team decided to pay him not to play for them. However, that’s a big chunk of change for a team to swallow but this has now become the reality of big, long-term contracts. These contracts are the reason we see less and less veteran Major League Baseball players in the marketplace, and how in an uncapped system, we now have owners cutting a check of this size regardless if they have big or small pockets.

Back in 2013, Alex Rodriguez (A New York Yankee at the time) became a central figure of the Biogenesis Baseball Scandal in Major League Baseball’s investigation of performance-enhancing drugs. He had just had off-season surgery and was not wanted back by Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman in the clubhouse or on the field. When he finally got healthy in August of that year, then-commissioner Bud Selig did the one thing he could not do at any point previously – throw the book at an active star player for steroids. Many before him were retired by the time MLB caught up to what they had done, but A-Rod still had half of his 10-year, $275M contract remaining. Not only did Selig suspend him for the rest of that season, but for the entire 2014 season as well for a total of 212 games without pay. The Yankees would have their farewell tour of the final season in the career of the legendary Derek Jeter in 2014 and all the while, Rodriguez was on the suspension list.

When the calendar turned to 2015, Jeter had ridden into the sunset and A-Rod’s suspension was now fully served. So guess who re-appears on the scene? Yes, Mr. Rodriguez. By this point, the Yankees still owed him roughly $65M. The team opted to put his bat in the lineup strictly as a Designated Hitter, and he responded having a decent comeback year hitting 30 home runs in what looked like a veteran with a fully charged battery. The following season, he struggled to even keep his batting average over .200 siting the end of a great career that had clearly declined. The Yankees released him with a year and $27M left on his contract.

Once upon a time almost a decade earlier, these same Yankees owed another former American League MVP Jason Giambi $23M in each of the final two years on his deal and played him at DH until it expired, refusing to pay that much money to a player to play for another team. Notice the difference in the two decisions by the same management almost a decade apart.

A year later, the Boston Red Sox had an overpaid, highly underachieving third baseman in Pablo Sandoval whom they signed to a 5-year deal worth $95M prior to the 2015 season. After year one being a colossal disaster, then having shoulder surgery missing the entire 2nd year the Red Sox gave him one more chance. To nobody’s surprise, he continued to play poorly, leading to Boston releasing him with two and a half years left and roughly (gulp) $50M still remaining on his deal. Much like the Yankees with A-Rod, the team had the resources to afford this decision and be done with the player as part of the organization.

My how times have changed. If you are a general manager looking at the calendar waiting for a big contract to expire with a lot of time left, gone are the days where you could eat 90% of the money and get a team to take him at a discounted rate. Analytics has taken over, like in every sport, and have advised that you just cut your losses and accelerate the inevitable, as today you really have no other choice. Enter Troy Tulowitzki of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Tulo has been on the disabled list with hamstring and ankle injuries, forcing him to play just 66 games over the past 2 seasons. Knowing what a competitor he has been throughout his career, it is no surprise that he expected to be back at shortstop next spring playing every day next season and that he would be working hard to get there. At 34 years of age though, there was no guarantee he would be able to bounce back to what he once was, and given his injury history, would be a long shot at best.

The Blue Jays are currently going through a youth movement and clearly were looking for Tulowitzki to play a different role on the team – be it switching positions, less playing time, or being a veteran leader in the clubhouse. Tulo wanted none of that. He stated earlier last season that he would “pack his bags and go home” if he could no longer compete for a starting job at Short Stop. Tulo's chances at starting grew slimmer with General Manager Ross Atkins recently saying that it was not realistic he would ever play full-time again. It was obvious that a team going through this type of transition would prefer him not be around to cause any type of distraction and send him packing now rather than in a year or two.

Management might have already made the decision at the conclusion of last season but probably wanted to see if there was an opportunity of a trade at the Winter Meetings, but those would have been unreasonable expectations. Thirty-eight million dollars later, having to stroke a check for that type of money is a very big decision by ownership, however as we've seen in the past, it is also no longer unprecedented.

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