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February 11, 2013 at 8:33 pm ET
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B&C Interview: Jonah Keri Talks Baseball’s 15 Worst Contracts

Writer Jonah Keri unleashed his 15 worst contracts in baseball upon the interwebs this morning over at Grantland, and after reading it, we just had to ask a few follow-up questions of the uber-Expos fan.

This afternoon, Keri discussed why Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon may “remain the $200,000 Aston Martin that never leaves the garage,” why the Dodgers may well give “zero F’s,”¬† the potential perils of nearly unlimited resources, why some general managers and owners may always fall prey to the romanticism of the¬†triple crown categories over the more telling sabermetric approach, and when Montreal fans can expect that definitive book on Les Expos.

To you, the loyal and learned B&C reader, we are proud to present Jonah Keri:

In your article, you allude to the fact that players like Jayson Werth, Alfonso Soriano, A-Rod and even Albert Pujols may possibly be worth the money per at the time they are signed, but are basically dead weight by the end of their contracts. Doesn’t it seem more prudent to miss out on a prime talent for one, or maybe two-to-three years, than to offer years and monies for aged production that simply cannot reasonably be expected or counted on?

The whole thing about being dead weight at the end of a contract, that’s not necessarily a problem. Let’s say you sign a guy to an eight-year, $160 million contract, and he’s a true superstar, in today’s market, a true superstar is worth more than $20 million, he’s worth 30, maybe more than that on the open market. You have to think of it this way, you’re getting a profit at the front end and maybe taking a loss at the back end, such that it might even out. The problem with someone like A-Rod is you have this contract, and it’s not like it’s the last year or two that are the problem, it’s the last five that are the problem, and that’s what really makes this a different kind of scenario. So as far as missing out or not missing out, it pretty much depends on the team. If you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s much riskier to go ahead and take a chance on a player like A-Rod or Pujols than it is for a team like the Dodgers that can say “Oh, whatever. You know, we’ll have a $7 billion TV contract, we’ll go ahead and take that risk.” So, I just don’t think there are any absolutes with this debate, I think that the back end of a contract is not necessarily a problem if you’re a team that can absorb that kind of loss.

We’re not that far removed from a time when the Dodgers were on the verge of bankruptcy, then they not only begin acquiring expensive talent that are either old, getting old or have history of injury issues. In fact, you named four of them (Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Brandon League and Juan Uribe) in your piece, so what is going on in Los Angeles?

When you say they were on the verge of bankruptcy, it was really the owner (Frank McCourt) who engineered certain moves that made it that way. He was trying to plunder the company, things were being intertwined that weren’t necessarily on the up-and-up, and ultimately sold the team for more than $2 billion and made a gigantic profit even after paying¬†back all his debts and all the alimony. Now we’re in a position where the new owners recognize what a cash cow this franchise is, and like I said, signing that huge TV deal for $7 billion, it just creates a whole different scenario. The Dodgers are pulling down $300 million per year from local TV, even after sharing that revenue with baseball, they don’t have to share all of it because of the backdoor clause that McCourt engineered, they’re still in a great position to do whatever the heck they want to do. I suppose there’s some hypothetical limit by which the Dodgers could start losing money if they spend too much, but I don’t think they’re there yet. I think they could easily spend as much as they are now or more than they are now, and that’s fine. To me, the biggest problem, and it’s not a major problem, if we’re talking about spending $200, $250 or $300 million on payroll every year, you’re going to be in pretty good shape more often than not, but there is the opportunity cost / risk. For instance, they made that trade where they acquired Gonzalez, and in the course of that trade, they also got Crawford. Well, Crawford is now owed more than $100 million and he nominally is locking down one of those outfield spots, but I would submit to you that Josh Hamilton, over the next five years, is probably a better bet than Carl Crawford. I think Hamilton is going to be a better player, Hamilton still has his own risks, but all things considered, I’d rather have Hamilton right now, but because they have Crawford, I can’t say for sure that was the reason¬†they didn’t go after Hamilton, but I certainly think it’s possible that’s the case. No matter how much money you have, there’s a certain human emotion that says “Well, ya know, I’m not just going to write this $100 million guy off and say that Carl Crawford’s worth nothing or throw him in the trash or bench him or whatever, I’m going to assume that he’s my starting left fielder.” And that becomes a problem, so even if you have all this money, if you make the wrong decisions spending the money, when the next offseason comes along, you could have had Player X, but you chose to spend it on Player Y, you’re going to potentially miss out. I think that is the biggest problem with having, not unlimited money, but almost unlimited,¬†you get so eager to¬†spend it that you¬†lock yourself in on a guy who may not be all that, he may just be the player who happens to be available at that time.

Give me the best and worst-case scenarios for the Dodgers in 2013.

Best, they could win the World Series, they have a good team. Certainly Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, you’re talking about one of the best pitchers and one of the best hitters in baseball, they’ve made some upgrades with the (Zack) Greinke signing. The worst case scenario is that they still have holes, the left side of that infield is not great, Hanley Ramirez is not nearly the player he used to be, they’re saying Luis Cruz might start this year? He’s not a viable player just because of¬†a few games last year, so they still have holes on that roster, no question about it. So, worst case scenario, I suppose would be missing the playoffs and winning 80-some games and not getting it done. I think that is a real possibility, the Giants have won two out of the last three World Series and are there are going to be other contenders for the wild card if the Dodgers don’t win the division, so they’ll have to compete with those teams. So yeah, missing the playoffs, I don’t know if you’d call it a worst case scenario, but it’s a real possibility.

You mentioned relievers such as Papelbon and League in your story, and make it clear that paying premium dollars for closers often times is a foolish investment. Which closers, right now, would you pay premium dollars for?

I wouldn’t pay premium dollars for any closer, quite frankly. I just think there are too many good relief pitchers¬†out there who are undervalued. I suppose if I had an unlimited payroll like the Dodgers, I could say it’s not an ideal use of resources, but it doesn’t really matter because I want some certainty so I’m going to go ahead and do it. But on a neutral basis, if I was building a team, I don’t see why I would. And with Papelbon in the story, I think he was an honorable mention, Papelbon’s a great closer, I think you have to look at track record and say that he’s probably the best closer over the last few years in baseball with (Mariano) Rivera getting hurt last year. He’s pretty close to a blue-chip commodity in that respect, like Craig Kimbrel and¬†couple of other guys like that, but the problem¬†is that if I’m running a team I need my manager to use the guy optimally, too. I guess if Papelbon was used absolutely perfectly,¬†then maybe he’d be worth the $13¬†milion a year that he’s making, but he isn’t. You look at what Charlie Manuel has done, and it was well documented by the excellent¬†Phillies blog Crashburn Alley, he’s just never used in situations that he should be used.

They¬†bring him in for typical closers situations, up two or three, bases empty, ninth inning and all we need is three outs.¬†That’s not really an optimal use of a guy with his talents, what you want to do is bring him¬†into a tie game, on the road¬†where you really need the win, hold down the fort and give your bats a chance to perform, but he’s just never brought into that situation. Over and over they lost games because they kept using inferior relief pitchers who would give up runs. So that’s my problem,¬†if I’m building a hypothetical, perfect¬†team scenario and I’m a very rich team ¬†that can maybe afford to overspend on a closer, I’m going after the Papelbons, the Kimbrels as a hypthetical free-agent, and I’m telling my manager, if I had total sway over my manager somehow, “You have to use this guy, not worried about the closer role or the save rule, at all. Just use him whenever you need to get three outs or six outs or nine outs, most importantly. The highest leverage scenario, the most important scenario of the game.” If that were the case, then maybe I could create a circumstance by which I would pay that much money for a closer.

Vernon Wells signed a huge contract with the Blue Jays years ago, but has never lived up to the superstar status that his contract dictated. Was it possible that Wells was never quite the player some felt he was?

He was a somewhat inconsistent player before he signed, he had one or two not great years and a couple of really big years with the Jays at the time that he signed the deal, but do I think it was an overpay at the time?¬†I don’t think so. People were saying at the time that was a lot of money to pay somebody with his track record, but of course he’s fallen off since then, but he was still a pretty good ballplayer, it’s not like that contract came out of nowhere. You can’t pay someone $20 million a year if he has no redeeming value whatsoever, Wells just doesn’t have any redeeming value now, he can’t hit. Forget about his defensive metrics or how good he is at this, that or the other, just on a basic level, the guy is not the hitter that he used to be. Sure, something has happened since the time that he signed the contract, whether it’s age or attrition or whatever, but something has gone wrong because he’s not nearly that guy.

You touched on it a bit in your article, baseball seems to be migrating toward the all-around players, but there are still power-hititng players like Adam Dunn who are targeted for hefty price tags despite deficiencies regarding base-running and defense. In your estimation, what compels these GM’s and owners to grossly overextend themselves on years and monies for players who only contribute in one or two categories?

On a basic level, it’s possible that a team looks at a guy who hits 40 home runs as someone who puts butts in seats, whereas someone who does a little bit of everything doesn’t necessarily do that, that’s certainly possible. There are some general managers and front offices that are not so inclined as to look at the big picture, we can’t assume that they’re all so sabermetrically oriented that they’re breaking out every ingredient of everything, I think some guys are just seduced by home runs and RBI and are going to continue to be. I don’t think we’re at maximum efficiency when it comes to front offices, but I think, well I don’t think, I know that there are cases when the owner just flat out makes a decision. I mean, when you look at somebody like Prince Fielder, who didn’t make the list, by the way, although I don’t think it’s a great contract, but he wasn’t one of the 15 worst in baseball in my opinion, but that was a Mike Illitch move. Prince Fielder is a good player, but he’s not a perfect player because all he does is hit. He hits very well, but that’s all he does. But I really don’t think that (Tigers general manager) Dave Dombrowski would have extended $214 million on the guy without Illitch. You look at Illitch, he’s in his 80s, he says he wants to win a World Series before I die, Prince Fielder is the best power hitter out there, let’s pair him with (Miguel) Cabrera and see what happens. And that’s what happened. I just don’t think you’re going to see an owner intervene in that way if Ben Zobrist were a free-agent. Zobrist is a very good player, maybe a more valuable player than Prince Fielder you can argue, but it’s not the kind of guy that’s going to seduce an 80-something-year old man¬†to think “Here ya go, here’s $214 million, let’s break the bank and try to get this guy before I die.” I just think there’s always something that’s going to be seductive about the triple crown stats, but especially about home runs and RBI, even way beyond the point which most of the rest of us, or many of the rest of us understand that there’s more than that to baseball.

For all the Expos fans out there, when can they expect to see that book on the history of the ‘Spos from you?

Spring, 2014. I’m working on it as we speak.

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