It was Benjamin Franklin who, in "Poor Richard’s Almanack," once opined, "Mo’ money, mo’ problems." It’s true for baseball teams, too. With an inflated payroll comes a willingness to take risks that low-payroll teams wouldn’t. They’ll sign middle relievers to multi-year deals to fill a short-term need. They’ll lock up their own legacy players for a year or two longer than is prudent. And they’ll take on the big contracts of once-great players, hoping that they’ll return to their former level.
No one has done this better -- or worse, depending on how you look at it -- than the Los Angeles Angels. There was every reason to believe that the Blue Jays would have packed $20 million into a duffel bag, duct-taped it to Vernon Wells, and put them both on a plane to go to the first team that would have offered a portable cassette player in exchange. Instead, the Angels assumed the entire contract and gave up a catcher with a bat. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Wells does not have an ERA above the league average, so the Angels have that going for them.
If there was a precursor to the Wells trade, though, it was with the Scott Kazmir deal. The Rays were 4.5 games out of the Wild Card race when they traded Kazmir, who was 25 at the time. They were coming off a World Series appearance, and they were firmly in win-now mode, if not for 2009, then certainly for 2010 and beyond.
So here’s a lesson for future teams: If a team that fits that description offers you their 25-year-old All-Star pitcher in exchange for salary relief, assume he’s broken. Assume it before you even look at the stats (which included a 5.92 ERA and a career-low strikeout rate). Go up to a seven-year-old eating lunch and tell him that you’ll trade a pair of Twinkies for his liverwurst sandwich. He’ll look at you funny, all suspicious-like. The kid knows. The Angels were trusting, looking at the Rays with big ol’ golden retriever eyes, stunned at their good fortune.
That’s what Kazmir has done in Triple-A this year. He was in extended spring training before the minor-league stint, and now it looks like the Angels are going to release him soon. He’s only 27.
If there’s another lesson here, it’s at how perfectly the Rays managed Kazmir. The Rays:
- acquired him for a mediocre-to-bad veteran
- enjoyed his most productive and least expensive seasons
- signed him to a long-term deal at below market rates for an ace
- traded him away after he showed signs that he was broken, but before he became completely untradeable.
That’s a progression that you’d see on a blackboard behind Alec Baldwin as he belittles the GMs of the Pirates, Royals, and Orioles, who are all disinterested and annoyed that they have to be there. The Rays executed the sequence deftly.
As for the Angels, they can afford to make some mistakes. They have the money. But it’s not an unlimited supply of liquid cash, and they’re paying Vernon Wells and Scott Kazmir (after his buyout) about $5 million less than the entire Rays roster this season. If they keep taking big contracts, hoping for a return to an All-Star form that was lost, they’ll probably keep getting burned. One of these years, it’s going to cost them a chance at a free agent, or a chance to keep one of their own good, young players.
Beware the lesson of Scott Kazmir. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.