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April 8, 1999

The Renegotiator

Coming soon to a baseball team near you...

by Andres Phippard

When Gord Ash let Brian Cashman do Very Bad Things to the Blue Jays, giving up a Hall of Fame pitcher on top of his game in exchange for a tumescent starter in a vintage cap, a middle reliever, and a pinch runner, most of the media coverage focused on the nature of the deal itself. Equally interesting, however, were the events leading up to the trade, including the fact that a trade occurred. For most of the off-season it was widely reported, apparently accurately, that Ash somehow felt obligated to trade Clemens. The Rocket had made his dissatisfaction with his employment situation known to anyone who would listen. This obligation, however, was not derived from any portion of Clemens' contract. The erstwhile explanation was that there was some sort of gentlemen's agreement that Clemens could demand a trade if he wanted to, but that idea seems farfetched in a labor environment populated with savvy agents who meticulously fashion contracts that flesh out every possible happenstance.

Even more interesting was Clemens' demand (eventually dropped) that any team that he was traded to give him a one-year, $25 million contract extension to bring his contract up near "market value." The knowledge that Ash felt he had to make a trade, coupled with Clemens' incredible monetary demands, may have drastically reduced Clemens' trade value. Why Ash let Clemens dictate his own trade is still a mystery. If Ash had refused to trade Clemens, Clemens didn't have a lot of options. He could deal with it, or he could retire, or he could play badly on purpose. Since the nature of Clemens' demands were that he should get more money, the latter two options would have been a gutsy and high risk bluff, potentially costing him much of his current or future earnings potential. So he instead chose to whine loudly to the media, perhaps hoping to generate sympathy for his cause.

While seeing a player of Clemens' stature try to weasel his way out of a contract that he willingly signed is greatly irritating (c'mon, he didn't even sign it while drunk in Las Vegas), it was not the most outrageous public posturing to occur in the off-season. While Clemens is a unique player, with negotiating leverage stemming from his irreplaceable skill, Omar Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians... isn't. In fact, when Omar Vizquel was originally signed to his seven-year, $21 million contract, some (including Baseball Prospectus) touted him as a leading candidate for "the luckiest man in baseball." The guy had fewer hits to his credit than the football version of Deion Sanders, was 29 years old, and blocking the career path of hot shortstop prospect Enrique Wilson. Who knew Vizquel would start taking the occasional bad pitch? Who knew that baseball's new math would give players like Alex Gonzalez $2.6 million per year to wear out a path between the batters box and the dugout? Suddenly John Hart looked less like Vizquel's generous benefactor and more like a shrewd GM. It seemed one of those win-win situations where everyone involved should count their blessings.

But Vizquel didn't count his blessings. It seems that during the off-season, he and his agent took stock of the situation and realized that Vizquel is no longer particularly close to being the most overpaid player in baseball. Vizquel's current contract just wasn't going to cut it and, at Vizquel's age, waiting for it to expire before asking for more just wasn't an option. Rather than plead their flimsy case before John Hart in private, they gnashed their teeth publicly through the media, implying that without a renegotiation, Cleveland might go into the 1999 season without the services of their veteran shortstop.

There is nothing inherently evil about renegotiation. In a reasonable business relationship, unforseen events sometimes happen and make renegotiation beneficial for both parties. When the Marlins decided to dump salary, Gary Sheffield's no-trade clause was a big barrier. They placated him with a richer contract, he dropped the clause, and the Marlins got to shop Mike Piazza around while Sheffield got to play for a team that has a legitimate shot at the World Series during the next few years. The whole affair was basically resolved in private. Vizquel, however, does not have a leg to stand on. He can refuse to play, and the Indians can then refuse to pay. Who loses more in the bargain? Vizquel forfeits more than $12 million and his career, while the Indians replace their 32 year-old shortstop with the major league-ready Wilson. And in an era where players are viewed as greedy for taking every dollar that's offered them, the Indians come off looking like the victim.

Is Vizquel underpaid in today's market? The answer is yes and no. Yes, were Vizquel a free agent today, he'd probably sign for more money per year than he's currently earning--guys like Jerry Colangelo and Pete Angelos make sure of that. But Vizquel is not being paid only in cash. The security of his contract is a form of compensation, and that can only be evaluated in terms of the market when he signed the contract. Signing a long-term deal is a lot like buying insurance. A player can hedge his bets by singing for what seems like a reasonable sum of money for a long period of time. If he gets injured or his abilities decline, the team does not have an out and the player is the big winner. If the player develops beyond predictions or the market takes an unforseen turn for the better, the team has the player locked up and is the big winner. The system can only work if both sides adhere to the conditions of the contract, regardless of the outcome. If your home doesn't catch fire next year you won't be able to demand that your fire insurance premiums be refunded. Insurance is intangible, but has an intrinsic value unto itself. This is the overlooked component of Vizquel's contract. In light of the context of the day that he signed the contract, Vizquel has a great deal.

I'm not opposed to high player salaries. I'd rather see $90 million go into Mike Piazza's tax-deferred annuities than into some rich owner's pockets. I'd rather see J.D. Drew test his value in a free marketplace than see his value artificially deflated by the indentured servitude of the amateur draft. But there is something truly ugly about public whining by a player, especially when it involves a contract peppered with his John Hancock and chaw residue. When a player like Clemens does it, it is obnoxious. But when a player like Vizquel does it, it's merely ludicrous. Leave that kind of nonsense to Samuel L. Jackson.

Related Content:  The Who,  Omar Vizquel

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1999-09-28 - The Week in Quotes: September 20-26
1999-09-21 - The Week in Quotes: September 13-19
1999-04-08 - The Renegotiator
1998-10-14 - The Week in Quotes: October 5-11
1998-10-05 - The Week in Quotes: September 28-October 4