My ‘Other’ Day Job: Sportswriting

Chapter 13 of My Life and Times and Purdue University

The following article was posted up at soon to be moved to

Angels go ALL IN on 2 Free Agents

Christmas time 2011: As the Europeans try once again to unite their causes to fight (of all things) a debt crisis, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (yeah, hate it too) decided that $330 million is about the right debt load to acquire Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. For Angels fans, this must be heaven and Christmas come early – to land the marquee free agent, and a legit #2 starter in one fell swoop. But to baseball analysts, it shows a propensity to overpay for talent, and the Angels will know only years down the road how flawed these deals may be. Luckily, with a $3 Billion dollar, 20-year TV contract, ‘Fat Albert’ will be on TV for years to come, whether he’s any good to watch, or not.
Pujols came into the league in 2001, and has done what no mortal baseball player has ever done. He has paced the MLB world in every key statistic that matters; like Tiger Woods used to do in golf. Pujols is truly a gifted player, the likes of a Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, or a Mays, only at first base. And that small fact might be irrelevant too as the Angels will put him to the chore of swinging a bat four or five times a game, and little else, for at least 50% of the season. Does Albert stay healthy enough to surpass Bonds, as fellow Upper Deck writer Jason Bond discussed in Home Runs: Who Will Be The Next King?

It is possible. But is he worth $25.4 million per year, on average, with a no-trade deal for a 31-year old slugger? (Angels owner Arte Moreno paid only $184 million to acquire the Big A franchise in Anaheim.) To answer that question involves the discussion of the following:

  • Does Fat Albert boost ticket sales (and pricing) to cover the ground a contract to another 1B would have had? (Angels drew plenty at home (5th), but were dead last in road attendance. Some monetary incentive to improve that likely exists. But how much is it?)
  • Is his on-the-field performance the sole difference in winning the division and playoff success, for say, 50% of his contract?
  • Will he recover to pre-2011 form? (He was down across the board from his lifetime dominance of 4th all-time in slugging and a .328 lifetime BA.)
  • Is the next best option at his position, 1B, so inferior, that the money could not be spent to do other things? (Again, the Angels drew well in excess of 3,000,000 fans – if Albert adds 100,000 x ($60 per fan), and 10% of 250,000 on the road ($50) – $7,250,000 total – is that worth his price tag of 25M? Could a successful post season be had in another way? Making more profit too?)
  • The television revenue deal predated Pujols. So why go this route to build a competitive team? (Texas jealousy???)

Dave Cameron of Fan Graphs (and the WS Journal) lucid argument on these questions further supports this writer’s underlying and implied conclusion: building through exorbitant contracts is like buying an iPad II for a 4-year old. Or going all out for a mediocre relative in this season just to know they will be the same curmudgeonly Scrooge they have always been. Contracts like these have never worked long-term – at least the analysis consistently weighs to the negative.

Going back to the 1970s, the free agent market consistently (and by various more profound and professorial sources) has disappointed many teams – great big market franchises and the small markets shops. Small markets have been burnt the most. Colorado great shopping spree for Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. Texas and A-Rod. Cincinnati and Ken Griffey, Jr. San Francisco and  Barry Zito. (San Fran hit big on Cain and Lincecum.) Chicago and Alfonso Soriano. Boston (so far) with Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, as we (the fans or the analysts) will have to give that buy some time. But time and again, to be cliché, these high-end (and long-term) deals get no where close to being a successful merger, turning out more like AOL and Time Warner than anything Apple touches lately.

At this holiday season, Pujols has to be smilling and saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” or “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to all his friends and family. Because, when you look at the history, the ghosts of contracts past, the evidence is fairly dooming for the Angels. The chains of cash, the debt load, usually snap, and ownerships that behaved like a reformed Scrooge giving Bob & Co. gifts galore, will soon be uttering “Bah humbug!!!” once again.

Ah, tis the hot stove season.

To reinforce the debt problem: C.J. Wilson is due $20 million in 2016 at age 36. So is Jered Weaver, the Angels #1 starter. Albert adds (I’m assuming), at least $25 million. So $65 million for 3 players, two of which, pitch every fifth day. (Assuming healthy too.)

2011 Angels payroll: $138 Million. 22 others to be hand for $75 million. (Cincinnati paid this for their payroll.) Right now, they pay $32 million to 3 other pitching starters – bringing the total to $97 Million. Vernon Wells is also on a long contract that will expire before 2016, but it is also backloaded. Figure another $20 million. We are at $117 Million for 5 pitching starters, 2 positions, leaving 18 positions. Angels move easily across the $200 million payroll barrier without question, joining the Yankees by 2013-14.

Is this good for baseball?

I suppose money spent at the holidays leaves a hangover of debt for months and years to come. It is the American (and European) way. Albert Pujols may indeed perform to his contract – but the odds are he’d be a restructuring-of-debt candidate, if he was a country. Chances are, Pujols can buy his own country (or large island) now.

Owners and their new toys: Fun for a while, until the break, or a new shiny object flashes to their delight.

Tis the Xmas season…Ho!Ho!Ho!

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