Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia looks down to first base over Toronto Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak after completing a double play during the first inning of a baseball game, Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Fenway Park in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

This may be the only baseball column in New England this week not devoted to what NBC Boston reporter John Tomase called “LIGHTS OUT FOR THE LASER SHOW.”

Unless you’ve been asleep all week, or have been so turned off by the “Reigning World Champions” lackluster performance that you don’t pay attention to them, you know that Dustin Pedroia announced on Monday afternoon that he was shutting down for 60 days and said, when asked what his future holds, rocked Red Sox Nation’s world by responding, “I’m not sure.” 

Carl Johnson

I’m not going to write about Pedroia, except to acknowledge that he has had an exceptional, although probably not Hall of Fame career, and that he has been the heart and soul of the Sox since bursting on the Fenway scene in 2007, winning the Rookie of the Year Award with a .317 batting average and being a big factor in the Sox second of four World Series wins and following that with a .326 year and winning the Most Valuable Player Award.

He was, and I use the past tense tentatively, knowing that he is one of the toughest players ever to play this game, wired in the same way as Ty Cobb, Pete Rose and one of my Yankee favorites Paul O’Neill. A warrior in every sense of the word, the ultimate competitor.

My golfing buddy from Dutch Elm, Sam Sleeper, said the other day, “If I had known how long I was going to live, I would have taken better care of myself when I was young.” The way Pedroia played baseball is how the game should be played but does not necessarily translate into a lengthy career.

Even in the 11 years, from 2006 to 2016, when he was at his best, Pedroia only averaged 127 games a year as he careened from injury to injury giving the Sox everything he had at the cost of his physical health. 

I said this would not be a column about Pedroia so I will stop here, but nothing that has happened in the last three years can diminish his importance and contributions to the Red Sox and baseball or the admiration of his legions of fans, including this writer. 

There is still, including this year’s $15 million salary, $40 million that the Red Sox owe Pedroia over the next three years, whether he plays or not.  Major League Baseball salaries, unlike National Football League salaries, for the most part, are guaranteed to the player no matter whether they are capable of playing or not. The team assumes all the risk and future payments guaranteed under the contract are not affected by the player’s ability to play or his performance or lack of.

There are many horrible examples of teams being victimized after entering into these long-term contracts with players who either don’t perform or become injured and are unable to perform. In many cases, teams have overestimated the long-term value of older players in their haste to sign the big bat or arm. 

Albert Pujols is a classic example. He is one of the greatest hitters of all time and a lock to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The Angels signed Pujols as a free agent to a 10-year, $200 million contract in 2012 after he had averaged .328 at the plate a year with an average 43 homers and 127 runs batted in for his first 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the next seven years, Pujols averaged .260 a year with 27 homers and 93 runs batted in while playing only 129 games a year for the Angels. Not bad numbers at all for a player playing from age 32 to 38 but, looking back, was it worth an average of $20 million a year? 

At age 41, in 2021, the last year of his contract, he will earn $30 million.   On top of this, according to Spotrac, which monitors most professional sports contracts, and Baseballreference.com, Pujols has a personal services contract with the Angels which will pay him $10 million the years after.

Then there is the case of Chris Davis, the Orioles first baseman, whose specialty appears to be striking out. After Davis hit .262 with 47 homers and 117 runs batted in in 2015, he became a free agent. The O’s lured him into staying with a seven-year, $161 million contract, $23 million a year. In the next three seasons, his batting average went down to .221, .215 and .168. His home run production went down to 38, 26 and 16.

Red Sox fans all remember the debacle that was the signing of free agent Carl Crawford from Tampa Bay in 2011, after he had hit .307 with 19 homers and 90 RBIs in 2010. The Sox were lucky enough to unload his contract to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and he repaid the Dodgers by averaging four homers and 25 RBIs a year for four years while being paid $20 million plus a year before they were finally able to unload him.

There are dozens of examples that show the downside of long-term contracts, especially when they involve players who are at or past their prime. Mike Trout’s 12-year contract, earning roughly $36 million a year through 2030 when he will be 38, maybe a bargain for the Angels, but, if he should get hurt and be unable to play, he’ll still get paid. Then it’s a bargain for Trout.

Some teams buy insurance on some contracts that will pay the salaries if a player gets hurt. That just adds to the total cost of the player. In Pedroia’s case, when he signed his long-term contract with the Sox, they “chose not to insure his contract,” according to Sean McAdam of the Boston Globe, leaving the Sox with $40 million to pay over the next three years.

None of these problems are the fault of the players. No player ever forced a team to give him a ridiculously high salary for a ridiculously long period of time so it’s hard to feel sorry for them when they get burned.  The owners hold all the cards in negotiating with a free agent and that’s the reason players like Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and others are still unsigned.

It’s a weird system with players getting rewarded for past performance with no guarantee that they will continue to perform at that level and no way of reducing what they get if they don’t perform. Still, the owners continue to gamble on the future. 

This situation is largely responsible for the exorbitant price of tickets to baseball games. But don’t blame the players, the owners created it and have done nothing to rectify it. Wait until after the draft next week and watch the owners throw money at the best free agents out there and just envision the cost of your game tickets going up as a result.

Carl Johnson is a noted baseball lecturer and author. His books include the popular series “THE BASEBALL BUFF’S BATHROOM BOOKS” and “THE BEST TEAM EVER?” which chronicles the Red Sox 2018 World Series win.         

  

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