Thursday, November 28, 2002

Hey, an actual baseball post
I haven't posted about baseball in a while, partly still from post-World Series letdown, partly because I don't want to bore my audience, and partly because there hasn't been that much to say, but I have to say this: the more I learn about the Mike Hampton trade, the more outraged I am.

Here's a recap of the facts, for those of you not familiar with them (i.e. 67% of my known audience; Matt, you can skip these next 5 paragraphs): In 1999, Mike Hampton established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League; after several above-average seasons, in 1999 he posted a 22-4 record with a 2.90 ERA, and was probably the second-best pitcher in the league to Randy Johnson (at least according to the Cy Young voting, and to BP's SNWL figures). 2000 was his contract year, and the Astros didn't think they could keep him, and so he was traded to the Mets in the offseason, where he struggled a bit, going only 15-10, but still had an ERA of 3.14 and was easily still in the top 10 pitchers in the league. Naturally, then, he was one of the most-prized free agents in the market, and in a surprise to a lot of observers (myself included), he ended up signing an 8-year, $121-million contract with the Rockies.

If it had been any other team, I would have thought the investment worthwhile, if risky (after all, any 8-year contract is going to be risky); but Coors Field, because of its elevation, is murder on pitchers; no pitcher has pitched there effectively for an extensive amount of time. Their last big free agent pitcher, Darryl Kile, had posted excellent numbers before his trip to Coors, and when the Rockies traded him away, he went back to being an excellent pitcher, but his mile-high stay produced some decidedly unpretty entries in his pitching ledger. Apparently the Rockies hoped that he could be an exception to the trend (and some people thought he would have a chance, since he is an extreme groundball pitcher), but he was not; in 2001 he was 14-13 with a 5.41 ERA -- not as bad as it looks in Coors, but still hardly great, and in 2002 he regressed further, going 7-15, 6.15. It was clear at this point that the $120-million contract was going to be a rather large albatross, and so the Rockies certainly wanted to trade him, but who's going to take on such a huge contract for a pitcher whose reputation has been damaged?

Well, this offseason, the Rockies were able to answer that question, swapping Hampton to the Marlins for Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson, a pair of similarly bad contracts (5 years/$35M and 5 years/$32M, respectively, both ending in 2005), and some other minor entities (on both sides of the trade). The Rockies benefited from the deal in that they got a couple of players whose performance will be aided, rather than hurt, by playing at elevation, and they got out of their financial commitments three years earlier than they would otherwise. Even though the Rockies apparently agreed to pay about $11 million of Hampton's salary (plus $19 million more from a deferred signing bonus), it's not unreasonable to call it a win on their side of the ledger.

The Marlins, on the other hand, while they got someone who's likely to be a fine pitcher again with his return to sea level, didn't have the payroll room to take on Hampton, either. So, they moved him along to the Braves for Tim Spooneybarger. Spooneybarger is a perfectly decent reliever, and the Marlins may try to move him into the closer spot if they get tired of the other attractive-looking trade acquisitions they've tried in the spot (e.g. Braden Looper, Vladimir Nunez), but assuming that Hampton reverts to anywhere near his old form (an assumption I'll be making throughout; if you disbelieve this assumption, then my outrage is a little less justified, but I see no good reason to), his value will be far, far greater than Spooneybarger's.

Still, the Marlins get out from the contracts they were looking to get out of, and they at least get something, so it couldn't have been a total loss for them, could it? Well, I was willing to accept that, until I saw that the Braves were able to get the Marlins to pay $38 million of Hampton's contract, so that the Braves were responsible for only $35.5 million themselves. (Numbers courtesy of this ESPN article; for full details on Hampton's contract, see here.) That's right, the Marlins are paying $38 million for a pitcher who will never play for them. In fact, the $12.7 million a year that that works out to is greater than the Marlins have ever paid to a person who actually did play for them. Or, to put it a different way, the Marlins were more willing to pay more than half of their commitment to Hampton and have him not pitch for him than they were willing to pay the whole share and have him pitch for them.

So, why the outrage? Dave Pease, over in BP, makes a pretty good argument that we shouldn't necessarily consider the Marlins Big Losers in this trade, because it's not like in the absence of the trade, the Marlins wouldn't have been stuck with any bad contracts. They were stuck with Johnson's and Wilson's contracts to begin with, and given that as a starting point, they're still better off than if they had just done nothing (though, obviously, not better off than if they hadn't signed the bad contracts at the outset). But I think this misses the reason so many people look at this trade really suspiciously. My complaint is that the Braves get a pitcher who is likely to be a very excellent pitcher for a very, very low price (in fact, you'll notice that they're paying less for Hampton's services than the Marlins are paying to avoid Hampton's services), simply because they're in a position to take advantage of the fact that the Marlins are that desperate to avoid paying Hampton's full value.

In football and basketball, we see a lot of odd trades forced by the salary cap, where a team will often give away good players for essentially nothing just to clear up salary cap room. That's not all that different from what we have here, when the Marlins are giving up good players just to clear financial space. But what irks me is who benefits from these trades. In football and basketball, it's the teams who have the most salary-cap space to begin with. That might be arbitrary, in some sense of the word, but it is ultimately fair, in that all teams start with the same amount of salary-cap space, and so if you have less than other teams, it's your own fault, so to speak. But here, the Braves are the beneficiary not because they're wisely managed or because they've cleverly accumulated salary-cap space for such a contingency, but simply because they have more money at hand. And that's bound to make a lot of people, myself included, unhappy.

(I'll withhold my annoyed comments about the Yankees pursing Colon for now.)

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