March 19, 2003
The Sin of the Politician
There are certain occupations where mentioning the elephant in the room that everyone knows about but no one acknowledges can be hazardous to your continued livelihood. You can't find a single politician, for example, who thinks that Social Security is viable long term without significant benefit cuts or tax increases. And yet, because Joe Sheehan's assessment of Americans is, by and large, too charitable--and because we've all embraced the tragedy of the commons with such zeal--no elected official in their right mind will come out in favor of cutting Social Security benefits or dramatically raising taxes.
So, instead of trying to solve the problem in advance, we'll wait until there's a crisis and do a half-assed job of fixing it down the road, when the problem's particularly acute, and the group that will take it in the shorts when that happens will be the group that's either demographically or electorally challenged. It's the way we do things. We don't often mention the elephant in the room, even though its presence is patently obvious.
Last Saturday, Oakland A's owner Steve Schott flashed a spotlight on the elephant in the room.
"I just think the world of him," Schott said. "The problem is there's absolutely no way we can sign Miguel to a long-term contract." (Associated Press)
Because this kind of statement is unusual, the baseball news day was slow, and because it arrived on most desks on cycle, this statement got a lot of play in the press. Considering the press usually doesn't run stories like "Sun Rises in East," "Democratic Party Aimlessly Floundering," or "Dog Embarrasses Guest by Intrusively Sniffing Crotch," it's kind of weird that Schott's statement received any play at all.
While doing research to write Baseball Prospectus 2003, we talked to front office execs from almost every club. All the executives I spoke with that mentioned the upcoming free agent class of 2003-2004 included Tejada in that group, but no one stepped over the line into the finable area of tampering. It's common knowledge that the A's weren't going to re-up Miguel Tejada, and that was true before Schott made it official on Saturday.
Of course, Mr. Schott actually pointed out two elephants in the room, not just one. The first was our favorite elephant--the small market/large market dichotomy in baseball, and the A's place in it. You know, the white one.
"The system is broken down when only two or three teams can pick up a player of Miguel's caliber and sign him to an eight-to-10-year contract and pay him the money he deserves. This small-market team with the system we have just can't afford him." (Associated Press)
Well, not really. The A's clearly can afford Tejada. Oakland's not a small market, even when you consider MLB's ludicrous split of the local geography between the A's and the Giants. The A's exercised their option to extend the broadcast rights contract through the 2003 season, and they're going to be in good shape to cut a new deal. Had they gone further in the postseason--and if economic growth were around 4%--there'd be a deal in place right now, but Michael Crowley, not being a dummy, will push off the bidding until after this season, hoping for an economic rebound and at least a first-round playoff victory.
The money's there. There are ancillary issues, such as keeping the A's cost structure low in order to avoid scaring off potential buyers, and fear of opponents of a new ballpark having a visible bloody shirt to wave during public debate. The A's are making a business decision not to re-sign Tejada, and, in all honesty, it's very tough to argue with that decision.
Miguel Tejada is going to demand an awful lot of money on the open market. In this age of the Übershortstop, Miguel slots in comfortably at No. 3, behind only A-Rod and Nomar Garciaparra, and given Tejada's edge in durability over Nomar, it's not clear he'll get a lot less dough. If we assume Tejada's published age is accurate, he'll be 27 this season, and will be looking for a contract after this year that will take him through his late prime and into the probable early stages of decline. He'll also cost somewhere north of $10 million annually, and the A's are already stinging from the Jermaine Dye contract up in that stratosphere.
The reality is that he's probably not worth the risk of the contract he'll end up signing, and the A's know it.
The value of any player to a club is strictly marginal--that is, his value less the value of the best available replacement. In the case of Tejada, the best available replacement is pretty good, and awfully cheap. Mark Ellis, currently the A's second baseman, can play shortstop. He's also a very solid ballplayer, and could very well grow to be a comparable ballplayer to Tejada. Ellis turns 26 in June, has a better walk rate than Tejada, hits the ball in the air, and plays defense pretty well; it's not infeasible that he could even be a better ballplayer than Tejada during the 2003 season, heretical as that may sound. In the minors, the A's have Bobby Crosby coming up fast, a very solid shortstop prospect who could, if forced, start the 2004 season at short for the A's and not embarrass himself or hurt the club too badly. Both of these options--and there are dozens of others all over the minors with other clubs, too--cost considerably less than throwing eight figures of cash at Tejada.
So, is Schott guilty of the sin of excessive honesty?
"Maybe what surprises people is that they're used to the games with the media," general manager Billy Beane said. "This is just kind of stating some obvious things. You don't want to be disingenuous with the player and the fact of the matter is that a player of his caliber will receive contract offers beyond our means." (Jim Caple, ESPN.com)
Beane makes a good and fair point. People do expect the media and spokespeople of all stripes to undertake a kind of dance, putting the appropriate public face on every situation, when everyone knows the public face may have only the faintest resemblance to reality or the truth. And you know what? There's something comforting about that, as any politician will be happy to tell you. The only difference is that this time, the dance is slightly different, as Schott has pointed out a truth and an untruth, and lumped them together. Yes, it's true that the A's have no intention of making a serious attempt to re-sign Tejada. But it's a simple, rational, gutsy, and diligent business choice, not a state of victimhood compelled by geography and arcane bylaws.
Next time, if Schott wants to really shock people, he might consider something along these lines:
"Miguel and I had a frank conversation yesterday, and I informed him that we would not be offering him a long-term deal after the 2003 season. Miguel's a great player, and he's been an integral part of our significant recent success. But in all honesty, with the artificial constraints on the free market being lifted with regards to his compensation, his likely contribution to this club going forward simply isn't going to be worth the money.
Then again, we in the U.S. love media dancing, despite our oft-stated reverence of honesty. So this probably isn't an optimal strategy.