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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Not in the best interests of baseball?

In 1976, major league baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn used the authority of his office to prevent Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley from selling off star players from its three-peat championship team. ESPN:
Finley tried to sell [Vida] Blue to the Yankees and [Rollie] Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for a combined $3.5 million, claiming he needed the money to sign free agents and rebuild. Kuhn disagreed, voiding the sales by saying they weren't "in the best interests of baseball."
The free agent era had just started and Finley wanted to get something in return for his stars.

Yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays made a transaction even more egregious than the ones Finley tried to complete -- and the current baseball commissioner Bud Selig is apparently not going to stop it. The Jays simply waived starting outfielder Alex Rios (and the nearly $62 million remaining on his contract from now through 2014). He was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who will apparently not give the Jays anything in return. No grade C prospect, no cash considerations, no player-to-be-named later.


To my thinking (which not everyone shares), this transaction is not "in the best interests of baseball" because it likely hurts competitive balance and might encourage teams to risk moral hazard. NYT:
The economy has worsened since the Jays signed Rios, who would probably not get that lucrative a contract if he were a free agent in the off-season. The Jays see unloading Rios as an opportunity to use that money to address other needs.
A big-market team like the White Sox acquire a talented player without giving the Blue Jays anything in exchange -- other than the money owed on the player's contract.

Ordinarily, the only players exchanged through waiver claims are really bad. They are literally unwanted by their current team because they are unskilled. That's not Alex Rios. He may be overpaid, but he has significant value as a baseball player.

Lopsided trades and outright sales (like the ones Finley pursued in 1976) are arguably not in the best interests of competitive balance, but this transaction seems fairly clearly bad for the game. While it is true that the Jays now have $62 million to spend in other ways, they are also down a somewhat above average outfielder (he has more value to the Sox as a centerfielder) -- and they didn't receive any compensation for the player's five years under contract.

As proven repeatedly over the years, baseball salaries that seem high in the current context may look like a bargain in a season or two. In this case, Rios is under contract through 2014 so there was plenty of time for the situation to change.

Bud Selig should have intervened for the sake of the game.

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