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Buster Olney on Cliff Lee and Alex Rodriguez

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Buster Olney weighs in on the ongoing Cliff Lee negotiations, and wonders what the Rangers ownership is doing:

If the Rangers intend to include Lee in a payroll of $80 million to $100 million in the years ahead, then no, [giving Lee a seven year deal at $20+ million per year] makes no sense whatsoever. It's A-Rod all over again: Tom Hicks gave Rodriguez $252 million and within three years he figured out the situation was completely unworkable, because one player, as good as he was, tied up too much money.

 

 

But remember: The Rangers' ownership group that is headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan is backed by extraordinary wealth, and if one of the billionaire owners decides that a Lee signing would be separate from the rest of the payroll, well, then it makes more sense for the baseball operations guys to sign on.

 

 

I've heard of situations where an owner will tell his general manager that he -- the owner -- will take responsibility for a particular signing. In other words, the owner says, "I'll pay for this player and in effect, he won't be part of the budget we give you."

Olney, like Evan Grant, invokes Alex Rodriguez as proof that you can't win with that much of your team's payroll tied up in one player.

However...

In 2002 and 2003, the Rangers payroll was just over $100 million per year.  Alex Rodriguez was making $23 million per year.  ARod's salary was 22% of the Rangers' payroll in those years.

The 2010 Rangers had an Opening Day payroll of $64 million.  $16 million of that was for Michael Young.  25% of the Rangers' payroll was dedicated to one player, a player not as good as Alex Rodriguez, a player earning a bigger percentage of the team's payroll than ARod did.

And yet, they still made the playoffs.  And not only made the playoffs, but went to the World Series.

Writers have continued to perpetuate this myth that no team can afford a top player without a $150 million payroll.  As a result, the conventional wisdom is now that only Boston, the Yankees, and maybe the Mets and Angels should even consider signing a superstar, because otherwise, payroll will be too top heavy.

But the problem with the ARod contract wasn't that he was being paid 22% of the team's $105 million.  It was that Doug Melvin and John Hart did a really, really lousy job of surrounding him with talent, wasting ridiculous sums of money on players like Juan Gonzalez, Chan Ho Park, and Rusty Greer, who did basically nothing. 

Paying $20+ million per year on one of the best players in the game isn't a problem.  Paying $13 million per year for a headcase pitcher with back problems who can't pitch away from Chavez Ravine, or $15 million per year for a 30-something free agent outfielder who can't stay healthy, or $10 million per year for a fan favorite who couldn't get on the field anymore, is the problem.

And Hicks' second problem was deciding he wasn't willing to maintain the $100 million payrolls, and deciding he was just going to slash payroll, go with a small-market business model, and hope for the best. 

The response when I point out the Michael Young/Alex Rodriguez payroll similarities is, well, yeah, but Young was only getting paid $16 million, while ARod was getting $25 million.  Which ignores the fact that that cuts against the argument that is being advanced...when ARod was a Ranger, the rest of the team made $80 million per year.  The Rangers, when Alex Rodriguez was here, paid every non-Rodriguez major leaguer on the team more than the entire major league payroll has been for the Rangers in every year from 2004 through 2010.

Which isn't to say that breaking the bank for Lee, committing seven years at $25 million for Lee, is the smart path.  We've talked before about how, if you want to trade for an elite player, the package of prospects you are going to give up is going to hurt.  If the package you are contemplating doesn't hurt to part with, it probably isn't a realistic deal.

Similarly, to sign an elite player, you are going to generally have to commit more money than you are comfortable with, and guarantee more years than you probably think is prudent.  That's the nature of the beast.

But the idea that signing Lee would be a repeat of Alex Rodriguez, and the Rangers would suddenly find themselves unable to afford to surround Lee with talent were they to do this deal, is nonsense.

It may be that they money they are talking about spending on Lee could be spent more prudently on other players.  And it may very well be that the Lee contract would hamstring them in the final years of the deal, when he's no longer a $20 million pitcher.  In fact, I think you go into this deal expecting that will probably be the case.

But let's quit peddling the idea that Lee, and Rodriguez, prove that teams like the Rangers simply can't compete with those sorts of salaries on the books.