Sports Nut

Salary Dumping Disorder

Why do teams keep unloading their stars?

Mark Shapiro is sending the Indians back in time

There is an old joke that used to be said about a lot of cities but most often went like this: A commercial passenger jet has just landed and is taxiing to the gate. The pilot comes over the PA for his obligatory message: “On behalf of the entire crew, I’d like to welcome you to Cleveland,” he says, “and to remind you to set your watches back 20 years.”Poor old Cleveland has come a long way since then, but Indians general manager Mark Shapiro seems to be doing his level best to send his team, if not the whole city, hurtling back in time. Shapiro has a bad case of an affliction that seems to be going around Major League Baseball—call it the Salary Dumping Disorder. These are the symptoms: You become convinced, based on whatever evidence, that your team cannot win now, so you announce a rebuilding campaign and purge any player who has a big salary and the slightest market value. In return, you demand hot minor-leaguers who will one day develop into stars and lead you to future pennants. That’s the theory, anyway. But what starts out as common sense often ends up veering into pathology. Or what we might call Chronic Salary Dumping Disorder. This is what teams like the Detroit Tigers suffer from. The Tigers just gifted their 25-year-old stud righthander Jeff Weaver to the Yankees, allegedly because of his rich contract—but it averages just over $5 million per season. The Florida Marlins, too, seem to have an aversion to hard-throwing 25-year-olds. What else could explain why they just shipped Ryan Dempster to the Reds? Before these trades, the Tigers and Marlins had long since dumped their big-salaried veterans. Now, they’ve started dumped their reasonably priced young talent, too. A rebuilding program that sees no future for talented 25-year-olds is not rebuilding—it’s surrendering. The Indians aren’t nearly so hopeless a case, but what they’re doing could justifiably be called surrendering, too. Unlike the Tigers, they were a very good team up until recently—recently as in last season. In 2001, they won 91 games and the AL Central Division crown, their sixth in seven years. Now, granted, the roster was a little creaky and weighted down with big contracts. Plus new owner Larry Dolan had ordered his general manager to take a $20 million whack out of the payroll. But this wasn’t purely about money. If it was, what in the world were they doing extending a four-year, $27 million deal to Matt Lawton, a journeyman outfielder with a .275 career average? Or how about the $11 million over three years they lavished on 32-year-old infielder Ricky Gutierrez? Betting that Lawton and Gutierrez would keep the team respectable, Shapiro dealt All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar to the Mets for prospects in the off-season and let Juan Gonzalez escape in free agency. Then, when the team sputtered badly after a quick start to 2002, he gave up its ace pitcher, Bartolo Colon, to the Expos, also for prospects. Not so very long ago, Colon was himself a prospect; he just happens to have been the good kind that blossomed into a star. He is 29 years old, with relatively light mileage on his arm. Now, the team is said to be shopping Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel, its only remaining stars. What makes Shapiro’s decisions sickening is how close the Tribe might be to making a decent run at winning the AL Central, baseball’s weakest division. The Twins are on top, but they are hardly a fearsome club. Their bargain-bin lineup has a Triple-A whiff to it, and they could easily fold in the second half, like they did last season. And even the ragtag assemblage that Shapiro has put on the field has showed some verve, particularly the other day in a spirited ninth inning rally against the Yankees. If they had just a little of the pop they had last year—Alomar and Gonzalez, for starters—they could easily overtake Minnesota. As it stands, they might climb back into contention anyway. And what a nightmare if they do and end up lacking only a good arm or two to pull them down the stretch. An arm like, say, the dearly departed Bartolo Colon’s. Part of the reason Shapiro is doing what he’s doing is that the goal of future contention is safer and cheaper than trying to win immediately. But it also has to do with a certain fixation in baseball circles on the Oakland A’s. Every general manager who is not named Brian Cashman wants to show his peers that he’s as smart as Billy Beane and can build a low-cost contender. So they perpetually dump pricey veterans and even not-so-pricey young players to overstock the farm system and plan for a glorious future. There are worse strategies, but let’s not get carried away. When Beane began remaking the A’s, the team had nothing left to lose. They had just traded Mark McGwire, were playing in a decrepit multipurpose stadium, and essentially had been abandoned by their fans. And though Beane has done an impressive job, he has yet to show that his formula is good for more than second place. This year, the A’s would be in first if Beane could have found a way to satisfy Jason Giambi (the sticking point had less to do with money than with Beane’s initial refusal to give him a no-trade clause). But instead, Beane went out and traded for David Justice, an alleged bargain after the Mets agreed to pick up $1.2 million of his $7 million deal. The lesson here is that when you refuse to pay the steep price for greatness, you often wind up overpaying for mediocrity. A star of Giambi’s magnitude is worth bending both principle and payroll because he could make the difference between first place and second place. With him in their lineup, the A’s wouldn’t have to keep thinking about tomorrow, they could win right now. And what in the world would be wrong with that?