Why Gonzalez extension makes sense

BY foxsports • April 17, 2011

The Boston Red Sox, who began Sunday with the worst record in the major leagues, have a number of problems.

The newly-minted Adrian Gonzalez extension isn’t one of them.

Sure, most of us have a sensibility bone that throbs at the notion of any ballplayer deserving a seven-year, $154 million contract. But it’s all a matter of proportion. Major League Baseball generated approximately $7 billion in revenue last year, sources say. On that scale, a star player earning $21 million per year – what Gonzalez will take in, beginning next season – doesn’t sound so absurd.

I find the instant analysis of such unfathomably large contracts to be somewhat amusing. Since Gonzalez is a first baseman, his deal will draw inevitable comparisons to those signed by Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Howard. We will wonder what this means for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, who will become free agents after this season.

Every big contract influences – and occasionally sets – the market for comparable players. I get that. But when determining whether a deal is good or bad for a given team, the criteria are quite simple.

1. Does it satisfy a present and future need?

2. Does it leave the team with enough financial flexibility to improve other areas of the club, thus resulting in a well-rounded team?

If the answers are “yes” and “yes,” then it’s probably a good investment. And that’s the case for the Red Sox here.

Remember: Baseball is the one major U.S. team sport that doesn’t have a salary cap. Owners can spend what they want. We can’t take one look at the raw numbers and say, “Oh, they overpaid,” because we don’t know if an owner decided to make a special exception for one particular player.

Expense is all about scale. It depends on the market. It depends on the organization. It depends on the player.

The Gonzalez extension checks every box.

He turns 29 next month. He appears to be in the first half of his prime. He averaged roughly 34 home runs over the past four seasons – and that was while playing his home games at pitcher-friendly PETCO Park, with little in the way of power threats behind him. He is projected to clang dozens of doubles off the Green Monster every year for the foreseeable future.

He is a pure left-handed power hitter, which is important for two reasons. One is that Red Sox lefties David Ortiz and J.D. Drew – who combined for 54 homers in 2010 – are eligible for free agency after this year. The other is that Gonzalez should be a nice complement to the franchise’s right-handed cornerstones, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis.

Of equal importance, the Red Sox don’t have a surefire everyday first baseman in the upper levels of their farm system. Anthony Rizzo, 21, is believed to possess that sort of potential, but he was one of the four players Boston sent to San Diego for Gonzalez. Lars Anderson, 23, was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t panned out.

If the Red Sox didn’t sign Gonzalez to this contract, there’s a decent chance they would have given as much (if not more) to Pujols or Fielder this winter.

(A quick aside: When baseball people talk about the value of a farm system, this is what they mean. If the Red Sox had a stud first baseman ready right now, they could have saved $154 million and the prospects it took to acquire Gonzalez.)

The Red Sox are among a minority of teams that can carry a contract like this while also bankrolling a championship-caliber supporting cast. For all the big spending during the past decade, no World Series champion has allocated more than 21 percent of its payroll to a single player, according to calculations using the USA Today salary database.

So, that makes for some easy arithmetic. Gonzalez will earn $21 million per year, beginning in 2012. In order to pay one player like that and win a World Series, history says the team must have a payroll of at least $100 million. And there are 12 teams with nine-figure payrolls right now – including, of course, the Boston Red Sox.

In fact, recent evidence suggests that spending big is a fine way to win. The team with the larger Opening Day payroll has prevailed in each of the past five World Series.

Boston opened the season with a payroll just north of $160 million, according to multiple estimates. If that figure remains the same in 2012, Gonzalez’s salary will account for only about 13 percent of the team’s player expenses.

Sounds downright fiscally responsible, particularly when compared to the last three champions: 2010 San Francisco Giants (Barry Zito, 18.8 percent); 2009 New York Yankees (Alex Rodriguez, 16.4 percent); and 2008 Philadelphia Phillies (Pat Burrell, 14.5 percent).

Zito threw as many pitches during the 2010 postseason as you and me, but the contrarian Giants proved that a raft of young talent can obscure one ill-advised contract. In general, bad deals are like lost baggage – survivable, but you’d rather avoid the experience.

And it would be hard for anyone to say, at this point, that Gonzalez for $154 million is a poor investment. Red Sox Nation should direct its worries elsewhere. Something tells me they won’t struggle to find a landing spot for their angst.

Every Monday morning this season, we will examine a pressing baseball issue in our FOXSports.com baseball column, Behind the Seams.

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