Commentary

Sizing up A-Rod's 'historic' contract

Clause in deal that'll pay slugger total of $30M for HR milestones now up for debate

Originally Published: May 7, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

As fireworks, book reviews and favorite cousins explode all around him, here's our latest question about Alex Rodriguez:

Is he still someone we can look at as a "historic" player?

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Steve NesiusAlex Rodriguez could make his season debut for the Yankees on Friday in Baltimore.

That's the kind of question that could get you through many hours of upbeat talk-show programming. But there's more at stake now than just Arbitron ratings.

There's $30 million at stake.

Remember the unique -- not to mention borderline-illegal -- clause that was negotiated into A-Rod's new contract a mere 17 months ago? The clause that would pay him $6 million apiece for what were described as five "historic milestone accomplishments?"

It's hard to comprehend now that not much more than a year ago, this man's place in history seemed secure, if not inevitable. But it was. So, to bump his new deal over the magic $300 million line, the Yankees agreed to baseball's first-ever "history clause."

Every time his home run total hit one of those "historic" numbers -- Willie Mays' 660 homers, Babe Ruth's 714, Hank Aaron's 755, and then the 762nd and 763rd homers that would pull Rodriguez even with and then beyond Barry Bonds -- A-Rod's cash register was supposed to ring.

But now here's the key question:

Suppose, given his admission of steroid use and the other furor that has swirled around this man, the Yankees were to argue that he's no longer a "historic" figure?

Wouldn't that mean that those milestones were no longer "historic" accomplishments?

And wouldn't that then mean that they no longer would have to pay him his 30 million "historic" bucks -- or any portion thereof?

These are not questions the Yankees are asking -- yet. But they're questions we have heard asked around baseball lately, as A-Rod's reputation, approval rating and marketability have plunged to somewhere south of Rio de Janeiro.

"If I'm the Yankees," said an official of one team, "I think I'd be doing everything I could not to pay that money, and let him sue me for it."

"I think the Yankees ought to challenge it and baseball ought to challenge it," said an executive of another club. "And then it's up to A-Rod and the union to determine how much they want to fight it. Does this guy really want to continue to go through this stuff? Does he really want to continue to explain himself?"

Good questions. Excellent questions. But they're not the only questions people are asking about that "historic-milestone" clause. In fact, the question we hear most is this:

How was that clause ever ruled legal in the first place?

I think the Yankees ought to challenge it and baseball ought to challenge it. And then it's up to A-Rod and the union to determine how much they want to fight it. Does this guy really want to continue to go through this stuff? Does he really want to continue to explain himself?

-- A team executive on the "historic" home run clause in A-Rod's contract

"I don't see how that kind of contract ever got approved," said an official of a third team. "The rules clearly say you can't give incentives for any kind of performance. I always thought you couldn't change the Basic Agreement -- for anybody."

An executive of one small-market team was even more incensed, saying: "For anybody to say Major League Baseball treats every team consistently or fairly is a joke. What do you think would happen if we tried to get a clause like that through? We'd have no shot."

Even agents get worked up about the legality of this particular language.

"I don't know how that one got past the commissioner's office," one agent said. "From what I gather, they agreed that because of the extraordinary circumstances of this contract, they'd let it in. But I don't know why that would be legal. If I tried to negotiate a deal that paid [a client] an extra $1 million if he hits 75 homers and breaks the home run record, I know they'd say that wasn't legal."

Well, they would say that because, according to a strict reading of the Basic Agreement, it isn't legal. Rule 3 (b)(5) states unequivocally that any contract that "contains a bonus for playing, pitching or batting skill" is totally unkosher, and should be gonged by the proper authorities.

So how did this clause avoid the gong? Because MLB decreed at the time that it wasn't technically an "incentive" clause. It was ruled to be a "marketing" agreement.

In other words, the Yankees would get to market the heck out of all those milestones, and A-Rod's cut would be $6 million a pop.

But now, isn't it fair to ask: What are they marketing?

They're marketing a player who is viewed positively by exactly 17 percent of America's baseball fans, according to a February New York Times/CBS News poll.

And even more relevant, they're marketing a player whose place in history seemingly has been obliterated by his admission that he took steroids, and by a book that suggests he may have taken them as early as high school.

So what some people in baseball are now wondering is whether the Yankees have legitimate legal basis to challenge the validity of that controversial "history clause."

One baseball man familiar with the contract told Rumblings that the wording of that clause is "very carefully drawn." And the key word in that drawing is, clearly, "historic."

Rodriguez is still 107 homers away from the first of those "historic milestone achievements" (Mays' 660 homers). And he's still 210 away from the fifth and final milestone (passing Bonds) -- which is more home runs, for what it's worth, than men like Kirby Puckett, Pete Incaviglia and Hal McRae hit in their whole careers.

But A-Rod also has nine long years (and more than $270 million, if you include the historic-milestone bonuses) left on his mega-contract. So he has plenty of time to make this journey, hip labrums willing. And once he begins arriving at those mileposts, there should be a clearer picture of just how "historic" these feats actually are.

"They're called 'historic milestones' for a reason," said the baseball man familiar with the contract. "If and when he gets there, they may or may not be historic. But we won't know until he gets there."

So what would have to happen for the Yankees, or MLB, or both, to argue that A-Rod has forfeited the right to those historic payouts? That's the area where there's no clear agreement among the baseball people we surveyed.

"They could make an argument that there is a change in stature, or overall perception," one agent said. "They'd have a very strong argument that the public perception of him has changed, almost in whole, and now he's kind of Bonds-ish."

An official of one club advanced a whole different theory: If Bud Selig, or any future commissioner, were to attach any sort of asterisk to A-Rod's numbers, that would be all the basis the Yankees would ever need, the official said.

But Selig never did glue an asterisk to Bonds' rendezvous with history, so why would he do that with A-Rod? And as long as baseball leaves all these records untouched, one agent told Rumblings he thinks there would be no case whatsoever to void this clause.

"The issue isn't whether Alex Rodriguez did steroids," he said, "or how many home runs he hit because he used steroids, because nobody knows that answer. The issue is: Does Major League Baseball recognize his achievements to be legitimate, in the sense that they are a record? And if Major League Baseball recognizes them as legitimate, that, to me, ends the discussion."

But this is A-Rod we're talking about. So best as we can tell, nothing ever ends the discussion. Which means nobody should assume this topic is going away -- not now, and not anytime between now and his 763rd home run.

There are lots of reasons -- actually way more than 30 million of them -- for the Yankees to consider all their options.

"It's not just $30 million," one baseball man said, "because they've got to pay [luxury] tax on it. Keep that in mind. So for the Yankees, it's not $30 million. It's 45 [million] -- at least under the current agreement. And that's a punishing number."

Nevertheless, no matter how large that number may be, the Yankees will have to ask themselves when the time comes: Is it really worth it?

"This is a guy who is so complicated in how his brain works," said an executive of one club, "that I don't see how they can go there. The more they screw with this guy, the more chance their investment in him could wind up being worthless."

So in the end, our guess is that this case will never be tested. The Yankees will most likely decide, rightly, that it's not worth it. A-Rod will collect his cash, and his records. And the historians can sort out the rest of this mess.

But it's still a fascinating issue. Maybe some law-school class can try the case someday and let us know how it all turned out. But in the meantime, there's a lot of baseball yet to be played -- not to mention a whole lot of book reviews to sort through.

Ready to rumble

ATTENTION SHOPPERS: July 31 seems like a long ways away. But it isn't too far away for teams to be working on their tentative trade-deadline shopping lists. For most clubs, starting pitching always seems to top those lists. (Hmmm, we wonder why.) So for all you hopeless deadline-aholics, here are just some of the starting pitchers that clubs are already tracking, pending future tradeability developments:

TOP-OF-THE-ROTATION FORCES: Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Aaron Harang. Still no signs from north of the border that Halladay will be available, and there may never be. Peavy is another story, naturally. But remember, his no-trade clause allows him to control where he winds up. In Houston, owner Drayton McLane would have to sign off on an Oswalt trade, and that's unlikely. In Cincinnati, Harang is no lock to be dealt, but the Reds will probably listen. And with the Indians scuffling, "Cliff is a natural" to be this year's CC Sabathia, one NL executive said. But bear in mind, Lee isn't an exact parallel to CC, because the Indians do hold a $9 million option on him for next year.

INTRIGUING NAMES: Erik Bedard, Kevin Millwood, Mark Buehrle, Doug Davis, Chris Young, Andy Pettitte. The Mariners aren't shopping Bedard -- or anyone else -- yet. But if they fade, he becomes a big name to watch. Given all that the Mariners coughed up to get him, though, they'll want a major haul back. Buehrle is unlikely to move, because a trade vests his 2012 option and increases his base salary to $15 million for the rest of his deal. Davis can be a free agent, and the expectation of other clubs is that he "won't be back" in Arizona. The Padres wouldn't move both Peavy and Young, but they'd be likely to listen on both. And Pettitte is a long-shot name, but one to file away if the Yankees collapse. Could anyone see, say, the Dodgers making a run at him and enticing him with a chance to reunite with Joe Torre? Seems feasible to us.

OTHERS: Other names could include Bronson Arroyo, Jonathan Sanchez, Andy Sonnanstine, Jeff Niemann, Jason Marquis, Vicente Padilla, Jeff Suppan, maybe even Russ Ortiz. And we haven't even posed the question: Anybody want Oliver Perez? So there will be starters on the deadline-market shelves. We just don't know yet when that shop will open for business.

Guerrero
Guerrero

The man from Vlad

Vladimir Guerrero isn't ready yet to show up in a box score near you. But the speculation about his future is in midseason form. And increasingly, the sound we hear is of teams backpedaling away from a man who has been one of the great players of his time.

"He's a DH now, for me," said one scout who has been following the Angels, "unless he plays in a small outfield somewhere. He looks incredibly strong. But he also looks uncomfortably thick. What you see now is not an athletic, running build. It's a softball-player build. … And that won't serve him well in the outfield."

CC's rider

We asked CC Sabathia this spring about the "out" clause in his new contract that would allow him to bail out of The Bronx after three years. His reply was that it "really wasn't important," that it was "something my agent put in there," and that it didn't have anything to do with concerns about whether he'd feel comfortable in New York.

"It was just something my agent came up with, and I just went with it," he said.

But we've since asked other clubs Sabathia talked to last winter, and other people who have known him for years. And they say they never heard talk about "out" clauses in any of those other cities.

"Let me ask you something," said one of the men we surveyed. "If you were about to do a deal that would affect eight years of your life, in a city you really weren't that familiar with, would you be aware of that type of provision -- especially if you had a wife and three children who were also going to be affected? I know I would. And I'm sure he was."

We understand why Sabathia would want to discourage all speculation that he was apprehensive about life in New York. But people who know him told us all winter that he was, well, apprehensive about life in New York. So let's just say we think that "out" clause was in there for a reason.

Crawford
Crawford

Then there's that other C.C.

The Rays have some big decisions to make down the road on the future of Carl Crawford, a man who has made "SB -- Crawford" a daily box-score fixture.

The first of those decisions arrives this winter, when the Rays have to decide whether to pick up Crawford's $10.125 million option for next year. Remember that their payroll this year is $63.3 million. And they already have $39.1 million committed for 2010 to less than half the roster, including more than $27 million just to Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell and Scott Kazmir alone. So if they pick up Crawford's option, they'd be close to $50 million, with an unsigned arbitration-eligible class that includes B.J. Upton and Matt Garza.

But the Rays are a team that looks at everything -- from payroll to roster composition -- in three-year chunks, not one-year increments. So one baseball man familiar with their thinking says there is just about "zero chance" that they would decline Crawford's option and make him a free agent. If that puts them over budget, they would simply compensate by adjusting their payroll down the road by infusing more young players.

So if the Rays win, or at least contend, they could find a way to bring back all their key players What's more likely, though, is that they would pick up Crawford's option and then listen more seriously to offseason offers than they ever have in the past -- because keeping him as a free agent presents a whole different financial challenge.

Price
Price

Price-line Tampa Bay

In other Rays issues, the decision on when to bring up David Price isn't even their most pressing pitching question. Jason Isringhausen's rehab option is up May 19. And the Rays would like to add him to their late-inning mix if all goes well over the next week or so. But they have limited roster flexibility, so mark down Tampa Bay as potentially the first club to make relief pitching available. Could a Dan Wheeler or J.P. Howell be a candidate to get moved? Not likely, but there are clubs tracking both of them.

Meanwhile, Price is still a Triple-A work in progress, so his ascension to the Trop doesn't appear imminent. But when Price does arrive, whenever that is, other clubs believe the Rays could look to deal either Andy Sonnanstine or Jeff Niemann -- although it's still possible they could move the odd starter out to bullpen land.

Cantu
Cantu

All that you Cantu leave behind

It's a little early to start looking ahead to offseason trade candidates, but we'll give you one to watch anyway: Jorge Cantu.

Cantu is up there among the league leaders in homers, RBIs and OPS. And as a $3.5 million player, he's a great buy for a team like the Marlins. But he's also arbitration-eligible next winter. So if he jumps to $5 million or $6 million, he'd instantly become a player Florida would almost have to look to move. So what could the Fish get for a guy with more extra-base hits over the last two seasons (86) than Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran or Prince Fielder?

"I need to see him do this for a full year, but would I be interested? Absolutely," one scout said. "Suppose you put him on a team like the Mets in place of Carlos Delgado, where one guy was making $18 million and the other guy would make $5 [million]. To get just as much production for a third of the price? I'd think they'd have to be interested."

One worry, though, said the same scout: "The thing about playing in Florida is, there's almost zero pressure. The fans don't even care that he's a mediocre fielder. He's not in a place where they jump on your mistakes. And obviously, that isn't true everywhere."

Bullpen roulette

Nothing drives managers crazier than having a bunch of relief pitchers who look great on paper and then forget to live up to their reputations. So if you want to know why Indians manager Eric Wedge's patience fuse blew this week, just check out the performance of his four primary relievers:

When Wedge said Tuesday that "we're going to do whatever we have to do to get people down there that we can count on," he seemed to be crying out for a whole new bullpen. But that's not going to happen.

"We're going to continue to be aggressive and creative in looking at all our internal and external options," said Indians vice president for baseball operations Chris Antonetti. "But most importantly, we need the guys who are here to pitch more effectively, and we need to figure out ways to help them do that -- because the reality is, we can't replace all the guys in our bullpen and we still believe in the guys we have."

One of those creative options was moving Aaron Laffey to the bullpen, where he immediately picked up the Indians' first three-inning save since Steve Karsay collected one in 2001. But the Indians' trade options aren't as apparent. If they can't match up with Tampa Bay, the only other team actively marketing bullpen arms already is the Orioles. But the hefty sticker prices are scaring off all shoppers.

Strasburg
Strasburg

Beware the savior

If there's one thing people in Washington can look forward to this summer, it's the drafting of Stephen Strasburg. The trouble is, they might be looking forward to it a little too much.

"I really have concerns about Strasburg there," one front-office man said. "Obviously, the guy is amazing, and he's a great prospect, and they're going to want to get him to the big leagues as soon as possible. My concern is that they'll try to use him to draw fans this year, and he'll become a circus instead of a major league pitcher.

"Say they sign him Aug. 15. Isn't there a natural temptation to try to get him three starts [in the big leagues] in September to make up for [their paltry attendance] the rest of the year? I could see them doing that, and that scares me a lot. If anything, they need to be conservative with this guy. And I'm sure the baseball people will be thinking conservative. But I'm sure the owners will be thinking, 'We need fans, and this is just the guy to bring them in.' It's a dangerous scenario. You don't want to put the weight of the franchise on a player like this before he's ever thrown a pitch."

The Rumblings and Grumblings Scouting Bureau

More incisive commentary from some of our favorite scouting minds:

Griffey
Griffey

On Junior Griffey: "At this point in his career, I'd have to put him in as just a backup outfielder. He's not even a DH anymore. I hate to say this, but he's just a platoon player now. That's all he is."

On Scott Kazmir: "I'm not [big] on Kazmir right now. I just don't like the way he pitches anymore. Everything is middle out. He used to come at you with pretty good stuff. He used to challenge you with hard stuff in. Now he misses that outside corner so much, you think: 'Why is he trying to live out there?'"

On Johnny Cueto: "He could be an impact starter. The funny thing is, he's got good velocity, but he doesn't show it all the time. Last time I saw him, for some reason, he was 89-90-91 [mph] in the first couple of innings. Then he sat at 93 to 95 the rest of the way. But I'll tell you this: Once he dialed it up, the hitters had no chance."

On Scott Richmond: "I love his attitude. He goes out there like, 'What the hell have I got to lose? I'm going for it.' He's certainly not dominating. His stuff is good enough to be a fifth starter. But he's learned to change speeds. And he's got great confidence in his breaking ball, enough to start hitters off with it. So I say, let him go. He's on a mission."

On Raul Ibanez: "People don't realize how good this guy is, because he played in Seattle all those years. He's such an intelligent hitter. And now he's in a great ballpark for him. He doesn't have great power. But he has enough where those line drives to right are home runs and even the balls to the opposite field are home runs. In Safeco, those are doubles and fly balls."

List of the week

THE FIVE LEAST-LIKELY GUYS TO HOMER BEFORE DAVID ORTIZ
     •Chan Ho Park (hadn't homered since Aug. 24, 2000)

     • Alberto Callaspo (hadn't homered in any of previous 441 career at-bats)

     • Willie Bloomquist (no homers, one extra-base hit all season last year)

     • Cesar Izturis (one homer in previous 815 at-bats)

     • Luis Rodriguez (two homers in previous 442 at-bats)

Headliner of the week

There was a big, big development for our friends at Baseball Prospectus this week: They've arrived. Officially. And the tip-off was that their favorite statistical invention, VORP, actually made it into this hilarious headline in The Onion:

STAT-MINDED PLAYER RECALCULATING VORP BEFORE EVERY AT-BAT

The story attached to the headline is about -- who else? -- Toronto's heady Marco Scutaro. And it includes this legendary passage:

"Let me see here. … Subtract hits from my total number of at-bats, okay, and multiply the league's current average runs per out by my total number of outs so far this year, which is 57. Bring in the old Marginal Lineup Value, and just quickly normalize the numbers with the park factors," Scutaro said to himself while writing mathematical equations in the dirt next to the on-deck circle. …

When sabermetrical ciphering becomes a topic for mass-media parody, it's a sign the world has truly gone mad. Don't you think?

Late-nighter of the week

Finally, from David Letterman: "There's a new book about Alex Rodriguez, and apparently, according to the book, when he was playing baseball in high school he was using steroids. … But even as a kid, it helped give him that extra power he needed to hit into double plays."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com