Friday, August 14, 2009

Hush Money

Remember when Magglio Ordonez’s vesting option was a controversial topic earlier in the season? Well, I think the Tigers are hoping you don’t because—barring an abrupt release—he’s going to reach the escalators in his contract that will put the team on the hook for $18 million in 2010. Since the Tigers owe Mags at least $3 million no matter what (buyout clause), they’re looking at a net of a $15 million hit to the payroll. None of this would matter if Mags was worth the money. Anybody who has been watching Tigers baseball at any point since April knows that he is not. He had 54 doubles just two years ago. This year, he has only 24 extra-base hits. His OPS is .715. That’s lower than Ryan Raburn, Clete Thomas, Jeff Larish, Placido Polanco, and Marcus Thames. The combined salary of those five players is less than half of what Ordonez makes. He isn’t worth the $18 million he’s making this year and he isn’t worth the $15 million it’ll cost to eat his contract next season.

The Tigers are obviously aware of just how close they are to guaranteeing Ordonez’s services for another season. Twice during the season it appeared as though they were attempting to subtly—but, effectively—keep him from reaching the escalators. The first attempt came on June 18th when they announced that he would be benched indefinitely. Unfortunately, “indefinitely” meant just 4 games. The second attempt came when the Tigers announced that Ordonez would platoon with Clete Thomas in right field. Ordonez would start against lefties while Thomas would start against righties. Quick calculations at the time of the decision—July 8th—showed that such a platoon for the remainder of the season would’ve easily thwarted any chance that Ordonez would reach his escalators. This was another “indefinite” move and, unfortunately, this time “indefinite” meant just 10 days. The platoon inconspicuously ended on July 18th. Since then, Ordonez has started 17 of 22 games and played in 19 of 22.

The Tigers haven’t managed to separate themselves from the rest of the division—they were up two games on the Twins the day the “indefinite benching” was announced; two games on the White Sox the day the platoon was announced; and they’re just 2.5 games ahead of the White Sox today. As the end of the regular season comes increasingly closer and each game is scrutinized more and more, I can only guess that the front office doesn’t want to face the firing squad of Monday morning pitchers if they happen to lose the division with Ordonez—their $18 million hitter—riding the bench. Whether it’s the right decision or not, Dave Dombrowski will be second-guessed if that ends up happening. He may be protecting himself by going down “guns blazin’” so to speak—or at least appearing to be. Let’s look at it from the other side. If the Tigers miss the playoffs with Ordonez in the line-up everyday, the blame goes to Ordonez. Dombrowski avoids the criticism. Everything is kosher on the criticism front.

Hopefully, Dombrowski has valued “criticism avoidance” at $15 million because—barring an unexpected release—that’s what it’s going to cost him. The Tigers have 48 games remaining. Based on his plate appearance per start of 4.15 this season, Ordonez would only need to start 21 of those 48 games to achieve the 84 plate appearances necessary to reach 1,080 plate appearances over the last two seasons, or his vesting option. That means he needs to be on the bench in 27 of the final 48 games. For comparison, even with the equivalent of two separate “indefinite” benchings, Ordonez has only not started 25 games on the entire season.

Clearly, the Tigers can’t just bench Ordonez for the last month of the season. They were worried about public perception when they had every right to bench him mid-season. If they didn’t have the cojones to bench him when they had every reason to, they certainly aren’t going to now when it would most certainly be portrayed as a shameless maneuver to keep a guy from earning his money. The only other option is a flat-out release. But, that brings us back to DD protecting himself from criticism. If he releases Ordonez and the Tigers don’t make the playoffs, then every bottom-dweller with a keyboard will come out of their holes blaming Dombrowski for giving up on a guy who hit .363 two years ago. We live in a society of second-guessers. Even if the decision is—without a doubt—the best decision possible at the time, if the outcome isn’t “good”, then we criticize. That’s how it has always been and that’s how it will always be. Ordonez will reach his bonuses and the Tigers will take whatever criticism comes there way because it will be considerably more manageable than the alternative.

I’m irritated that Dombrowski got himself into this situation in the first place. There are plenty of solutions over a 162 game season to keep a struggling player from reaching 457 plate appearances. Instead, he appeared to bow to Scott Boras’ baseless ramblings by allowing Jim Leyland to plug Ordonez into the lineup for the bulk of the season. The excuse that will undoubtedly be bandied about as we approach the end of the season is that the Tigers need Ordonez if they’re going to have any change at the division. Part of that obviously goes to avoiding the criticism of releasing Ordonez and then missing the playoffs, but some of that sentiment is true. If Ordonez gets “hot” all of a sudden, the Tigers chances of making the playoffs go up exponentially. I’m not arguing that Ordonez should be benched now. It’s too late for that. I’m arguing that he should’ve been benched intermittently and consistently throughout the season. Dombrowski had the chance to relieve some pressure on a bloated 2010 payroll and he blew it.

The Tigers owe Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis a combined $34.5 million next season. As much as I hope all or any of those three get back to a competitive level; that is very likely to end up being dead money. If Ordonez repeats his performance next season—and there’s no reason to think he won’t—then the Tigers are up to $50 million in wasted money. Throw in $13 million for a brittle Carlos Guillen and you have $63 million tied up in five below average players. Keeping Ordonez from reaching his escalators wouldn’t solve everything but it would give the Tigers flexibility to address positions badly in need of upgrades. Instead, it looks like there won’t be room for significant change. Allowing Ordonez to reach his escalator makes stagnation the best case scenario for 2010. Sure, $50 million will come off the books following next season but how does that help the Tigers contend next year? How will that convince free agents that the Tigers are a contender? Just think of how damaging it was to the momentum the organization was building when it missed the playoffs following the World Series run in 2006. That run was virtually dismissed by the baseball community as a fluke. The Tigers need to show free agents that Detroit is a destination to contend for championships and that won't happen if there is a regression every other year. There are too many holes—and this team is too frustrating to watch—to expect a successful 2010 season without change. In a nod to Cubs fans, "I guess there's always the year after next year."

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