The Red Sox / Dodgers Trade Is Capitalism Run Amok

by evanmcmurry

I was really hoping this year for Albert Pujols to be a bust, not because I have anything for or against the guy*, but merely because something needs to put a stop to the ludicrous inflation of baseball salaries, and the combo of Carl Crawford and Pujols both being wastes of hundreds of millions of dollars might have done it. Watching two massively over-salaried players set fire to piles of ballclubs’ money might—might—have caused a league-wide reconsideration of how star contracts are negotiated.

The contracts sluggers are signing after free agency these days are specifically designed to carry them past their prime, so that they can continue earning well above their worth even after their performance has declined; there’s no way Carl Crawford could sign for $20 million a year in four years, but he doesn’t have to worry about that now. Meanwhile, a ball club agrees to overpay players down the line so they can get their star performance and exposure now. This is a bad deal for ball clubs, beyond the fact that it limits the amount they can spend on other, non-star players (which will forevermore be known as The Red Sox Matrix); it’s bad because it is actively, before our very eyes, creating a bubble. Even players who aren’t the very top of their game, as Pujols is, now go out for massive contracts, merely because there’s a pretty good chance that they can get them. A ballplayer’s salary is structurally untethered to his worth, which is essentially the same process by which the dot-com and housing bubbles were created. That MLB is unlikely to take down a sector of the economy when its bubble bursts doesn’t make its behavior any less stupid.

Carl Crawford’s woeful performance should have put an end to this. He’s done less to help the Red Sox than Will Middlebrooks, who’s probably still earning a minor league-level salary that allows him to buy appetizers or dessert but not both. Crawford’s been injured three times in the past eighteen months and barely played; his only good stretch was the three weeks between injuries in the middle of this season. The Sox just traded a very good (but still massively overpaid) player in Adrian Gonzalez solely for the opportunity to unload Crawford’s contract. This should be an advertisement for reining in ballplayer salaries. Everybody should be looking at what happened to the Sox with Crawford (to say nothing of Dice-K, Lackey, etc.) and concluding that massive salaries are not worth the risk.

Instead, the opposite just happened. The Los Angeles Dodgers willingly took on Crawford’s overvalued salary solely for the opportunity to pay Adrian Gonzalez his overvalued salary. (Rob Neyer at Baseball Nation argued that the Dodgers’ new owners had millions burning a hole in their pocket, and just couldn’t wait for the offseason.) The Dodgers essentially doubled down on the overpayment of players, effectively hoping through this trade that not only will Adrian Gonzalez be worth $25 million or so a year in five years, but he’ll also be worth Crawford’s $20 million a year. In other words, the market, rather than returning commodities** to their normal exchange value, is participating in their over-valuation. Rather than reining in irresponsible behavior, the market is encouraging it. I realize that Major League Baseball isn’t a perfect simulacrum of capitalism, but still, isn’t this the opposite of how it’s supposed to work?

Any time conservatives say, “We should privatize [blank]”—like, say, your kids’ education, or Medicare—you should picture the Dodgers buying a $100 million contract on a player who just underwent Tommy John surgery and who was already regarded as a terrible purchase.

* I actually have Pujols’ tea partiness against him, but I assume that went out the door when he stopped playing for La Russa.

** I don’t like referring to human beings as commodities any more than you do, but that’s the game.