Deals like Anthony Rizzo’s come with more risk than teams generally admit
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org May 14, 2013 10:51PM
CHICAGO, IL- MAY 14: First baseman Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs catches the ball to retire Wilin Rosario #20 of the Colorado Rockies at first base after Rosario hit a ground ball during the fifth inning on May 14, 2013 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Updated: June 16, 2013 6:47AM
Troy Tulowitzki doesn’t know Anthony Rizzo. But the Colorado Rockies shortstop knows what it’s like to get a long-term deal at age 23, with barely a year of big-league service time. And that’s enough to tell him Rizzo must be a level-headed, hard-working good guy.
‘‘Otherwise you don’t get those deals early in your career,’’ Tulowitzki said.
But Tulowitzki also admits what few players acknowledge when talking about so-called ‘‘club-friendly’’ deals like Rizzo’s seven-year, $41 million deal: There’s a lot more risk for the club than a lot of fans seem to assume when committing that kind of money to player with such a short track record.
‘‘I think there is,’’ said Tulowitzki, who had the full year in the big leagues that Rizzo is still trying to complete when the Rockies gave him a six-year, $31 million deal five years ago. ‘‘Big, strong, physical guys playing 162 games, getting ran out there every single day. There becomes some injury concerns with anybody.
‘‘You don’t sign a guy unless he’s playing the game hard, and usually the guys that play the game hard are sometimes the guys that tend to see some DL time.’’
Tulowitzki, in fact, lost nearly two months on the disabled list for successive injuries the first year of that first big contract.
‘‘It’s tough. It took a toll on me mentally at times,’’ he said. ‘‘You hear the fans’ side, you hear the media’s side, and you agree with them — ‘Hey, I want to be out there, too,’ and right now I am maybe a waste.’’
Nobody would call the Rockies’ gamble on their All-Star shortstop a lost bet.
But there’s a reason such big, early commitments are rare for players in a system that gives teams discounted control over players for three years, plus three more of arbitration control.
‘‘There’s a lot of risk,’’ said Rockies executive Bill Geivett, who functions as general manager in a unique front-office structure. ‘‘When you’re talking about doing that with a player, it’s a certain talent, a certain caliber of player.’’
Like the high-talent, leadership-minded Tulowitzki. Probably like the power-hitting, high-character Rizzo.
But then there’s Grady Sizemore, who signed a six-year deal with the Cleveland Indians after one full season in the big leagues. The Indians got productivity for half the contract before injuries and performance declines made the back end of the deal a bad contract.
It’s no accident teams at the front end of what Geivett predicts will become a trend have been small-market teams willing to gamble to avoid payroll-breaking salaries in future years.
The classic early contract was the low-revenue Tampa Bay Rays’ six-year, $17.5 million deal with future star Evan Longoria as he began his second week in the big leagues. Last November, that deal grew to nine years, $45 million when options were exercised as part of a six-year, $100 million extension past 2016.
‘‘Clubs are becoming more aggressive doing it,’’ Geivett said. ‘‘It’s a lot more acceptable now than it was a few years ago.’’
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer acknowledged the rarity of such a deal for Rizzo’s low service time. What he didn’t mention was his department’s uncertainty in projecting its baseball budget the next few years — after years of cost-cutting and high team debt that has left the Cubs with mid-market spending strength.
Even when team president Theo Epstein looked at early extensions while the GM in Boston, his well known $40.5 million deal with Dustin Pedroia wasn’t offered until Pedroia followed a Rookie of the Year season with an MVP season and was months from arbitration.
Club-friendly deals? Not even Tulowitzki saw it like that.
‘‘Hey, if you feel like it’s a good deal at the time, go ahead and sign it,’’ he said, ‘‘because this game’s way too hard to say I’m going to have these numbers every single year.’’