There's a funny thing happening in Major League Baseball. More and more big contracts keep getting handed out and as those contracts invariably turn into regrettable albatrosses that fans and media deem untradeable, they go and get traded. Either we fans and media have misconceptions about the state of finances in today's game or MLB general managers don't seem to grasp what the term "untradeable" actually means. As much as fun as it might be to assume the latter, it is pretty clearly the former.
Just look at the recent blockbuster trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. By all rights, those contracts should have been untradeable or very close to it. Fielder is owed a whopping $168 million over the next seven years and is coming off of a disappointing season. Meanwhile Kinsler is owed $62 million over four years but is 31 years old, showing signs of decline and had health issues during the 2013 campaign. Yet both of them just got traded, and not in a salary dump way. They were traded for each other in a deal that is generally regarded as being a win for both sides. Sure, the Tigers had to kick in $30 million to make it happen, but considering that they got an All-Star talent back in return, that $30 million could be seen as some as Detroit getting off light considering how onerous that Fielder contract was starting to look after his struggles last season.
But the Fielder-Kinsler swap isn't just a an exception to the rule, it is the latest in a long line of trades where teams are moving massive contracts and getting real value in return. The Blue Jays took on $152 million in salary commitment when they acquired Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins in exchange for a treasure trove of prospects last winter.
The Dodgers took on over $250 million in one fell swoop when they acquired a declining Adrian Gonzalez, a washed up Josh Beckett and an injured and a possibly ruined Carl Crawford. All three of those guys could have been tagged as untradeable by themselves, but as a boxset, they should have been radioactive. Instead, the Dodgers eagerly gobbled up their contracts and handed over several quality prospects for the rights to do so and propelled themselves into contention on the backs of those supposedly undesirable players and contracts.
But the granddaddy of them all might be Vernon Wells, who was dealt by the Angels despite being wildly overpaid to the tune of $86 million over the remaining four years of his deal. Toronto didn't have to pay a single cent of that contract and still managed to get Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera back in return. Even after Wells flamed out in Anaheim to become the poster boy for untradeable contracts, the Halos still managed to get the Yankees to take him off their hands for two nobody prospects and $13.9 million. Twice Wells was declared to have one of the worst and most immovable contracts in the game and twice he was, in fact, traded.
So what gives? How is it that front offices don't even seem to blink at the idea of taking on nine figures worth of long-term commitment now?
The simple answer is that it is all about the money. There is just a lot more of it to go around. Just looking at the payrolls from 2010 to 2013 sheds light on just why GMs are now so willing to acquire big money. In 2010, there were just eight teams with Opening Day payrolls over $100 million. In 2013, there were fourteen. At the lower end of the spectrum, 2010 had nine teams with payrolls under $70 million while there were just four such teams in 2013. Overall, the 2013 Opening Day payrolls for MLB were just short of $383 million more than the aggregate payrolls in 2010. That's the equivalent of adding three additional versions of the Detroit Tigers (who had the sixth-highest payroll in 2010 at $123 million) to the league.
The proliferation of regional TV contracts and increased money from the national TV contract have filled the coffers of so many teams and many of these deals haven't even kicked in yet, including the most recent national TV deal. The Dodgers are about to launch their new TV network. The Rangers' big money deal kicks in next year, as does the yet to be finalized contracts for the Phillies and Rockies. The Diamondbacks and Mariners will be in line for new deals the year after that. Maybe the bubble bursts before then, but if it doesn't, that is another handful of teams that are about to get a nice boost to their revenue streams.
Even though this boom in regional sports network riches is expected to level off in the near future, the impact is already there. More and more teams have more and more money to spend. This isn't just the rich getting richer (which they are). The money is spreading all throughout the league which can be plainly seen with nearly half of the league carrying nine figure payrolls. That's half the league that can now afford to roll the dice on trading for a guy with a big contract. Five years ago it would have been unfathomable to think that someone might trade for the injury-ravaged Matt Kemp, assuming all (or almost all) of his remaining $128 million and fork over top prospects in the process. Yet that is very much a real scenario that could play out in the next month.
If there are any untradeable contracts left in baseball, they are far fewer than we might think. Alex Rodriguez is certainly one, but that has just as much to do with his off-field controversies right now as it does the money owed him. Albert Pujols might be another due to his health issues in 2013. Even then, we can't say for sure now. Who is to say that Albert bouncing back to All-Star levels in the first half of 2014 won't at least get other teams to think about bringing on a vast majority of the remaining $212 million of his massive deal. As the last few years have shown us, stranger things have happened.