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Talent and Money and Money and Talent

A whole bunch of words about how money and talent in baseball are related, and how they could be exchanged.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

I am blackly hungover this morning, even after rehydrating and spending an hour and a half at the gym. I'm aware those two things probably fight one another in the curing me of my current malaise sweepstakes, but ordinarily a good hard workout knocks out any alcohol-induced unpleasantness in no time at all, at least for me. It would seem this morning is an exception to that rule. Ugh.

The reason I'm hungover this morning is because I spent the evening at a friend of mine's house, where said friend had decided to pony up the absurdly high cost for pay-per-view boxing and convinced me to put aside my personal distaste for the fight and come be a part of the Event. He said it that way; Event clearly had a capital E. In his mind, this was a night worthy of proper noun status, and so I finally gave in, grabbed a couple bottles of booze (good stuff, mind you; I figure if he's spending $110 for the high-def feed of a boxing match the least those of us coming over to watch can do is show up with quality contributions to the cause), and headed over, hoping against hope the Even would somehow feel massive in the way Mike Tyson matches felt massive when I was a kid, and also hoping that I could either steer clear of bringing everyone down with my social justice warrior opinions on at least one of the competitors or at least drink enough I didn't notice I was making a boor of myself.

Instead, I was treated to one of the dullest fights I've ever had the misfortune to witness. I got to see a pile of human garbage disguised as a man, a proven abuser of women and just generally one of the shittiest individuals to grace the sporting landscape with his presence over the past decade, win a truly nonsensical amount of money for employing the hand to hand combat equivalent of the neutral zone trap for a couple hours. I was disgusted by the whole spectacle, was unable to keep my opinions to myself, and ended up drinking far more than I should have simply because I was having such a wretched time. It's an oddly self-destructive way of dealing with disappointment, I suppose, but I'm pretty much okay with that. I am, however, paying this heavy price now and trying to collect my thoughts enough to write this already-late Sunday morning post before hitting the road to a small central Illinois town for a spring-themed German celebration. In short, I'm not in a great mood this morning.

However, my spirits are somewhat buoyed by the Cardinals' near-miraculous victory yesterday afternoon. It was the first win this season, I think, that the club really had absolutely no business whatsoever winning. There have been one or two other games they've pulled out Ws that easily could have gone the other way, but this was the first time I felt they absolutely deserved to lose, yet found a way to win. I'm not offering to give back the victory, of course, but the Pirates badly outplayed our boys in red. Still, a win is a win, and I'll take what I can get.

And I will admit that squeaking out a W against Francisco Liriano puts a smile on my face. At least a little one.


Anyhow, not that I've gotten my complaints of the morning out of the way, there's a subject that's been on my mind of late. In my Wednesday post, I linked to the personal page of Michael Cerio, whose radio program I appeared on Thursday morning; the archived version is up now, so give it a listen if you like. In the course of the conversation, we came around to discussing the possibilities of the Cardinals trading for Cole Hamels (I said not gonna happen, in case you're wondering), as well as a more general discussion of Hamels' trade market and the like.

In the course of said discussion, Cerio himself posited his preferred route would be to package Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon (who has had a pretty outstanding start to the season), together and see if they could tempt a club like the Red Sox, who have needs in both the rotation and at the back of their bullpen, to swap some premium talent.

Which brings me to the thing I've actually been thinking about. My thought on Hamels -- and I said as much in the interview -- was that the Phillies should really be looking to pay down as much of the respective salaries of either Hamels or Papelbon or both in order to try and pry a better return of talent from their perspective trading partners. Back in the offseason, when the reports were that the Phils wanted to move Hamels but were asking for premium packages and didn't want to pick up any of the salary remaining on his contract, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Not only did it seem Ruben Amaro was badly out of step with the rest of baseball in terms of Hamels' value in a trade, but that he was also at least somewhat out of step with the way teams are looking at money, and talent, in the current environment.

To wit, what Amaro and the Phillies should be doing is trying to convert money into talent. They have lots of the former, virtually none of the latter. And therein lies the one thing Philadelphia could do to try and turn their fortunes around and get back on the road to rebuilding as quickly as possible.

This past offseason, we saw the San Diego Padres and their new general manager make a huge number of moves in trying to upgrade that club which was so very dire last season. Now, my long-term feeling on those deals isn't entirely positive; I feel like they made at least a few very short-sighted deals (read: Matt Kemp), while almost completely ignoring the defensive component of the game. (You could also read Matt Kemp here if you like.) Nonetheless, the fact is, the Padres are a much better club this year than they were last season. Probably not quite good enough, but much better all the same.

A few years back, we saw the Padres' fellow National League West competitors, the Los Angeles Dodgers, do a very similar sort of thing. The Dodgers, under the auspices of a new ownership group, went out and traded for a very large chunk of the Boston Red Sox of the time, including current WAR monster Adrian Gonzalez and the recently-retired Josh Beckett. The Sawx gave the Dodgers an enormous amount of present talent, and they did so because the Dodgers were willing to take on all the salaries of several probably-overpaid-but-still-very-valuable players. (Read: Carl Crawford, mostly.) The Dodgers got an instant playoff team starter kit, and the Red Sox got out from under a ton of sunk costs, giving them flexibility to reconstruct a roster that won them a World Series. It was odd, seeing two teams acquiring exactly opposite things and both getting exactly what they wanted. And needed, actually.

My point is this: we are at a point in baseball right now where money is almost no concern to most clubs. Our own Cardinals, while certainly not a market giant like the Bostons and LAs of the world, are, according to those guys who generally do a pretty good job figuring out the finances of huge companies, the most profitable team in all of baseball. I have at least one specific idea for a trade the Cardinals could make that would leverage their financial resources to bring in a talent that would upgrade the club in a big way, but that's for another time. Maybe when Ben and I do a podcast next or something. But as much money as there is in the game, and as hard as baseball has made it for teams to really leverage their financial resources in ways other than just paying free agents (the international bonus pools, harder caps on draft spending, stuff like that, I mean), I have been wondering if we're going to start seeing more teams making these kinds of deals, trades that involve dead money or bad contracts or whatever else, in an attempt to acquire assets by essentially purchasing them.

I'm not a big NBA fan, but you all likely know by now I follow other sports at least in a theoretical way, if only because I find many of their machinations fascinating, in terms of how they each differ. And one of my favourite aspects of the NBA is the way the salary cap and the structure of their CBA has led to expiring contracts being somehow extremely valuable. The idea is that a club with tons of cap room will trade for expensive players in the last years of their deals, specifically to simply soak up that player's salary and give the club trading the player away cap flexibility. The club acquiring the big salary will get a young player or draft pick in addition to the expensive contract as compensation for taking on that money, and everybody gets what they want. Of course, the lack of a salary cap in baseball means we'll probably never see exactly that sort of roster machination, but it seems to me that clubs should be far more willing to trade money for talent in ways they have yet to up to this point.

A decade and a half ago, we saw Walt Jocketty able to make trades that heavily favoured the Cardinals, largely because he targeted free agent-to-be players who were about to price themselves out of their current team's market. Jocketty's ability to take on the future salaries of players like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Mark McGwire allowed him to acquire monster talents while giving up relatively little in return. Of course, the new market realities of baseball's rising financial tides in the last ten years made it so that clubs, even those of modest means, were much more willing to lock up their young players to extensions, and the Jocketty Method seemed to fall apart a bit.

Now, though, I wonder if baseball has reached a point where there's so much money that things are turning back the other direction again. Not that teams are not locking up young players to extensions; they absolutely are. But now, I wonder if we'll see more clubs starting to look for ways to pay for talent, not only by possibly taking on a bad contract to get something of value attached, but perhaps also by sending a valuable asset somewhere else and paying down large amounts of the salary owed to make the players much less expensive for the acquiring club, with the goal of bringing back a more significant return. We saw some of this just this past offseason. I wonder if we'll see more.

Money seems extremely available in baseball right now; talent is in now greater supply than it has ever been. Given how hard it seems for clubs to spend that money in meaningful way, you would think clubs would be looking for any route possible to turn cash into talent as directly as they could. I wonder, if the Phillies offered Papelbon and Hamels to a club like, say, the Pirates, and paid 100% of their salaries, what kind of return could they extract from Pittsburgh for the sudden free boost in their talent level?

Of course, I suppose the Commissioner's Office has veto power over many of these deals that include lots of money changing hands, and they might just refuse to allow clubs to circumvent the safeguards put in place. I don't know. But if not, you would have to wonder at what point a club with big time financial muscle would be willing to start exchanging money for talent, and wins, and more future money, and at what rate of return.

I don't know if this makes sense on the page the way it does in my head. I hope so, but I'm not entirely sure. It's just some idle speculation for a Sunday morning before a midday game. The Cardinals go for the sweep today behind the Man of Pac, Mr. Wacha hisowndamnself, and a chance to go a dozen games over .500. Let's hope it happens.