More than a week has passed since Tulo was hit with a pitch from a former teammate, and one aspect of the much discussed incident deserves some attention: why are we just now hearing about the contract dispute and clubhouse strife?
When the Rockies traded Ubaldo Jiménez to the Cleveland Indians, most fans groaned and chalked it up to just another boneheaded-move by the front office. How could the Rockies trade away the organization’s best pitcher when he was signed to such a team friendly contract? Yes, his velocity was down and he did not dominate hitters like he did at the beginning of 2010, but prevailing wisdom was that he was pitching through some injury, similar to the cuticle problem in early 2011, and just needed to get healthy to restore his velocity and dominance.
As maligned as the trade was, a case was made in its favor just by looking at Jiménez’s recent performance and the Rockies’ needs. After starting the All Star game in 2010 (with a 15-1 record), he was just 10-16 the rest of his time as a Rockie. When the Rockies dangled him at the trade deadline, it was widely assumed that it was strictly performance based. Not very often do potential aces with multiple years left on their team-friendly contract become available, and Cleveland (not Boston or New York, but Cleveland) jumped at the opportunity. The Rockies received a haul of prospects, including former first rounders Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, and it was widely believed that the move was forced because of the many failures in the draft. Therefore, the logic behind the move was that Jiménez was trending downward and DOD wanted to sell high to try to restock the depleted farm system. Not very compelling – unless there was something else going on.
Recent revelations from Troy Tulowitzki were reported in March by Mark Kizla of the Denver Post. Tulo’s comments then and Jim Tracy’s comments following the incident in spring training (see the article here by Logan Burdine for BSB’s take) reveal that Jiménez’s drop off in performance might have been more than just fatigue or injury: a contract dispute. Could it be possible that the factor that made Jiménez such a valuable player (and eventually trade asset) for the Rockies was the same issue that was causing the drop-off in performance?
When discussing Jiménez, one of the points that invariably comes up is his team-friendly contract. What fails to be mentioned is that team-friendly contracts are not usually player-friendly contracts because the two sides are fundamentally opposed: the team wants to get good value (low salary with high performance) while the player wants to get maximum value (salary equal to his maximum potential). Good contracts, therefore, find a middle ground with fair value (salary in line with performance). Jiménez was in the middle of a 4 year, $10 million deal with club options for 2013 and 2014 and had just watched the Rockies extend Tulo (who was already in the middle of a 6 year, $31 million deal) for 7 more years and $134 million and then sign CarGo for 7 years, $80 million. $134 million is fair for Tulo, who is a top 10 player in baseball, and $80 million is a little optimistic for CarGo, but $10 million is very team-friendly for a pitcher of Jiménez’s status. After contributing so much to the Rockies, it is understandable that Jiménez wanted to get paid like his teammates.
The Rockies were then put in a position of either extending the contract of an unhappy pitcher who was trending downward or trying to move him. Do you give a guy more money and just hope he can turn it around? Pitchers in general are an investment that comes with more risk than position players (see Hampton, Mike or Neagle, Denny) and the performance drop-off was just too much of a concern.
The new details have painted the trade in a new light. Trading Jiménez for purely baseball reasons was a (somewhat) logical and defensible move given how the return fit the Rockies’ needs. Adding in the variable that Jiménez was disgruntled and detached from the team makes the trade much more favorable for the Rockies. The Rockies were able to acquire two major league-ready arms and simultaneously jettison an underperforming headache before his value plummeted. All of these factors combine to point to the conclusion that DOD absolutely made the right call.
What has been so surprising in the aftermath is how quiet all of this was kept last year. Keeping this type of information in-house makes sense when actively shopping a player: how many clubs would be interested in a lingering contract dispute? It may even explain why a team like the Yankees, who by all accounts were interested in Jiménez, failed to outbid Cleveland. Although the silence makes sense pre-trade, what benefits did it yield post-trade? Despite all of the backlash from fans, the Rockies’ front office never once hinted toward a contract problem. Claiming that a player already making millions of dollars is demanding even more is an easy way to turn the fans against said player, but the Rockies never mentioned it. The organization focused instead on purely baseball reasons as explanations for the trade and was admirable in not dragging Jimenez through the mud. For a clubhouse full of players that knew the truth behind the situation, it must speak volumes to them that the front office treats even disgruntled ex-players with such a high level of class.
DOD spent the offseason purging the clubhouse of underperforming players who had grown too comfortable with their roles: Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, Ryan Spillborghs, Seth Smith and Huston Street were all shown the door. Trading Jiménez was not just a warning shot that no one is safe, rather, it was the first of many moves aimed at ridding the club of negative influences. Endangering Tulo’s 2012 season is evidence that Jiménez would never be able to regain his dominant form for the Rockies. It showed how much anger, jealousy, and frustration Jimenez still holds against the Rockies (and Tulo in particular), and that type of division within the club cannot be tolerated. The front office deserves to be applauded for executing the trade of a disgruntled star (and receiving good value in return) without revealing the turmoil that occurred behind closed doors.