A-Rod’s First Contract Was A Good Move

Yesterday, Orioles General Manager Andy MacPhail spoke to some students at the Baltimore School of Law, and among other things, he said this:

Alex Rodriguez to Texas was the worst signing in the history of baseball in my view,” MacPhail said, according to The Baltimore Sun. “Why? Because he played as well as you can possibly ask the kid to play. He had great years. And the needle didn’t move at all. … The team didn’t improve. Attendance didn’t go up. But hey, they got the lead story on ESPN. Well, if that’s what motivates you, you’re going down the wrong path. You want to put 35,000 people in the ballpark, win the games. That’s what (fans) are there to see. That’s what the Orioles need—to win some games.”

MacPhail is right on with one thing – Rodriguez did indeed play as well you can possibly ask anyone to play. His productivity gets lost in the narrative, but take a look at what Rodriguez did for Texas after signing The Contract That Changed Everything.

2,172 PA, .305/.395/.615, .424 wOBA, +25.2 UZR (2002-2003 only), +26.7 WAR

For three years, Rodriguez averaged over 700 plate appearances per year while hitting like Albert Pujols and playing defense like Elvis Andrus. Rodriguez was far and away better than every (normal human head sized) player in baseball, and nearly averaged +9 WAR per season in his three years in Texas. Nine WAR, on average, over three years. For comparison, Pujols has never matched that production in any three year stretch of his career. During his time in Texas, Alex Rodriguez was absolutely phenomenal.

But, of course, MacPhail doesn’t disagree with that. He acknowledges Rodriguez’s greatness, but still derides the contract because the Rangers didn’t improve even with Rodriguez on the roster. They averaged just 72 wins per year during his tenure in Texas, and finished last all three seasons he was on the team, which pushes forward the narrative that MacPhail – among others – is promoting: that Rodriguez was a bust because the team he was on flopped. In fact, the story often gets pushed even further, with Rodriguez being blamed for the team’s failures because his contract presumably limited the Rangers from being able to afford to surround him with quality players.

The problem is that it’s just not true.

In 2001, USA Today lists the Rangers with an $88 million payroll – seventh highest in MLB – with $22 million of that going to Rodriguez. Removing Rodriguez from the picture, the Rangers’ remaining $66 million in expenditures would have still ranked as the 13th highest payroll in baseball that year, and that’s only removing the highest paid player from the Rangers. If you remove the highest paid player from every team, the Rangers move back into the top 10 in payroll.

In fact, here’s an interesting tidbit for you: Here’s the Rangers’ salaries for everyone but Rodriguez matched up with the 2001 Mariners’ salaries for everyone but Aaron Sele, their highest paid player that season.

Mariners, minus Sele: $67.7 million
Rangers, minus Rodriguez: $66.6 million

Both teams spent essentially an equal amount of money on their “supporting cast”, but the Mariners ended up tying the Major League record for wins in a season, racking up 116 victories and running away with the AL West. The Rangers finished a staggering 43 games behind Seattle that year, despite having the same amount of resources available to acquire players. The difference is that the Mariners got a +7.8 WAR season from Bret Boone, a +6.1 WAR season from Ichiro Suzuki, a +5.5 WAR season from Mike Cameron and Freddy Garcia, a +4.7 WAR season from Edgar Martinez, and a +4.6 WAR season from John Olerud. Those six players produced +34.2 WAR for a grand total of $31.5 million in salary.

The Rangers, on the other hand, paid Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver a combined $14.5 million for a whopping +2.7 WAR, and that’s a generous assessment based on their FIP, as they each posted an ERA over 6.00 that year. They also gave Andres Galarraga $6 million for -0.1 WAR, Rusty Greer got $4.6 million for +0.1 WAR, and Ken Caminiti got $3.5 million for +0.1 WAR. The Rangers essentially flushed a huge chunk of their payroll down the drain on players who produced around replacement level, and I cannot come up with any rational way to blame that on Rodriguez.

In 2002, they sought to make some drastic changes to their roster, and in the process, raised their team payroll to $105 million, third highest in Major League Baseball. They gave Juan Gonzalez a two year, $24 million deal to return to the Rangers and try to recapture his past glory. They gave Chan Ho Park a five year, $65 million contract to try and fix their pitching problems. They traded Darren Oliver to Boston, and in exchange, they took on the remaining $17 million left on the final two years of Carl Everett’s contract. They brought in John Rocker to try and stabilize the bullpen.

None of it worked. Those four big splash acquisitions combined for a total of +2.2 WAR, and the team was once again remarkably bad. The Rangers had simply invested in lemons, but again, I fail to see how any of that is due to having Rodriguez on the roster. Did he advise management to throw a large amount of money at bad players? Was he in charge of giving Carl Everett over 400 plate appearances despite a .295 wOBA and disastrously bad defense?

By the time 2003 rolled around, the Rangers decided that the best way to improve their roster was to overhaul their bullpen with name value relievers. They spent money on Ugueth Urbina, Jay Powell, and Todd Van Poppel; traded Travis Hafner to get Ryan Drese’s questionable pitching ability and Einar Diaz as depth at catcher, and then went with young position players to try and rebuild, breaking in the the likes of Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, and Laynce Nix. Predictably, the combination continued to not work, and Rodriguez was shipped to New York following that season. His tenure in Texas was deemed a failure, and even today smart executives like MacPhail continue to hold up his contract as a shining example of what not to do.

The problem is that Rodriguez more than held up his end of the bargain, and if the Rangers front office had behaved with even moderate competency, they could have put some good teams together. The blame for the failure of the 2001 to 2003 Rangers does not lie with Alex Rodiguez’s large paychecks, but instead with the total wastes of cash that they surrounded him with. You want to know why those teams failed? Look no further than Park, Gonzalez, Everett, Oliver, and Rogers. In their attempt to surround Rodriguez with talent, they brought in a never ending series of terrible players who had name value but lacked ability. It didn’t have to be that way. They had enough resources to put good players around Rodriguez – they just failed to identify which players they should actually be giving money to.

Alex Rodriguez’s first contract was far from the worst deal in baseball history. In fact, given his performance in the years after he signed the deal, Rodriguez was actually worth the money he was paid. Unfortunately, the narrative of the deal lives on, despite all the illogical hula hoops you have to jump through in order to reach the conclusion that MacPhail suggested yesterday. Don’t believe the hype; A-Rod was not the cause of the Rangers failures, and the contract they signed him to was actually a wise investment. The problem is that was the only good investment that franchise made in those three years.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Well said.

I hear this a lot about Barry Bonds too, even though his contract was only for $15 million. When you have players putting up that kind of WAR, even if their contracts are big, you’re still getting a lot of value per dollar. In fact, it’s going to be hard to beat, especially when you factor in positional WAR density.