A funny thing happened while we were watching the Padres’ opening day broadcast…
In what is sure to be a dead horse beaten beyond recognition by color commentators league-wide in 2013, Mark Grant brought up the fact that Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla are the two highest-paid outfielders on the Mets payroll this season. Dick Enberg took that moment to discuss how the Mets paying Bobby Bonilla (a player who last put on a Major League uniform in 2001) was a cautionary tale for “small market” teams like the Padres to not spend big dollars on players.
Whoa. Let’s hold up here.
Not even touching the very debatable idea that the Padres can’t afford talent, the Mets paying Bobby Bonilla $29.8M over the next 25 years has nothing to do with spending above your means and everything to do with front office ineptitude, and general malfeasance. Bonilla had two runs with the Mets: from 1992 through 1995 (5 year, $29M contract), and 1999. The first run wasn’t bad, if you’re a fan of all bat and no glove: 1.5/3.6/3.1 fWAR (121/133/128 OPS+) over the first three seasons. Generally, the lack of Mets success during that era was blamed on Bonilla (72-90, 59-103, 55-58[’94]). That comes with the territory when you’ve got the biggest contract. Just as well, when you’re considered to be a malcontent by fans and media. When New York traded him to Baltimore, you had to figure that was it for Bonilla the Met.
Prior to the 1997 season, gearing up for their first World Series run and subsequent fire sale, the Marlins gave Bonilla a 4 year contract worth just over $23M total. In May of 1998, he was traded along with Jim Eisenreich and some other dudes to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza, who happily finished out his career in Florida*. Gearing up for who knows what in 1999, Mets General Manager Steve Phillips brought Bobby Bonilla back to New York.
In this case, traditional and advanced stats both agree: Bobby Bonilla was a raging dumpster fire. Once again, he’s regarded as a malcontent, feuded with Bobby Valentine (though…), blah blah blah. This time, he’s truly awful on the field. You remember the tale of Rickey Henderson playing cards in the Mets clubhouse during the playoffs? Bobby Bo was his partner. The Mets wanted to send him packing in the worst way, and instead of buying out the remaining $5.9M outright, a plan was devised to defer payments (with interest) until 2011.
Why would the Mets do this? They put the money earmarked for Bonilla into a Bernie Madoff account, which they expected to yield a return much greater than the 8% interest rate guaranteed to Bonilla. They expected to make a profit off of the deal, and, well, we know how things turned out with Bernie Madoff.
The cautionary tale here isn’t to avoid spending “big” money on players. Rather, the lesson is that teams should avoid hiring inept front office staff (i.e. Steve Phillips), relying on declining players widely considered to be clubhouse cancers, and doing business with a man perpetuating the biggest financial fraud in the history of the United States. So, Dick, if all of those points were what you were getting at? Then yes, I agree that the Padres would be best served avoiding all of them. If we’re looking to push the “small market” narrative, then let’s look elsewhere.
* – this isn’t true. Piazza played 5 games for the Marlins before being traded to…the Mets! Marlins/Dodgers trade was Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, and Manuel Barrios for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.
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