K-Rod is poised to get expensive. What should the Mets do?

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A reminder in the Wall Street Journal this morning that the Mets — playing solid enough baseball that talk of the wild card is not delusional — have some hard decisions to make.  And not just with Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.  That’s because, as all Mets fans know, if Francisco Rodriguez finishes 55 games this year, his $17.5 million contract option for 2012 is triggered. And right now he’s on pace to finish 61.

On some level you have to think that Sandy Alderson was hoping that events would take care of themselves, and that either the Mets’ competitive situation would be such that there wouldn’t be as many save opportunities and/or meaningful games — or that K-Rod wouldn’t be effective enough — to where it would make baseball sense for him to finish 55.  But that hasn’t been the case, and as of now there is no plausible reason to change his usage pattern.

So absent a serious July swoon, the Mets are kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  If they keep him, they’re on the hook for an intolerably large financial commitment to K-Rod next year (or a union grievance if they alter his usage pattern for purely financial reasons).  If they shop him — again, assuming they’re still playing good baseball — they’re basically saying that 2011 doesn’t matter and will be accused by some of waving a white flag due to their serious lack of green.

I would still think the latter problem would be the better one to have. Haters (i.e. the talk radio and tabloid crowd) are gonna hate anyway. You gotta think long term and you can’t worry too much if someone gets some short term mileage off of some disingenuous white flag talk (disingenuous because the same ones who would offer it would go crazy if commitments to K-Rod prevent the Mets from making an offer to Reyes).

But that doesn’t make the short term any easier. And I’m kind of glad I’m not in Sandy Alderson’s shoes and don’t have to deal with the contractual mess that was left for him to clean up.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.