Tulowitzki’s big-dollar deal is a big mistake
The wrong one.
Far be it from anyone to impugn a man who Monday agreed to a contract extension that will pay him nearly $160 million over the next 10 years. The Colorado Rockies are lavishing Tulowitzki with an obscene amount of money. He loves Denver. In that vacuum, the deal makes all the sense in the world.
What could’ve been, though. Oh, what could’ve been. On one hand, Tulowitzki played things safe. He was reasonable. And on the other, he lacked the fortitude to chase the greater glory that awaited him elsewhere. The money he could’ve gotten and the championships he could’ve won had he simply played out his current contract with the franchise that can’t help itself from taking a blade to its jugular.
If this deal is bad for Tulowitzki, it’s ill-conceived and unconscionable for a Rockies team that knows what long-term, big-money contracts do to franchises with middling budgets: cripple them. And even if Tulowitzki is the anti-Mike Hampton(notes), and even if he can stay healthy like Todd Helton(notes) couldn’t, and even if he is the do-everything, all-world, good-guy shortstop, heir to Derek Jeter(notes), he still leaves the Rockies in a compromised position: with limited money to spend on the other pieces and parts that would comprise an annual contender.
The Rockies operate with a payroll of around $80 million. Last year, it was $5 million more, the year before $3 million less. Tulowitzki’s contract extension adds six years and $119 million onto the end of his current deal, which, including a 2014 option, was to pay him $38.75 million. So, starting in 2015, when Tulowitzki will be 30, the Rockies will give him nearly $20 million a year.
“If there’s a guy to spend a quarter of your payroll on, he’s it,” said a GM of a low-revenue team, “but you just don’t spend a quarter of your payroll on anyone. Period.”
The Rockies ignored that rule again, indulging in the prototypical shortstop: amazing with bat and glove, a born leader, the sort over whom the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and every other team with pockets deep and shallow would swoon. By turning down the opportunity to hit free agency after 2014, Tulowitzki potentially left millions of dollars on the table. He certainly left the opportunity to play for franchises that need not operate with tight margins because of one man’s deal.
The run on which the Rockies have gone since Tulowitzki arrived in 2007 certainly imbued him with the confidence that Colorado can mimic the traditional powers’ playoff prowess. Tulowitzki played in the World Series as a rookie. He made the playoffs again two years later. His 15-homer September this year pushed Colorado to the precipice again.
And yet Rockies executives admit that attaining such success with Helton’s albatross nine-year, $141.5 million deal took an incredible confluence of timing and luck. Locking up any other players of significance became an impossibility. With attendance unlikely to return to the halcyon late ’90s, new revenue streams to support such deals are almost impossible to come by. The jump to a $100 million payroll isn’t happening.
So as the Rockies celebrate Tulowitzki’s new deal, they do so knowing that Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) is now likely to leave after the 2014 season. And that Carlos Gonzalez(notes), a Scott Boras client, is certain to do so. And that rather than waiting until 2014 to figure out where to spend their money, the team went all-in on a player who has missed significant time in two of his four seasons because of injuries.
The security of the Rockies picking up that $15 million option, then tacking $119 million onto it, overwhelmed Tulowitzki, enough not to chase his A-Rod moment. If he were to have thrived these next four seasons and entered free agency at 30 and the game’s best shortstop, a $200 million deal would’ve been possible.
Except there was Nomar. His career that died at 35, and never did he make more than $11.5 million in a season. And Hanley Ramirez(notes), the other contender for best shortstop alive, signed away three years of free agency to the Florida Marlins for only $46.5 million. Suddenly, close to $20 million a year didn’t look so bad, not in such a great city with such great fans.
This is a marriage of convenience, though, a rarity in sports with good reason: rarely do they turn out well. Even the model for great long-term deals, Jeter’s 10-year, $189 million contract with the Yankees, comes with a warning label. Over the life of the deal, even after splurging on $1.6 billion worth of contracts on top of Jeter’s deal, the Yankees won only one World Series.
The Rockies may spend half that, and even though general manager Dan O’Dowd and his lieutenants Bill Schmidt and Bill Geivett do a commendable job finding cheap talent and securing it to reasonable contracts, sustaining that for a decade is Sisyphean. It took O’Dowd, after all, nearly a decade to turn the Rockies from perpetual losers into a franchise worth emulating.
And what mummified the team for all those years? The contracts of Hampton and Helton, of course.
So here’s to both sides enjoying the love-in while they can. Tulo got paid. The Rockies got their man. It would be such a great happily-ever-after story if only the ending were happy.