The World Baseball Classic is a cool idea. It is a bit hypocritical for me to write that, as I have not been terribly engaged by the WBC in the past, but I’m jumping on the bandwagon, such as it is. I am not here to convince you that you should love it, and I understand why many MLB fans would be almost impossible to win over. The WBC has its issues, one of which is the perceived lack of star power on the U.S. team. I do not want to enter that debate here. Writers like Craig Calcaterra and Drew Fairservice have done a good job of responding to that sort of hand-wringing. Fairservice makes another excellent point: it is up to the fans to turn the WBC into a thing that stars won’t miss.
I want to take a different tack on this by trying to look at things from the players’ perspective. In particular, I want to think about a certain subset of players — younger players still in their initial years of team control and without guaranteed contracts beyond this season — for whom the stakes are a bit higher.
This should not give the impression that I believe playing in the WBC is ultra-risky. Considered as individual games, they probably not any more dangerous than MLB games. I would guess that the various parties (players, managers, coaches, and so on) involved take this into account when making relevant choices. Still, every game carries some risk for those playing. While distributing playing time and off days for either hitters or pitchers is far from an exact science, there are common sense reasons why few players, even healthy ones, play every inning of every game during the regular season, and why seasonal pitcher usage is limited in various ways. The concerns that make some players and teams leery of participation in a few more games that do not directly benefit them is understandable.
Teams, of course, have time and money invested in all of their players. Most fans tend to see things from the team perspective, which is understandable. The notion of Ryan Braun, who is owed about $130 million by Milwaukee, playing “extracurricular” games has to make the Brewers’ front office and fans at least a little nervous. Any player is going to be at risk for injuries during the season. However, a concussion or some other injury with long-term consequences for Braun’s ability to play occurring in a game that is not directly helping the franchise would be a bitter pill to swallow for all involved.
From the perspectives of WBC players like Braun or Miguel Cabrera, at least they still have plenty of guaranteed money coming in even if something terrible happens. Some players potentially may still have big free-agent contracts down the road, but already have had at least one big payday, like Felix Hernandez. Elvis Andrus may not have had the biggest windfall when Texas bought out his arbitration years for a bit over $14 million, but it is guaranteed. As they say, when it comes to personal future financial security the first 10 million dollars you make are more important than then next 30 million (or something like that). A player one might point to as taking on a fair amount of risk is Robinson Cano, who is entering his last season under contract with the Yankees and is likely heading for a huge payday in free agency. However, even if Cano suffers a career-ending injury in the WBC or regular MLB season, by the end of 2013 he will have made over $50 million.
The 2013 WBC players who really got me thinking about this issue are those still in their initial years of team control, and thus have no guaranteed contracts beyond 2013. Some of them are even pre-arbitration. Now, $500,000 or whatever the league minimum is a whole lot of money to most of us. If that is all you are guaranteed to make this year from the vocation you have spent the better part of your life to date working on, and you are in your early 20s, it is not really all that close to providing you with lifetime security, certainly not on the level of what Cano has made.
Brett Lawrie, for example, is still pre-arbitration. Even if he does not live up to his star potential, he looks like he will be at least an average third baseman, and that is worth a lot of money. If he gets hurt this year (and he spent more than a month on the DL in 2012), that would damage his future earnings through arbitration settlements or contracts that may be smaller or not offered at all. Sure, that would hurt the Blue Jays, too. But compared to losing a player signed to a huge guaranteed, losing Lawrie is not as damaging in terms of its direct financial (as opposed to the indirect cost of replacing him) impact, as they have no commitment to him beyond this year. From the player’s perspective, this is much worse. Think about Giancarlo Stanton — he is already a superstar-level player, and he is entering his last pre-arbitration season. No one would feel sorry for the Marlins if something happened, but for Stanton himself, a serious injury this year would be pretty devastating. Mike Trout is a player who has been singled out for not playing. sure, I wish I could have some extra chances to see Mike Trout play at game speed this year, but given what an injury or lesser performance might cost him, I can hardly blame him for sitting the WBC out.
Let’s finish by looking at a particular subset of these players: the relievers. Not many of them are stars, or at least not yet. In a way, that makes their situation that much more tenuous, because none of them really has a chance to make money like Cano. We often talk about how “risky” relievers are for teams, and that is true, but that also means that their careers and fortunes are more fleeting. They have all the injury issues that pitchers have. As relievers, they produce small seasonal samples, so their observed performance might vary widely from their true talent in any given year, which could help or hurt their earnings. Teams can, of course, generally replace relievers more easily than they can mid-rotation starters or shortstops. That is nice for the teams, but not so much for the relievers themselves.
For Tim Collins personally, it is a big year. This is his last year prior to arbitration eligibility. Getting hurt in 2013 is not necessarily the only thing that could go wrong. Rightly or wrongly, many felt that his poor rookie performance in 2011 was in part due to overuse, and that a more reasonable 2012 schedule was a factor in his improvement. Adding on a few innings prior to the regular season is not necessarily going to send him back in 2011 levels, but it has to be a concern. As a reliever, it is not as if teams are going to wring their hands over letting a guy go over one horrible year, or if they do not think he will come back well from an injury, especially if they are not on a guaranteed contract. It is not as if Collins is Craig Kimbrel or something.
Oh yeah, Kimbrel is also playing in the WBC, and is also in his last pre-arbitration season. Kimbrel is probably the exception to my exclusion of WBC relievers from the ranks of stars, so it is not like he would be let go by Atlanta and have to beg for a major-league job if he got seriously hurt in 2013. Still, missing chunks of time due to injury or wear over the next couple of years would be really bad timing for Kimbrel.
Hopefully, without going through all the pre-arbitration WBC players, this has helped to get at a different perspective. We often think of the teams as the ones being potentially taking a hit from a player having his performance hurt by short- or long-term issues from a few extra games. No player wants to be in that situation, either, but for some of them it is more problematic than others. Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano are already set for life, even if they retired today. Things are much different for pre-arbitration players, especially those not seen as future stars or relievers.
Let me repeat what I wrote earlier: I do not know if the increased risk of injury or poor performance due to the extra work due to the WBC is all that great. This post is not intended to sound as pessimistic in that respect as it might read. Some players, on an individual level, have more at stake in this respect than others.