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Big bucks on the bench

MLB teams face difficult decision over high-priced talent riding the pine

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Ryan Howard was benched Thursday for the second consecutive game, as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg once again opted to sit his struggling slugger even though the San Francisco Giants started a right-handed pitcher in Tim Hudson.

Sandberg indicated Wednesday that Howard's playing time would diminish; the club hopes to see what 27-year-old Darin Ruf can do, and with veteran parts likely to be sold off before the July 31 and Aug. 31 trade deadlines, the next six weeks will finally force the last-place Phillies to assess their future.

That process, however, won't solve their Howard problem; at 34, Howard is batting .224 with a .305 on-base percentage, and his slugging percentage has diminished from .659 in his National League MVP season of 2006 to .377 this year.

And Howard is guaranteed $60 million for the 2015-16 seasons -- $25 million each year, plus a $10-million buyout of a 2017 option.

That makes him essentially untradeable, and if his decline continues, the Phillies may eventually find putting him in the lineup untenable.

All these factors mean the Phillies may have to swallow hard and do what so many clubs must in an era of regrettable mega-contracts: Eat money.

Whether through trade or simply releasing a player, swallowing salary is all the more common in an era when the industry produces some $9 billion in annual revenue, making it easier for clubs to write off their mistakes. Heck, three teams -- the Blue Jays, Angels and Yankees -- have paid Vernon Wells not to play for them. This year, Wells is collecting the final $21 million of a $126-million contract as a free agent.

The Phillies would be so lucky if they could find a taker for Howard, who received a $125-million extension when he was two years from free agency. But they're far from the only club that's put themselves in a bind with an aging, expensive player. Here's five other situations where a franchise may, in coming years, need a vat of mayonnaise to help swallow a salary:

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees

 

Money remaining: $61 million from 2015-17

Situation: Well, the Yankees are off the hook for this year, thanks to Rodriguez's 162-game ban for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. Unfortunately, they've been unable to improve their third-base situation for the long term, as recently acquired Chase Headley is a free agent after this year. Will it get awkward to welcome back A-Rod after his legal wranglings against the team physician and Major League Baseball? They may have little choice.

What happens: While the Yankees have eaten plenty of salaries over the years, $61 million may be too rich for even the Steinbrenners' blood. It's hard to see Rodriguez on the roster till the bitter end of his $275-million deal, but equally hard to imagine the Yankees cutting the biggest severance check ever in pro sports.

 

Joe Mauer, Twins

 

Money remaining: $92 million from 2015-18

Situation: The all-star game has left Minneapolis, and Mauer played the part of native Minnesotan and franchise ambassador deftly. So, what now? Mauer is no longer an elite catcher, but rather a light-hitting first baseman (two home runs in 76 games this year) on a smaller-market team that's rebuilding. Would they dare entertain the thought of dealing him? And would Mauer -- who has full no-trade protection -- ever allow it?

What happens: With elite hitters Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano in the pipeline, along with some promising pitching prospects, the Twins may not be far from contention. Will Mauer be a viable contributor when that happens, or will moving a chunk of his huge contract enable them to fill other needs? The guess here is the PR hit of a protracted Mauer-Twins tango won't be worth the money the club could save in dealing him.

 

Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies

 

Money remaining: $13 million in 2015, plus a $13 million vesting option in 2016

Situation: The Phillies have cornered the market on bad deals -- they were essentially the last club to pay big for a closer when they guaranteed Papelbon $50 million beginning in 2012. Now, they'll almost assuredly eat some of that deal. Papelbon is on the block, but no club will take on his $7 million or so this year plus the 2015 deal without significant financial relief. Unless, of course, the Phillies dump him for only a marginal prospect, which would defeat the purpose of the whole rebuilding thing.

What happens: Philly's hopes of dealing Papelbon quickly took a blow when the Detroit Tigers grabbed Joaquin Soria from Texas. But there's too many contenders and too many bullpens for Paps not to move. Figure on him getting dealt by July 31 -- and the Phillies picking up a good portion of his contract this year and next.


Matt Kemp/Carl Crawford/Andre Ethier, Dodgers

 

Money remaining: Kemp -- $107 million from 2015-2019.

Crawford: $82.5 million from 2015-2017.

Ethier: $56 million from 2015-2017.

Situation: Conspicuous by his absence on this list is Yasiel Puig, the cost-effective All-Star who surely won't be traded. Now, what to do with the other three guys? Neither Puig nor any member of this well-heeled trio can play centre field, and there's no spot for top prospect Joc Pederson to inherit. Meanwhile, Kemp, Crawford and Ethier have all expressed discontent at various points over their situations, putting manager Don Mattingly in a tight spot almost every day.

What happens: Kemp and Crawford have been dogged by injuries, which along with their salaries limits their marketability -- even if the Dodgers were to pick up much of the tab. What about Ethier? While he's a career .234 hitter against left-handed pitchers, he has a lifetime .359 on-base percentage, averages nearly 20 homers per 162 games and makes (ahem) just $18 million per year. Should the Dodgers kick in $3 million-6 million annually, Ethier's deal becomes palatable for many clubs. Crawford has killed much of his value this season, playing in just 52 games and getting on base at a .286 clip; he's probably impossible to move until perhaps the final year of his deal, when he's due $21 million; even then, the Dodgers would have to eat most of that if they were to move him.

As for Kemp? His decline has been been swift since 2011, and he turns 30 in September. While his name will get floated in trade rumors for this week and forever, the same reasons the Dodgers may want to move him -- injuries, salary, decline, length of contract -- make him unattractive to suitors, too. It's likely the Dodgers are saddled with a $20-million corner outfielder whose slugging percentage has dropped from .986 to .755 in three years.

 

B.J. Upton, Braves

 

Money remaining: $46.3 million from 2015-2017

Situation: The Brothers Upton experiment isn't working out so well; while the Braves may make the playoffs a second consecutive season, the Braves' offence ranks in the lower half of the NL and B.J. is batting .199 in 221 career games with Atlanta. What's more, the Braves are, relatively speaking, a fiscally conscious club that may be more inclined to lock up younger players to bigger deals than carry Upton.

What happens: Upton turns 30 next month, and still has significant defensive and baserunning ability. While that alone won't entice other clubs to take on his $15 million salary, it does enhance the Braves' options should they decide to allocate their resources elsewhere.

Provided, of course, that they eat a few million dollars of it each year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 0

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