Jim Henneman: Time To Throw Away The Rubber Stamp On ‘Handout’ Trades

This past weekend provided a good opportunity to compare the difference as to how an unwanted, long-term, expensive contract might be handled by a National Football League team as opposed to one in Major League Baseball. As long as you’re not looking for something that makes sense, it could prove to be an interesting study.

And let’s face it, there wasn’t much else going on while waiting on Groundhog Day and the first significant snowfall of the season, so the timing was perfect.

The trade of 1:1 quarterbacks Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford by the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions was at least a stark contrast to the one that sent Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Goff, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and Stafford, who went first seven years earlier, both had contracts in the $30 million to $35 million per year range. The difference was Goff is just starting his four-year extension while Stafford has just two years left on his deal.

I’m not quite sure about the rationale here, but because the Lions are on the hook for a longer stretch, albeit with a younger player, I’m guessing the Rams threw in a couple of first-round picks plus another in the third round to soften the financial hit they unloaded. I’m also thinking anything less than one Super Bowl win by the Rams makes the Lions’ haul look like massive overspending.

Baseball doesn’t allow No. 1 draft choices to be traded, which is probably a good thing, given the overindulgences of some teams. Instead, they solve problems the old fashioned way — by paying huge amounts of money to be relieved of exorbitant contracts. It’s sort of a spinoff of addition by subtraction, the curious method the Rockies used to divest themselves of Arenado, who only happens to be one of the best players in the game.

Two years after supposedly making him the team’s building block, the Rockies decided they would be better served by getting rid of a contract that had $199 million left to be paid in exchange for a few fringe prospects. Now, here comes the kicker — the Rockies are sending along $50 million to ease the financial burden for the Cardinals, who in effect are getting a star-quality player for the equivalent of $20 million per year, which is considered team-friendly these days.

Baseball has been using variations of this reverse financial strategy for a long time now — ever since the Texas Rangers traded Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees and agreed to pay 40 percent of his salary. The thought of the Rangers paying the Yankees $10 million per year until A-Rod opted out seems as nauseous today as it was then.

It was, however, a lesson not learned and it continues today, even for teams involved in a “rebuild,” like the Orioles — and evidently the Rockies, and probably 10 other teams involved in “makeover” mode. With a deal for Alex Cobb seemingly in the works, the Orioles will use the same strategy and pay off a significant part of the $15 million he is due in the final year of his contract. The fact that it is actually a good move for the Orioles is a major reason why it is bad for baseball.

Sooner or later, baseball needs to come to grips with the idea that whoever makes the deal is responsible for the whole nine yards. If another team wants the player it also has to take the contract, otherwise the party who agreed to the mess in the first place is stuck with the whole package.

Cobb is not the pitcher he once was, nor the one he Orioles hoped he could be when they made a bad gamble for one final run in 2018, but Arenado is a completely different story. He’s regarded as the best third baseman in the game by many (though Manny Machado may be getting that call soon), a brilliant defensive player, and reputedly the kind of leader a contender wants in the clubhouse. The mere thought of the Rockies paying the Cardinals to take on this contract is obnoxious.

And the idea that one team is helping to pay the salary of a player on another team is fraught with all kinds of shady suspicions.

Assuming the owners won’t figure it out for themselves anytime soon — which, given the track record, is a fair assumption — it would seem prudent for baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to say enough is enough.

Or enough is too much. Or, better yet, that paying another team to take your mistakes is not just a bad business decision — it’s not allowed. Period. End of discussion.

It won’t happen of course, because … well … because it might protect owners from themselves. And, even though there is a precedent here, we know that won’t happen.

Still, you really have to wonder how long baseball can afford to allow the practice to continue. It’s a practice that has become so commonplace it’s almost a joke, except it isn’t very funny.

It should come as no great surprise, given the current circumstances, that the Orioles are involved in this payroll-shaving concept. Neither should it be a surprise, however, that they are only small-time operators in a marketplace that sees millions of dollars change hands in trades where players are almost an afterthought.

One of baseball’s generally unknown, certainly unenforced, rules is that the commissioner has to OK any deals where more than $1 million is involved. In this day and age of high-leverage contracts, that happens much more often than you might think. Maybe it’s time to go back to the future and enforce an old rule.

Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, using his “best interest of baseball” power, invoked a $100,000 ceiling on transactions when Charley Finley decided to sell the Oakland Athletics’ star players back in the 1970s. In baseball dollars $100,000 was worth a lot more than $1 million is today, but Kuhn was able to enforce the mandate.

There is a rule that says these deals have to be approved. Maybe it’s time for the commissioner to throw away the rubber stamp and do away with the handouts. Make teams decide if they are all in … or all out.

Seems like it should be worth a shot. As far as the Rams-Lions trade is concerned, whether all those draft picks equate to $50 million, I’ll leave that up to Glenn Clark to figure out.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com