From Mets and Bobby Bonilla to Angels and Josh Hamilton, dead money can haunt MLB teams

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

Some Major League Baseball teams are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make problems disappear.

A prime example of the phenomenon took place this season in Anaheim, where a public spat between the Angels and troubled outfielder Josh Hamilton dragged on for much of the spring. After Hamilton reportedly admitted to a drug-related relapse in February, an arbitrator determined that he would not be subject to discipline under MLB's joint drug prevention and treatment program.

The ruling prompted Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto (who would resign midseason) to express concerns about Hamilton's "conduct, health and behavior" and team president John Carpino to complain that the arbitrator's decision "defies logic." Their comments reflected anger and a sense of buyer's remorse on the part of Angels owner Arte Moreno after the team received a disappointing return on its five-year, $125 million investment in Hamilton in December 2012.

The Angels quickly determined that a parting of the ways was best for all involved. So they declared surrender and traded Hamilton back to the Texas Rangers at the end of April.

The change of scenery didn't produce a fairy-tale rebirth for Hamilton, who hit just .253 with eight home runs during an injury-plagued season. But his contribution was all gravy to the Rangers, who are only paying a fraction of Hamilton's salary, while the Angels are absorbing a reported $68 million of the $83 million left on his contract when he was traded. On top of that, the Angels were the opponents when the Rangers won on the final day of the regular season to clinch the American League West title.

Through a combination of leverage and desperation on the part of the Angels, Texas general manager Jon Daniels found a way to make a heated rival subsidize a gamble. It was the quintessential no-lose proposition.

While the Hamilton trade serves as a classic case of opportunism, some MLB teams in recent years have compensated players in a manner that puts a completely different slant on the concept of "dead money." Starting in the late 1990s, the Arizona Diamondbacks invested about $270 million in deferred payments to Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and 16 other players with the blessing of owner Jerry Colangelo. The D-backs won a title in 2001, but they were choked with debt for years after Jay Bell jogged home on Luis Gonzalez's blooper over a drawn-in Yankees' infield in the climatic Game 7 of the World Series. Cash calls abounded, and Colangelo's tenure with the team ended after the D-backs went an abysmal 51-111 in 2004.

No single deferred contract resonates more with the public than the Bobby Bonilla buyout. In December 1999, the Mets got out of the last year of Bonilla's contract -- he was due to make $5.9 million in 2000 -- by agreeing to pay him $1.2 million every July 1 (aka Bobby Bonilla Day) over a 25-year span from 2011 to 2035. Former big league stars Manny Ramirez (who is receiving deferred payments totaling $32 million from the Red Sox through 2026) and Bret Saberhagen (whose 1993 contract with the Mets included 25 annual payments of $250,000 from 2004 to 2028) know the feeling.

In the current baseball landscape, no franchise makes more imaginative and aggressive use of deep pockets than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who take advantage of Guggenheim Baseball Management's largesse and a $7 billion TV package to enhance their talent haul in one transaction after another.

Last December, the Dodgers sweetened the pot by kicking in $18 million toward Matt Kemp's contract when trading the outfielder to San Diego. That expenditure helped the Dodgers acquire catcher Yasmani Grandal, who made the NL All-Star team this season. The Dodgers' willingness to subsidize the salaries of Dan Haren and Dee Gordon also helped them land second baseman Howie Kendrick in a three-way trade with the Miami Marlins and Angels during the offseason. Factor in a $28 million signing bonus the Dodgers paid to Cuban third baseman Hector Olivera before they traded him to Atlanta, and the Los Angeles franchise spent a whopping $87.5 million on players who were on other teams' rosters in 2015.

"As far as being able to open the scope of the conversation to potentially including taking on a player's contract, that obviously just increases the chances of doing a deal," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters in late July.

It's an intriguing strategy that only works when all three participants in the process have something to gain from the result. The givers swallow hard and pay up to resolve problems or add talent to the roster. The takers gratefully accept the financial windfall and the minimized risk. And in the final accounting, the players always get paid.