There’s been a ton written about the Michael Young Situation. I’ve read most of it. You’ve read most of it. Almost every conceivable angle has been covered. So why am I asking you to read yet another take?
Because, in the immortal words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I’m not going to offer you any psychoanalysis, here; I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of Young, or his teammates, or Jon Daniels, or Nolan Ryan, or any of the front-office staff with whom the Rangers might still be attempting to cook up a trade. I’m not going to try to predict whether Young stays sadly or goes gladly, or whether he’ll be a clubhouse cancer. I’m not going to speculate on whether Young should shoulder the bulk of the blame, or whether that load should sit squarely on Daniels and his cohorts. I’m not going to tell you Daniels undervalues the humanity of the players who work for him, or that Ryan has special insight into their psychology. I’m not going to claim that Young’s a prima donna.
Instead, I’m going to take you back about four years -- to March 2nd, 2007. That’s the day that Daniels announced the Rangers had ripped up Young’s previous contract and replaced it with a seven-year deal that would, ostensibly, keep him a Ranger through 2013, and perhaps the end of his career.
According to the Rangers’ press release that day, "Michael represents exactly what the Texas Rangers stand for, both on and off the field," said Daniels. "His performance speaks for itself, but his leadership and character are just as valuable to our club.”
According to the Associated Press, the move “solidifie[d] the three-time All-Star shortstop as the face of the franchise.”
According to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, writing almost two years after the Rangers signed Young to the extension, “part of the narrative for why Texas did that was because Young was such a good employee, not just a good player.“
Certainly, not everyone was on board with the move. Just a month after the deal, Dave Cameron called the extension, “the kind of move that can sink a franchise,” and Keith Law declared it “a real head-scratcher.”
But even many hard-core (or at least hard-bitten) Rangers fans approved overwhelmingly. Of 684 voters in a poll at Lone Star Ball, only 119 (16 percent) responded to the query, “what do you think of the Michael Young contract extension?” with a verdict outside of “great,” “good,” or “ok… they overpaid, but not by enough to make it a bad deal.” Four years later, there are few folks who feel the same way.
The lessons? Twofold. First: never pay a player for past performance. Second: never pay for leadership when performance is in doubt. The latter’s the poker equivalent of a gutshot draw; the former’s the equivalent of drawing dead. Neither are money plays.
As far as I’m concerned, those are the only two certainties we can draw from the Michael Young Situation.
The thing is, it can be damn hard to remember those lessons when push comes to shove. Emotion drowns out economics; good will overwhelms good sense. Six months ago, I wrote that as important as Michael Young’s leadership is to the Rangers; I argued, “although his annual salary may at times outstrip his seasonal performance, cumulatively, he’s probably worth the price the Rangers have been paying for him.”
Up until last year, that was probably true. The key was the past tense. But a little over a week ago, I agreed with a local beat reporter, and claimed, “Young is probably worth more to the Rangers than any other team.”
And on that point, I was wrong. Unless you value all of Young’s intangibles at an exorbitant rate -- say, $4-5 million (or a full win) per year -- he’s not worth more to the Rangers as a designated hitter and super-utility guy than he would be to, say, the Rockies, as an everyday second baseman. That’s true no matter how much of an offensive harvest you think Young might reap by avoiding the wear and tear of fielding and from additional days off. Young’s certainly not irreplaceable in the Rangers’ lineup, or even as a clubhouse leader. (Just ask Ian Kinsler.)
So what’s the take-home? By all indications, in 2007 the Rangers paid Young both for past performance and for leadership. No matter how they (or anyone else) justified it, the extension was a mistake. Has the Rangers’ front office learned from the experience?
Some might argue not, and that Adrian Beltre is the embodiment of history repeating itself: the Rangers overpaying an aging infielder for PR purposes, or out of desperation, or because the landscape of free agency was working against them (in 2007, the example might’ve been Mark Teixeira; in 2011, Cliff Lee). Or possibly all three.
With the Beltre signing, however, there have been no comments along the lines of those that surrounded Young’s contract extension. With the Beltre signing, the Rangers don’t appear to be paying for past performance, or leadership in the face of uncertain performance. Rather, they seem to be overpaying for a piece they feel can put them over the top in the short term. There’s been enough analysis on the question of whether that’s a worthwhile gamble; I won’t recap it here. My point’s simply that Beltre is a fundamentally different player than Young, and his signing is a fundamentally different investment.
As a result, Beltre’s signing carries limited information about whether Texas has learned its lesson from the Young debacle. But there are two cases -- one in the rearview mirror, one still down the road -- that can and will shed light on where the organization stands. The first: Josh Hamilton’s two-year, $24 million contract. The second: C.J. Wilson’s future with the club.
Both Hamilton and Wilson are popular players. From all appearances, they seem poised to take “veteran leadership” roles in the clubhouse, if they haven’t done so already. They’re talented. They’re capable of being elite performers, as they’ve shown as recently as last year.
And yet: you never pay for past performance, or leadership when performance is in doubt. As amazing a talent as Hamilton is, the Rangers have wisely balked at signing him for too much and too long. Given Wilson’s approaching free agency and likely demands, the Rangers would be smart to take a similarly conservative stance. (More on this to come in days ahead.)
Michael Young’s leadership is still worth something, just as it was six months ago. But more valuable may be the object lessons that Young’s contract extension provides. If Daniels has learned those lessons, however painfully, the Rangers stand to benefit long after all those words spent analyzing the Michael Young Situation have been forgotten.