Panda Express

When the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval for roughly 100 million bucks back in 2014, it was obviously a blunder. More or less everyone said so. Sandoval was a 28-year-old bad bodied third baseman coming off declining seasons. The chances of that deal turning out well were pretty small.

But Boston does this sort of thing every now and again — for a super-smart baseball team with some of the best people in the game, the Red Sox have a periodic weakness for making abysmal and somewhat illogical signings. Maybe the intensity of their rivalry with the Yankees clouds their thinking. Maybe the unrelenting pressure to win every year in Boston forces them into making a few bad bets. Whatever the case, the Sandoval signing, like the Carl Crawford signing, like the utterly bizarre Bobby Jenks signing, seemed destined to go bad.

It went bad earlier than even many of the cynics thought — Sandoval showed up entirely out of shape for his first spring training and then proceeded to have a nightmarish 2015 season where he was one of the worst players in baseball. There was talk of Panda working hard in the offseason, but there was no sign of it when he actually showed up. He played three games with a badly injured shoulder and then missed the rest of the year.

This year, he has been injured and dreadful in equal parts, and Friday the Red Sox put an end to it by designating Sandoval for assignment. He will still get paid the money he was promised, but he will not add to the wins above replacement he has contributed to the Red Sox which now and forever will stand at negative-two wins (that’s Baseball Reference’s estimate; Fangraphs has him at a less charitable negative-2.6 wins).

There are people now ripping the Red Sox for making this deal, which is fair, and there are people ripping Pablo Sandoval for letting himself go, which is fair also, but there’s a third thing happening, at least in a few dark corners. There are people who are screaming that Sandoval was not worth the money. There are people who are suggesting he’s like a thief in the night who stole $100 million or so. And some (well, at least one) suggest that baseball’s entire system is unfair to the owners.

I’ve written about this before — baseball’s current salary structure is a weird one, and it leads people naturally to think that baseball players are overpaid. No one INTENDED for that to be the takeaway… the system built out naturally based on intensive and sometimes destructive negotiations between the owners and the players over 150 or so years.

But here’s the deal: Players across baseball get paid their money in large part when they are no longer good enough to earn it.

Pablo Sandoval will get paid $17.6 million this year, and that very obviously seems like a joke, a ripoff, a thoroughly unjust deal — you can see people across America complaining about it.

But were any of them complaining in 2009 when he hit .300/.387/.556, finished seventh in the MVP voting and led the Giants to their first winning season in five year … and got paid league minimum $401,750. By Fangraphs estimates, Sandoval was worth 33 MILLION DOLLARS that year to the Giants; they got him for 1.2% of his value — a 99% discount. That’s not bad. It’s like paying $816 for a new Mercedes E Class.

Nobody complained because Sandoval was practically a rookie in 2009; nobody could have expected him to have that kind of season.

Two years later, he hit .315, slugged .552, and by the numbers played superb defense. Fangraphs pegs his worth at right around $40 million. He was paid $500,000.

They next year his salary jumped up to $3 million. He was worth $17 mil in the regular season, then he smashed his way through the playoffs and won the World Series MVP award as he led the Giants to their second World Series victory in three years. What is that worth? Two years later, he was worth $22 million and again killed it in the playoffs, leading the Giants to a third World Series. He was paid $8 million for that.

In all, Sandoval has been worth $140 million to his teams.

In all, Sandoval has been paid $71 million, roughly half his value. After he get paid out the next two years plus his buyout, he will recoup about $113 million.

Sure, lots of people complain NOW about what Sandoval is not earning, but nobody seemed to care when Sandoval was wildly underpaid as a young man. It seems to me that there are two reasons for this. One is visceral — we who make a lot less money are not going to feel empathy for baseball players salaries. Even the then league minimum of $500,000 is a ton of money, and certainly when a baseball player gets paid $3 million or $8 million we are not going to hold telethons for them.*

*Yet it does make you wonder why anyone wants to hold telethons for owners. Human nature is strange.

But the second reason is sounder in logic; in baseball you get your payoff later. Everyone knows this and accepts this. You prove yourself as a young player, you get your payday after that. The quirk is that often you get paid by teams — like the Red Sox — that don’t get much (or any) of the player value. But that’s the game. By Fangraphs numbers, Albert Pujols has been more $462 million in his career, roughly $400 million of it for St. Louis. The Cardinals paid about $100 million for that.

The Angels will pay more than $200 million for a whole lot less value.

People have different feelings about the system, and I get that. Red Sox fans have every right to feel beat up by the Sandoval deal; it turned out even worse than it looked. But Pablo Sandoval has earned the money he has received in baseball, and then some.