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Revisiting the Tigers' $18 million decision

6/23/2010

As promised, from Jon Heyman's (previously linked) best decisions of the last year:

    11. The Tigers' decision to let Magglio Ordonez's contract vest

    Ordonez's $18 million extension for 2010 was tied to at-bats and games started and it looked like an albatross and a half midway through last year, when manager Jim Leyland began benching a slumping Ordonez on occasion. They could easily have not played Ordonez to save included Ordonez, as they tried, ultimately without success, to secure a playoff spot.

    After amassing just nine home runs and 50 RBIs all of last year, he has rewarded the Tigers' right thinking by responding with a year more typical of his talents, with nine homers and 47 RBIs to date, to go with a .333/.408/.522 batting line. His wife was going through a cancer battle last year, so Ordonez understandably underperformed. And the Tigers did the right thing by standing by him.

I didn't know about Ordonez's wife. Did you?

There were, I would guess, dozens of pieces about Ordonez's struggles and his contract last summer and fall in the Detroit papers, but I don't believe that I ever read anything about Ordonez's wife, or any other explanation for Ordonez's lousy first half or his puzzling lack of power.

I did, a number of times, suggest that: a) Ordonez wasn't good enough to keep playing almost every day for a team in a pennant race (which was ultimately lost, by the way), and that b) it was almost criminally foolish for the organization to allow Ordonez's $18 million option to vest.

Was I wrong?

Well, I feel foolish for stumbling about blindly without what might have been a key piece of information. If I'd known that Ordonez's wife was ill -- as the Tigers must have -- I probably would have gone a bit easier on both him and the organization.

Still, I'm not sure exactly how much my analysis would have changed with that knowledge. Was Mrs. Ordonez's illness a justification for all that first-half playing time that might have ultimately cost the Tigers a playoff spot? Was it "the right thing" to commit to spending $18 million on Ordonez this season? He's having an excellent season, obviously, but: 1) his excellent season won't matter if the Tigers don't win, and 2) he's still not worth $18 million on the open market.

What if the option hadn't vested? Wouldn't the Tigers have been first in line to re-sign Ordonez, but for less money? Say, for half what they're now paying him? And wouldn't $9 million still be a sizeable sum?

I don't know. Maybe I'm not old-fashioned enough. Maybe I don't understand the extent to which the baseball business is still a people business, and maybe I don't understand that Ordonez and the Tigers are playing well this season because the front office did "the right thing."

Or maybe I'm too old-fashioned, so old-fashioned that $18 million still seems like a lot of money.

I just don't know.