On Monday, Adrian Gonzalez will be reunited with a Padres team for whom he grew up rooting and with whom he came of age as a player. For the first time since the blockbuster deal that sent the star first baseman from San Diego to Boston, he will face the team that traded him when the Padres make their way to Fenway Park for a three-game series.
While prospect Anthony Rizzo’s electrifying debut has taken some of the sting out of the trade, some Padres fans undoubtedly will watch the series and bemoan the fact that Gonzalez is no longer with his hometown club.
Market dynamics dictated that he was going to leave San Diego at some point. And so, the Padres (who were in no position to offer the first baseman the seven-year, $154 million extension he received from the Sox) decided to maximize their return by dealing the MVP candidate away before he went elsewhere as a free agent.
That Gonzalez has been performing at an exceptional level can make it no easier for the followers of his former team. He is leading the majors in average (.347) and RBIs (62) with a .403 OBP, .604 slugging mark and 15 homers. The Padres, meanwhile, are last in the majors in runs and runs per game, making the superstar’s absence all the more glaring.
The visceral frustration is understandable, even given the reality that San Diego’s move to acquire three of the Red Sox’ top prospects was likely in the best interests of the franchise for the long haul. Yet while the decision to trade Gonzalez will likely be rehashed over the next few days, it is worth re-examining another deal that maximized the time he did spend in San Diego, and the return that the Padres received when they elected to trade the three-time All-Star.
Just prior to the start of the 2007 season, Gonzalez signed a four-year, $9.5 million deal that included a $5.5 million option (which has since increased to $6.3 million due to incentives that were met) for the 2011 season. As Gonzalez rapidly emerged as one of the best players in the majors, the deal came to be viewed as one that was wildly favorable to the Padres.
Without such a deal, San Diego may well have had to deal Gonzalez sooner as his salaries jumped up in arbitration. And certainly, part of the reason why the Padres were able to extract such a sizable prospect return from the Sox was the fact that the slugger remains one of the best bargains in the game this year.
And so it is fascinating to remember the origins of that deal. It was a contract that gave Gonzalez the financial security he wanted and that gave the Padres cost control over a terrific up-and-coming player. And yet, it was a deal borne from a fairly stark dispute between the player and club.
“It was kind of weird,” Gonzalez recalled yesterday. “It was after my first full season. My first two seasons with Texas were kind of a wash (in terms of service time) because I didn’t make the Super-2 cutoff (for arbitration eligibility for a player with fewer than three years of service time). It pretty much counted like I didn’t play. So my first full season with the Padres was my first year (of big league service). I ended up being the team MVP.
“They wanted to sign me at $500 over the minimum. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to sign that contract. If you want to renew me, renew me. I’m not going to agree to that contract.’
“At that point, it broke out to the media, and the media made a big deal about it. So they were kind of forced into talking, ‘Let’s offer him a long-term deal and get him at a discounted value for the arbitration years if he pans out.’ And for me, I said, ‘I’ll take it – it’s security. I can get hurt and never make a penny, so I might as well take the security for now.’”
The details: Major League Baseball had just negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for the 2007-11 seasons. The minimum salary had increased from $327,000 in 2006 to $380,000 in 2007.
In the 2006 campaign – in which Gonzalez hit .304 with an .862 OPS and 24 homers for the Padres – he made slightly more ($327,500) than the MLB minimum. As a player with a bit more than one year of big league service entering 2007, Gonzalez’s contract could be dictated by San Diego.
The Padres, according to reports from the time, offered Gonzalez $391,500 – about 3 percent more than the minimum. Gonzalez requested $418,000. Rather than compromise, the Padres – who noted that Gonzalez was going to receive a significant salary increase thanks to the new CBA – responded to the first baseman’s refusal to accept their offer by unilaterally renewing his deal for $380,500 at the beginning of March.
Yet the two sides moved on by agreeing on a long-term deal by the end of that month. The contract ensured that Gonzalez remained affordable to the Padres for the life of the deal.
Rather than being in line for the huge paydays of a player like Ryan Howard (a first baseman who received a $10 million salary through arbitration when he had just less than three full years of big league service), Gonzalez’s deal could fit into the payroll structure even of a low-revenue club like the Padres. The team did not have to trade him even as he emerged as one of the best players in the game.
Gonzalez understands that he may have missed out on tens of millions of dollars by signing the deal he did. Yet he has no regrets.
“[Sox outfielder] Darnell McDonald said the other day, ‘It’s better to be underpaid than overrated,’” observed Gonzalez. “I think any player, if they have the opportunity to sign an early deal that doesn’t get into any free agent years, needs to.
“There’s been a number of players who have declined that, gotten hurt or didn’t do well, and then they ended up getting designated or non-tendered at the time of arbitration, and then they never made money.
“Why wouldn’t you take it? You never know what’s going to happen. Everybody needs to have confidence in the fact that they’re going to do good and continue to do good, but you never know. This game’s not easy. If anybody’s betting on the fact that, ‘I might be great in three years,’ you’ll look really dumb if you [aren’t].”
Yet there was one point on which Gonzalez felt it was important to draw the line. He compromised his maximum earnings, but he did not delay his eligibility for free agency. The 2011 option covered Gonzalez’s final year of arbitration eligibility; even in the absence of the long-term deal, this coming offseason would have been the first in which the first baseman was eligible for free agency.
Most long-term deals involve delaying the opportunity to hit the free market. (Indeed, the Sox have a club policy that they will only sign long-term deals with players if they give up at least one free agent year and give the club an option on another.) Gonzalez’s didn’t.
That, in turn, positioned the 29-year-old to be seeking an extension in line with the deals received by Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard and Joe Mauer after last season. And so, with the Padres recognizing that their clock with Gonzalez was nearing its expiration, they dealt him to the Sox.
And that, in turn, has Gonzalez in position to serve as host to many of his former teammates when they come to Boston this week. The first baseman has been mindful of that fact, accumulating Bruins gear for some of his Padres friends with ties to New England.
Gonzalez undoubtedly will be asked to look back on his time with the Padres in the coming days. And when he does so, he has no regrets for having had the opportunity to play at home, near his family and lifelong friends, for as long as he did.
“It was great,” he said of playing in the city in which he grew up. “You know where you want to go to eat, you know all the good restaurants, you know where you enjoy playing, you have your friends there, you have your family there. The only tough thing about it is ticket requests, but if that’s the biggest issue, that’s a good thing.”
There are, of course, aspects to that life that Gonzalez misses: The familiar, favorite restaurants, the opportunity to live and sleep in the same home year round; the presence of family and friends; the picturesque views of the ocean. (“I get to see the ocean here,” he noted, “but it’s different.”)
Yet he has already embraced aspects of life in Boston that are new and thrilling, foremost in his new playing environment.
“The atmosphere, the fact that every game here, we have a full, packed house and a great crowd is most enjoyable,” Gonzalez said of life in Boston.
Life with the Padres represented something that was familiar and known. Yet as soon as he was traded to Boston, there was no alarm. It was simply the reality of a new opportunity after several very fulfilling years in his hometown.
“My only expectation [in coming to Boston] was to have fun,” he said. “I’ve been doing that.”