Plenty of attention has been devoted to the status of Jason Bay’s next contract. The question of whether the free-agent-to-be will be with the Red Sox beyond the 2009 season looms over his performance this year.
That issue will reverberate throughout this season. Increasingly, Bay’s significance in the Sox lineup is apparent.
In the sixth spot in the batting order, he offers an impressive combination of power and patience, someone for whom totals of 30 homers, 100 RBIs or 100 walks would not come as a surprise.
Indeed, in the early stages of this year he is on pace to achieve all three of those round numbers. Particularly after the Sox saw Mark Teixeira turn down their money in favor of Yankee dollars, Bay’s role in creating a deep and potent Boston lineup is clear. That notion looms over the issue of whether he will remain in Boston beyond 2009.
But as interesting as the question of his next contract might be, the deal that Bay is currently completing is just as important. Bay is in the final year of a four-year, $18.25 million deal that he signed following the 2005 season.
Given his production over the life of that contract, he has been one of the best bargains in baseball. This year, he is earning $7.5 million, or less than one-third of the amount of money that Manny Ramirez will take in from the Dodgers.
That deal is significant on a couple of levels. First, the value represented by that contract gave the Sox tremendous financial flexibility, both in order to acquire Bay (and swallow the remainder of Ramirez’ contract last year) and while building the 2009 club. Secondly, it gives some indication of Bay’s thinking when it comes to his next contract.
“I’m very, very glad and grateful that I signed that contract,” said Bay. “I have no regrets about it. It was just something that came up and made sense. Just like when people ask me about a contract (with the Red Sox), I say, if it makes sense, it’d be great.”
Bay did not maximize his earnings potential with that contract. Not even close. Had he gone year to year, getting hefty raises through the salary arbitration process, it is not inconceivable that he would have earned in the neighborhood of $10 million more over the life of the contract than he actually did.
Yet Bay expresses no remorse about his decision. He understands the nature of compromise in the negotiating process, and the idea that there is give-and-take when a deal is signed. The notion that he could have earned more does not haunt him in the least.
“When I signed that contract, I also knew that I could be leaving X amount of money on the table if I go ahead and average what I’d been doing. I know that,” said Bay. “I can’t be mad, because that’s part of the tradeoff.
“A lot of guys say, ‘They offered this. Would you take this?’ I just say, ‘I took a pre-arbitration deal and have nothing bad to say about it,’” said Bay. “It’s easy four years into it to look back and say, ‘Dang, I shouldn’t have done it. I would’ve made this much.’ But I don’t have one regret.”
Though he was an emerging star at the time he signed the deal -- Bay won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2004, then hit .307 with a .403 OBP, 32 homers, 103 RBIs and 21 steals in his exceptional sophomore year -- the outfielder was mindful of his unusual path to the majors.
He had gone undrafted as a college junior, and then was an afterthought when the Expos selected him in the 22nd round in 2000. In that context, the ability to guarantee a big-league future was compelling.
“With two years in the big leagues, it’s very easy to get caught up and overwhelmed a little bit, especially with the path that I took,” said Bay. “It wasn’t the security of the money. It was the security that, more or less, I was going to be in the big leagues for the next four years.”
Still, Bay emphasized that the deal needed to be one that worked for him. He and agent Joe Urbon wanted to ensure that his contract was in line with other players whose careers featured similar production at their outset.
At the time, a pair of long-term deals signed by the Brewers provided the basis for comparison. The four-year, $17 million deal signed by Richie Sexson for the 2001-04 seasons and the four-year, $18 million deal under which Geoff Jenkins played for the same period of time guided negotiations.
Ultimately, Bay signed for slightly more than Jenkins. It was a good deal for the Pirates (and now the Red Sox), but ultimately, it was a good deal for Bay as well.
“I think it worked out for both sides,” said Bay. “It was fairly cost efficient for the team. I got enough money for my family. I’m perfectly okay with it. I also knew going in that it was a four-year contract, and if I ended up getting overpaid during that contract it was a good contract for me. But if I ended up being underpaid, then hopefully it meant that next time around (when he became a free agent), I was doing good enough that it didn’t matter.”
Indeed, the fact that Bay is now entering his free agent year speaks to a significant part of that contract negotiation. When he signed that long-term contract, Bay’s side insisted that it would not delay his free agency.
The contract covered only the outfielder’s seasons of arbitration eligibility. He did not give the Pirates a contract option, nor did he commit to a deal that would prolong his ability to test the waters of the open market through free agency after the 2009 season.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand. Take an option? I don’t care,” said Bay. “But kind of being around now and seeing what goes on with most of the contracts, especially the pre-arbitration deals, to get one of those without an option or sacrificing free agency was like gold.
“I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it at the time. But looking back, it was probably the biggest kicker in the deal, the fact that I don’t have any (team) options now.”
That fact, of course, is the reason why Bay’s contract status is of particular interest this year. Seven months from now, if he so chooses, he can hit the recruiting circuit and get wined and dined by any team in baseball.
But he is not focused on that prospect. All things being equal, Bay would like to remain with the Red Sox, and the Sox would like to retain him. Even so, despite his interest in remaining with the Red Sox, the outfielder is not anxious about when contract negotiations with the club -- which were tabled during spring training, but with the understanding that both sides were open to resuming their dialogue -- might resume.
Bay is unaware of any renewal of substantive talks with the Sox. The fact does not bother him.
“It’s only been 12 games into the season, so I don’t think that we’re that far out of spring where it’s panic time,” said Bay. “Until something comes up, there’s nothing to talk about. Honestly, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.
“Something will come up, whether it’s now, whether it’s at the end of the year, hopefully that makes sense for me. Hopefully it’s here. If not, such is life.”
Having been through the process of negotiating a four-year deal once before, Bay respects the challenges inherent in finding middle ground with a club. He’s seen what it means to try to identify relevant contracts as a basis for comparison.
Bay followed with invested interest as he watched all manner of contracts get signed this winter. He saw Teixeira get $180 million over eight years from the Yankees.
He also saw as other talented hitters like Bobby Abreu (1 year, $5 million from the Angels), Pat Burrell (2 years, $16 million from the Rays) and Adam Dunn (2 years, $20 million from the Nationals) got far fewer years and dollars than they expected.
Bay understands how the rapidly changing economic circumstances make it challenging to figure out how on-field performance will translate into dollars.
“My agents and the company put together a big fancy package and all that stuff. I’ve seen the numbers. But I understand that it’s a completely different economic time, and that there are some concessions. That being said, I’ve played the game for six years,” said Bay. “I’m not looking to set any records. I’m basically looking for what’s fair. Whether it’s here or not remains to be seen. I’m not trying to set a precedent.”
Bay has enjoyed playing with the guarantees inherent in a long-term deal, and admitted that he was curious entering this spring to see whether life would be different as he approached a free-agent year.
To this point, he’s experienced no difference. Moreover, Bay insists, nothing about his performance during his current contract was a byproduct of the terms of the deal.
In his first three years with a contract, he hit .274 with a .367 OBP, .859 OPS while averaging 29 homers and 98 RBIs a year. This year, with the possibility of free agency looming, he is hitting .255 with a .446 OBP, .999 OPS, three homers and 11 RBIs.
There is no evidence that he is consumed in the least by the uncertainty of his future. On and off the field, the business side of the game has little apparent impact on him.
“Earlier, people said, ‘Oh -- contract year: What can we expect?’ And I said, ‘I’ll hit 80 (homers) and drive in 190,’” he chuckled. “It’s something I can’t control. I’m a big believer, and big fan, of not fretting about things I can’t control. It’s wasted energy.
“People asked if you were relieved, did you play better (with the security of a long-term deal)? No,” said Bay. “Regardless of if I had a contract or not, I’m going out there and doing the same thing, whether if I’m struggling with three years left in my contract or in a contract year, I still feel the same way.
“I still want to go out there, I want to do some extra work. I play the game more for personal pride than I do for anything else. None of that really eased my mind. It was more, we appreciate what you’ve done, keep it up, and here’s a reward. I was grateful for that.”