This time of year, there are the fun contracts, the ones that involve oodles of cash and must-have free agents coming to your team. It’s Christmas coming early to fans already thinking about next season with optimism. But there are also those other kinds of money matters, the ones you would really rather forget. We’re a couple weeks away from Thanksgiving, but you know what I’m talking about: Turkeys, those big-ticket expenses that nobody remembers fondly, with a heaping side of regret producing so much payroll flab that even the most reliably sensible GM can’t make it go away fast enough.
There’s a cure for being stuck with too much turkey, though. Call it a case of exchanging my ulcer for your headache, but teams can and do make yesterday’s bad ideas go away. A change of scenery can help a player get his career back on track; at the very least, it removes the odium associated with his predecessor.
No doubt we’ll see a few of these somewhere along the line, with the GM and owners’ meetings next week in Milwaukee, non-tender decisions at the end of the month, then the Winter Meetings in Dallas, and then things really pick up. A trade of this nature might be as ticky-tack as when the Reds swapped Willy Taveras (plus Adam Rosales) for Aaron Miles of the A’s, or as big as the Cubs dealing away Milton Bradley to the Mariners for Carlos Silva.
Aiming big, here’s my insane notion of an exchange of bad contracts: Let’s say Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners aren’t suffering from “once bitten, twice shy,” and will pick up the phone when the Cubs call. (Besides, it’s a new guy on the phone, as you might have heard.) The Cubs need a third baseman; they also need a leadoff hitter. And laying there, smack-dab on the Mariners’ bottom line, is a seemingly lifeless Chone Figgins, due $17 million for the next two seasons.
What do they have to offer? Carlos Zambrano’s 2012 season, for which Big Z’s due $18 million.
So right there, the money’s close, although there are complications. Figgins has a 2014 option for $9 million, which reportedly vests if he reaches 600 plate appearances in 2013, but if he’s good enough for Theo Epstein’s outfit to earn that kind of playing time, he’d probably be worth the money. And Zambrano has a no-trade clause, not to mention a 2013 vesting option worth $19.25 million -- it apparently vests if he’s healthy and he finishes in the top four in Cy Young voting, two possibilities you can probably afford to discount, or haggle over should they come to pass. But even with arbitration-related payroll inflation, the Mariners’ 2012 payroll is already being lightened by $21 million now that Bradley, Jack Wilson and Jack Cust are off the books.
However, assuming Zambrano’s amenable to getting dealt, there’s still the big question of why both teams would want to make this trade.
For the Cubs, the upside is that maybe, liberated from the pitcher-friendly expanses of Safeco Field, Figgins gets back to being a useful OBP source on offense while providing value in the field at third base, where he’s an asset. He’d also add a switch-hitter to a Cubs’ lineup with a right-wards lean. Josh Vitters may eventually be ready, but 21 walks in 488 PAs in Double-A suggests it won't be in 2012. And perhaps most conveniently, as a matter of money management, the expense of employing Figgins gets spread across a couple of seasons, making it that much easier to mound up major money to sign that first-base demigod to be named later.
For the Mariners, it’s a matter of getting dead wood out of the way in the infield. Dustin Ackley’s their second baseman, and at third base they can look forward to Alex Liddi taking his shot at being either something good or the new Jim Presley.
Would Zambrano be useful? Conceivably, because after Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, it isn’t like the rotation boasts much to get excited about. Jason Vargas can be written into one slot, and then you get into how worked up you want to be over the immediate futures of Blake Beavan or Charlie Furbush. Their best starting pitcher prospects -- Danny Hultzen and James Paxton -- won’t be rushed but could both be ready to stick by season’s end, so they’ll be kicking the tires on a retread or two in the meantime.
So why not Zambrano, working with the benefit of a big park? He’s a big, troubled man, but pitching coach Carl Willis has experience from his days with the Indians working with the big (CC Sabathia) and the troubled (Cliff Lee). If Zambrano works out, the Mariners buy themselves time in the rotation the first four or five months, while opening up a roster spot and lineup slot for Liddi by making Figgins disappear. If Big Z combusts, he’s gone in a few months anyway, and the Mariners can look forward to a 2012-13 offseason when they’ll have just two major financial commitments, to Felix Hernandez and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez.
OK, this is all crazy talk, but while we wait for the offseason to unfold, I’m just tossing this out there to see what other suggestions folks might have. For this winter, what’s your favorite possible exchange of problem players or crippling contracts?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.