I’m not sure what there is to say about Gil Meche’s retirement. His decision defies analysis.
A 32-year-old pitcher, who was legally and morally owed $12 million for his services in the 2011 season, came to the conclusion that he would be unable to provide said services in 2011. This conclusion ought to have had no impact on his entitlement to that 12 million dollars – not legally, given that he had signed a guaranteed contract that paid him regardless of his ability to pitch, and not morally, because virtually everyone (though not Meche himself) is in agreement that his inability to pitch was the fault of his employer.
(As the great Old Hoss Radbourn tweeted: “It was most gentlemanly of G. Meche to save money for the team that obliterated his career.”)
Nonetheless, Meche decided that since he was physically unable to perform the services that the Royals had signed him for – to make 30+ starts a year – that he was not entitled to the money his contract owed him. And so he walked away from Twelve. Million. Dollars.
Gil Meche is a better man than I. He’s a better man than you. There’s no way that you or I would walk away from 12 million dollars that we were entitled to.
Gil Meche is a much, much, much richer man than you or I as well, and I’m sure that made his decision much, much, much easier. Meche has made roughly $43 million in his contract with the Royals, and roughly $52 million overall. Unless he’s a complete dope with his money – and I’m pretty sure he isn’t – he probably has $25 million or more in assets to his name. Which is to say, he could spend a million dollars a year for the rest of his life and never dip into his principal.
Still, other players have made as much money as Meche has, and some have made a lot more – and none of them ever walked away from an eight-figure sum. As Joe Posnanski pointed out, Mark McGwire had a two-year, $30 million extension on the table when he retired, but that extension had been offered prior to his disappointing, injury-riddled final season, and signing that extension might have created more controversy than it was worth. Otherwise, I can’t think of a player who left that much money on the table. I know of teams that released a player who they owed $10 million or more to – the first example was Damion Easley, who the Tigers released after the 2002 season even though they still owed him $14.3 million.
But what Meche did? That might be unprecedented. Which is why it was also literally unbelievable – as in, people literally did not believe it. From the moment the news was announced, there was a general assumption that Meche was getting at least some of the money owed him. I know that’s what I thought. Even if Meche could pitch, the assumption was that he’d be working in relief, and even a good set-up man wouldn’t be worth $6 million. Meche offers to give back half his contract in order to retire early, the Royals decide they’d rather have the $6 million than a middle reliever who might or might not get through the season, and everyone’s happy.
I have no doubt that if Meche wanted that kind of settlement, the Royals would have given it to him. I also have no doubt that Meche didn’t want that kind of settlement, and is not being paid a penny of his 2012 salary of his own free will. Either that, or given Dayton Moore’s air of astonishment at discussing the news, both Meche and Moore are Oscar-quality actors. I don’t think they are.
My admiration for Meche only increased as a result of his decision, of course, but what also increased was my sense of frustration – it didn’t have to end this way. It shouldn’t have ended this way, and that it has is solely the blame of the team.
In the wake of his retirement, everyone is focusing on his 132-pitch complete game shutout – being allowed to pitch the ninth despite a 5-0 lead – on June 16, 2009. As I’ve written before, blaming the Royals for letting him pitch a complete game that day is unfair. While there are certainly circumstances in which a 132-pitch outing can be destructive, that game – without the benefit of hindsight – was not one of them. You had a 30-year-old pitcher on the mound, who was making his 82nd consecutive start without missing a return in the rotation – a pitcher who had led the league in starts in both 2007 and 2008 – and who had shown no signs of fatigue to that point. A decade ago, no one would have thought twice about letting a veteran pitcher throw 132 pitches in a shutout. It’s a testament to how much the game has changed that it became an issue afterwards.
It so happens that Meche wound up with a sore arm after that start, but again: there was no reason to think, ahead of time, that letting Meche throw that many pitches on that particular night was dangerous. The mistake wasn’t letting Meche throw 132 pitches on June 16. The mistake was pretty much everything that happened after that.
Had Meche gone on the DL for a few weeks as a precautionary move after that start, I might not be writing this column. But instead, despite some soreness in his arm, the Royals let Meche start on June 21st, when he gave up 9 runs in less than 4 innings against the Cardinals (RED FLAG). They let him start on June 26th, when he allowed 4 runs in 5 innings to the Pirates (RED FLAG). They let him start on July 1st, even though after his start against the Pirates Meche complained of a dead arm (BLEEDING CRIMSON FLAG). And they let him throw 121 pitches and face Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in a tie game in the sixth inning, while letting Meche give up the tie-breaking run (THEY HAVE YET TO INVENT THE WORD THAT DESCRIBES JUST HOW BRIGHT RED THIS FLAG IS).
The events of July 1st rank as the worst in-game managerial blunder by a Royals manager since, I dunno, Whitey Herzog running through five pitchers in the 8th and 9th innings of Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS? Dick Howser not bringing in Dan Quisenberry in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1985 World Series? Many people have said that Steve Busby’s career was ruined by a specific start (I can’t remember which) when Jack McKeon left Steve Busby in to pitch when he was clearly hurting. Letting Jose Rosado pitch when he was complaining of a dead arm – which turned out to be the final start of his career – was pretty dumb. What the Royals did to Meche on July 1st of 2009 ranks with any of them, particularly since in the moment, without any need for hindsight, people – specifically Joe Posnanski – wrote about just how awful it was.
And with hindsight, of course, it looks worse. Meche was actually sent out there for two more turns in the rotation – in which he allowed 10 runs in 9.1 innings – before finally getting shut down. He returned a month later, made four starts, allowed 19 runs in 21 innings, and was shut down for the year. He returned the following April, made nine starts, had a 6.66 ERA and walked more batters than he struck out, and was shut down again – and this time told he needed major surgery if he was ever to pitch again. He chose to try to make a comeback as a reliever, and allowed just three runs in 13 innings in September – but either the pain or the risk of re-injury was too great for him to come back in 2011.
And he’s the one giving back the money.
What’s done is done, of course, and we can only hope the Royals learned from the events of July 1st. Trey Hillman is no longer with the team, and neither is trainer Nick Swartz. Bob McClure, who as the pitching coach deserves at least some of the blame for what happened, and Dayton Moore, who oversaw the whole thing, still are. Maybe Meche’s retirement serves as one final reminder to them that when a pitcher complains of shoulder pain, take it seriously.
(And regarding comments that Meche himself deserves some of the blame for insisting he was able to pitch through it – it’s his job to insist he can pitch through it. The pitcher who says he can’t pitch through pain is a pitcher who will very quickly develop a reputation as a malingerer. What Meche did was no different than what the vast majority of veteran starters in the majors do. It’s the manager’s job to, you know, manage his players, and that includes knowing when to tell his veteran starter “no”.)
The past is what it is; regarding the future, Meche’s retirement is a big positive for the Royals, freeing up $12 million that can be used in a variety of ways. (I originally wrote “a huge positive”, but after what Alex Anthopoulos did yesterday, shedding $12 million suddenly doesn’t seem like such an accomplishment.) The timing of his retirement complicates things a little, as it’s late enough in the off-season that almost all of the quality free agents are already spoken for.
This might be a good thing, though. Notwithstanding my suggestion that the Royals should have made a play for Carl Crawford – and God knows they certainly have the payroll space for him now – that would have been a long shot even if they had shown interest. Getting to play with $12 million after all the free agents have signed only means that Moore won’t be tempted to spend that money on the likes of Carl Pavano or Jayson Werth. The only place I want to see that money spent is on draft picks and international talent and…what’s that?
“...budgets for the draft and international scouting could get a boost.”
Oh my. (And Bob Dutton’s not speculating; I’ve heard word that Dayton Moore said that explicitly.) Understand – every time a team has extra money to spend, analysts want them to spend that money on acquiring amateur talent, and for good reason: studies show that amateur talent is the most efficient use of your money, even if the payoff is long-term. Only teams never seem to spend quite as much money on amateur talent as you’d like.
And there’s a limit to how much the Royals can spend on amateur talent, as they don’t have any extra picks in the draft – they draft 5th overall, and then not again until #65 or so. (By which point the Tampa Bay Rays will have drafted ten players.) But if you do the math, that means we can rightfully expect the Royals to be huge players in Latin America this summer, and possibly along the Pacific Rim as well. (For the record: I would also accept a Yu Darvish bid next winter, Dayton.)
A wronged pitcher magnanimously gifts the Royals with 12 million dollars. The Royals indicate they will be spending that money in a wise and cost-effective manner. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if maybe, just maybe, the Royals really are headed in the right direction.
(I realize I’m about four news cycles behind at the moment, which I blame on a really nasty flu/strep throat sort of thing that I’m still trying to shake. I still intend to get to things like the Royals’ Digital Digest contest; the Kyle Farnsworth signing; and now the Billy Butler extension. Please be patient.)