On Tuesday, Diamondbacks Managing Partner Ken Kendrick participated in a radio interview. Kendrick ripped into two of his team’s most well-compensated players, saying he was “disappointed” in Stephen Drew’s slow recovery from a ankle fracture he sustained nearly a year ago, and that he expects Justin Upton to display more consistency in the midst of his age-24 season.
Kendrick felt Drew and his representatives are “more focused on where Stephen’s going to be a year from now than going out and supporting the team that’s paying his salary.” At $7.75M, Drew is the highest-paid player on the team’s payroll in 2012, a tough pill to swallow given that he hasn’t been involved in a game this year. Upton is currently hitting only .243/.340/.365, so it’s not a surprise that Kendrick has higher expectations for his young stud who was once the first overall pick in the 2005 draft.
As an owner, Kendrick is known as a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and generally reflects the opinions of most die-hard Snakes fans. In the cases of both players, Kendrick’s words may accurately reflect the feelings of the fan base. However, the simple fact in this situation is that it doesn’t really matter what Kendrick feels.
It’s perfectly fine for Kendrick’s views to be reflective of those of the common fan, and for him to be disappointed in an underperforming club that entered the season with hopes of a second straight NL West crown. When deciding what to say to the press, however, the pertinent question is not “How do I feel?” I’m all for speaking your mind and not beating around the bush, but both need to be done with the understanding of what’s at stake. In a bar-room conversation or on the phone with a trusted friend, Kendrick’s feelings are all he needs to consider before he speaks. With a microphone in his face, however, the most important consideration must be “How does whatever I’m going to say affect the team?” Some prominent members of the baseball community (I’m looking at you, Scott Boras) are experts at using the press as a tool for their benefit, because they understand the implications of their statements on teams, players, and the market itself. In these comments, it seems to me that Kendrick did just the opposite, allowing his media presence to become a distraction and potentially harmful to the team, as his comments alienate both his team’s most highly-paid player as well as its’ most promising one.
In Drew’s case, the comments are a little more understandable. On the second year of a two-year, $15.75M deal with a mutual option for 2013, Drew likely has one foot out the door even if he can’t set that foot on the diamond. In order for him to have any value to the Diamondbacks, he needs to play, now, or else his remaining time and salary with the team is simply a sunk cost.
However, when it comes to Upton, much more care should be exercised. On a six-year, $51.25M deal signed before the 2010 season, Upton is currently signed on as the face of the franchise through 2015. 2012 would have been Upton’s second year of arbitration, so his salary for this season stands at a quite reasonable $6.75M before increasing to $9.75M in 2013 and then $14.5M for each of what would have been his first two years of free agency eligibility. The team needs to maintain a good relationship with Upton, because he’s going to be around for a while, and assuming he can snap out of his early-2012 funk he’s likely to be the best player on the team until his deal expires. Sowing the seeds of discontent while the player still has three and a half years on his deal would seem to be the last thing Arizona would want.
Don’t take this as a comment on Upton’s professionalism, but Kendrick’s comments risk creating a clubhouse cancer. Any player, Upton included, who has pledged their future to a team and then feels a dearth of trust from that team can quickly grow disillusioned with the team’s power structure and leery of his manager, GM, and the franchise itself. At that point, often the best a team can hope for is that the player remains quiet and doesn’t spread that air of mistrust throughout the clubhouse. With over three years remaining in Arizona, it’s hard to imagine Upton quietly ignoring his doubts and playing out the contract should the situation continue to worsen. Even if Upton does react as a consummate professional, he doesn’t necessarily need to say anything for his teammates to take note of the way the team has treated one of its most prominent players, and begin to wonder how much the team can really trust them if the owner is willing to publicly bash Upton in this way. An important consideration for any GM making an acquisition is how the player will fit in the clubhouse and in the culture of the team, in addition to his abilities on the field, and before any move is made team staff will spend hours doing their due diligence to better understand the player’s character and avoid bringing in a cancer. However, there’s not much a GM can do if his owner contributes to players’ unhappiness once they’re already in the organization.
Maybe I’m wrong, and Kendrick knew full well the implication of his words. It’s possible he felt Drew needed a little push to return to the field in a timely manner, and that lighting a fire under Upton might be necessary for Upton to return to budding superstar status. However, I don’t think that’s the case. An effective owner, in general, hires the smartest and most capable staff he can and then more or less does his best to stay out of their way. To me, it seems that Kendrick’s quotes simply make the difficult job of his staff that much harder.
Twitter Question of the Day: What should the role of a team’s owner be? How much oversight is effective, and when does it transition to simply getting in the way?
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.