On Marwin Gonzalez and voiding contracts

One of the best parts about this job is getting questions from you, the amazing people who take time out of your busy lives to read the words I scrawl across the digital pages of this website.

Last week, one of you submitted this question:

This is a fascinating query, so I’d thought we’d take a look.

Marwin Gonzalez is a Swiss Army Knife for the Minnesota Twins. Last year, he hit .264/.322/.414 (93 wRC+) with 15 home runs whilst appearing at every infield position and both outfield corners. Of course, last year was the first year of a two-year, $21 million deal he signed with the Twins after spending the previous six seasons with the Houston Astros. Gonzalez.

Now, why would the Twins want to void the contract of such a useful player? Marwin, more than anyone else, seems to have benefitted from the Astros cheating scandal, with trash can bangs (that will never get old) on 18.2 percent of pitches in 2017 — that’s nearly 1 in 5!

In 2016, Gonzalez hit .254/.293/.401 (89 wRC+), which isn’t too far off from his 2019 performance. In 2017, Gonzalez hit .303/.377/.530 (144 wRC+) with 23 home runs and more than doubled his walk rate. It’s fair to say that Marwin had ahem improvement in his numbers the ‘Year of the Trash Can’.

So in this light, Half Mental’s question makes some sense. Now that we know that Marwin’s numbers weren’t entirely the result of Marwin, and partly the result of cheating, perhaps the Twins want to void his contract, saying it was procured by fraud.

Let’s start with this prerequisite: the Twins can’t sue Marwin for anything. That’s because of something called labor law preemption, which is to say that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA provides the exclusive remedy for a team looking to get out from under a contract.

We’ve seen how this plays out with Yoenis Cespedes and Jacoby Ellsbury recently. The Mets didn’t want to pay Cespedes because of an incident involving a wild boar, and the Yankees didn’t want to pay Ellsbury because he received treatment from a purportedly unapproved doctor. So if the Twins wanted to get out from under Marwin’s contract, it would probably play out something like that; they’d refuse to pay him, and Marwin would file a grievance. Alternatively, the Twins could file a grievance against Gonzalez.

There are a couple of wrinkles, though. Marwin played half of his contract already, so the Twins can’t ask back for the money they already paid him for games he already played. Plus, he played pretty well, and the Twins won 103 games, so it’s hard to say that the team was harmed. So let’s assume that the team just seeks to void the second year of Marwin’s contract because of the cheating scandal. Maybe the Twins decide they just don’t want a cheater on their team.

Major League Baseball contracts are fully guaranteed, meaning that barring a breach or violation of that contract, the player gets the full amount of money in the contract (excepting options, bonuses, and the like). Now, therein is the problem: both Cespedes and Ellsbury had money withheld by the teams because of actions they purportedly took whilst under that contract. The Yankees complained about a doctor that Ellsbury saw while he was a Yankee. The Twins saying that they have a right to not pay Gonzalez because of the cheating scandal is analogous to the Yankees saying they wouldn’t pay Ellsbury because of something he did when he was with the Red Sox.

Well, that’s not working. So what if the Twins argue that the Yankees knew everything pertinent to Ellsbury from his Red Sox days, but they didn’t know about the Astros cheating? That’s a hard sell — the Washington Post recently said the Astros’ cheating was an “open secret” within the game — but let’s pretend the Twins had absolutely no idea about the cheating at all, and want to void the second year of Marwin’s contract because they were blindsided.

The Twins might have a better case if they had signed Gonzalez after 2017, when he had his big breakout. But they signed him after 2019, when his previous five year wRC+ figures looked like this: 110, 111, 89, 144, 103. His previous five fWAR figures were, in order, 1.3, 1.5, 0.4, 4.0, 1.5. You don’t really have to squint too hard to see which year is the outlier here, and if the Twins believed they were signing a true-talent four-win player, it would be hard to have much sympathy for them. Plus, even uber-agent Scott Boras didn’t market Marwin as a star player, opting instead for something more memorable.

Anyway, the Twins didn’t pay Marwin Gonzalez like a four-win player. Ben Zobrist was paid by the Cubs like a four-win super-utility player, and he got a four year, $56 million contract in December 2015. Even in the suppressed free agent market of today’s game, it’s hard to say that the Twins paid more for Gonzalez as a result of his out-sized performance in 2017. In fact, D.J. LeMahieu got a slightly larger 2-year, $24 million contract from the Yankees in the 2019 offseason, after posting similar fWAR figures over the preceding five years as Gonzalez. In other words, the Twins paid Marwin like a super-utility backup, and that’s more or less what they got. That they chalked up his outlier season as just that — an outlier — instead of cheating doesn’t necessarily change the calculus.

All of this is to say that the Twins are more-or-less stuck with Marwin Gonzalez on their team. That’s not a bad thing, he’s a good player and in 2019 with the Twins, showed he was a decent hitter even when he didn’t know what’s coming.

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