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La Velle E. Neal Column: Why Byron Buxton’s biggest contract bonuses are troublesome

The Twins have reached an agreement to sign Byron Buxton to a seven-year, $100 million contract that allows the pride of Baxley, Ga., to patrol center field at Target Field for seasons to come.

2021-09-12T210703Z_114666593_MT1USATODAY16741662_RTRMADP_3_MLB-KANSAS-CITY-ROYALS-AT-MINNESOTA-TWINS.JPG
Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) celebrates after a run against the Royals in the sixth inning Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, at Target Field. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Yankees' Gerrit Cole received one first-place vote for the AL Cy Young Award last season, with the Blue Jays' Robbie Ray being the popular selection. Someone believed the Cardinals' Mike Shildt was a better pick for NL Manager of the Year over eventual winner Gabe Kapler of the Giants. In the past, there once was a guy who didn't think pitchers deserved MVP votes.

Regardless of how you feel about the voting decisions of members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the supermajority of them — us, because I am one — care deeply about the ramifications of their selections, enough to approach the balloting process with integrity. And we have tried to protect that process when it was threatened.

There's been a development in the past week that could challenge BBWAA members' ability to fill out a ballot with a clear conscience. Especially in this market.

But first, a history lesson.

In 2007, pitcher Curt Schilling revealed that his contract included a clause that would pay him $1 million if he received a single Cy Young Award vote, even joking that he would split the bonus with the writer who voted for him. That didn't sit well with the BBWAA, which voted 41-21 at the winter meetings in Nashville to ban players with such clauses from being eligible for postseason awards. The BBWAA simply didn't want it to appear that it is helping players afford vacations in Turks and Caicos.

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Well, that lasted all of two days. There was pushback from agents, along with subtle promises to not make their players available for interviews ever again. Two days later, the vote was tabled. We learned then not to get in the way of players earning more money.

Now our judgment will be put to a greater test.

The Twins have reached an agreement to sign Byron Buxton to a seven-year, $100 million contract that allows the pride of Baxley, Ga., to patrol center field at Target Field for seasons to come. They stepped up with a better offer than the seven-year, $80 million insult they trotted out in July. Buxton will earn $9 million in 2022, then $15 million each year of the contract after that.

(I will take this time to pat myself on the back for suggesting in July that the Twins should offer Buxton $15 million annually with incentives to push it toward $20 million.)

This deal also reportedly includes incentives. Buxton could earn another $2.5 million if he reaches certain plate appearance thresholds.

Here is the set of bonuses that concerns me: If Buxton wins an MVP award in any year, he receives an $8 million bonus. A second-place finish gives him $7 million. He gets $6 million for third, $5 million for fourth, $4 million for fifth and $3 million if he finishes anywhere from sixth through 10th. A top-10 MVP finish suggests that he played enough games to make a dramatic impact for his team, so it's a way to bridge the gap between being paid like a decent player — which $15 million is these days — and a top player.

This appears to be an unprecedented clause. While bonuses for finishing in the top three of MVP or Cy Young voting have been in contracts for years, the few people I checked with couldn't recall a bonus structure so extensive and so lucrative. Miguel Cabrera and Bryce Harper are among players with contract bonuses triggered by finishing first or second in MVP voting, ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. If Buxton finishes second in MVP voting, $7 million? That's an unheard-of leap in cash.

For someone covering Buxton in the middle of a healthy, productive year, the possibility of his or her vote costing Buxton millions of dollars is an added burden. I still take heat for not including Boston ace Pedro Martinez on my 1999 MVP ballot. The potential conflicts of interest — both real and imagined — with Buxton are entirely different. Motives will be questioned if Buxton either gets more votes than he should or gets left off ballots.

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At this point, the BBWAA has no recourse. We tried to address the issue in 2007 and were nearly laughed out of the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Writers will try to fill out ballots as fairly as possible, but likely will be scrutinized even more than usual if Buxton is in contention for one of the league's most coveted awards.

It would be nice if the billionaires could sign the millionaires to long-term contracts without participation from the BBWAA.

©2021 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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