Insufficient visual metaphor deployed.
This just in: the White Sox have a serious Alex Rios problem. The guy is owed about $4M for the rest of this season and $38M from 2012 until Kenny can mercifully buy Rios out at the end of the 2014 season. This wouldn't be such a big deal if he were even somewhat productive. A ball player is worth his salary because his runs scored on offense and runs saved on defense are combined worth a number of wins which in turn generates revenue for the club. As long as the player's salary is equal to or less than his revenue, the club makes money off the player and everyone is happy.
Obviously, the White Sox are not making money off of Rios. In fact, they're in trouble. See, he's been worse than nearly every major leaguer currently in possession of a roster spot and probably a decent number of minor leaguers. Yeah, he was way better last year, but in '09 he had a similar problem. Not to the same extent, but 2 years out of 3 is a meaningful trend.
Since 2009, he's been worth about 1 win every 600 times to the plate. Most major league teams already have a guy who can play CF and produce at that level. And odds are that guy is getting paid somewhere between the league minimum and $5M to do it. The most anyone is paying for that kind of production is what you can get on the free agent market. Lately, that kind of production is going for somewhere between $4-6M. That's $6-8M less than Rios made this year.
So he's been worth about 1 win per season over the last 3. And the Sox will be paying him as if he's worth 2-2.5 wins. If Rios' true talent level is 1 win this year, then just thanks to aging, he'll be worth less and less as the contract goes on. If there's no difference at all between him and a replacement level player, then the Sox may as well just release him because they'll have to eat the whole salary just to get another team to take him on anyway. Given a typical aging pattern, we could expect him to be replacement level as of 2013. Even if the Sox can trade him, they're very very likely to be on the hook for anything he's owed from 2013 onward. Instead of the 4 or so wins that might have been worth in those seasons, the Sox will pay $26M for nothing.
And actually, it gets worse. Rios has a clause in his contract that raises the value of what he's owed $500K per year if he's traded. That's nothing right? Well, yeah. But it's an insult-to-injury issue. See, $500K is more or less the league minimum, which is what a team would have to pay to get a replacement level player if it were ditching another player. So after badly overpaying on Rios, if the Sox trade him, they'll be paying double on his replacement too. Which is nice.
But so in theory, it's possible to trade Rios to a team that thinks he's worth something above replacement for some significant period of time. The question is, who are you going to find? It's fairly common for human beings to overrate the significance of those results which are most recent and Rios' most recent results are mind-searingly bad. Even a hyper-rational human is going to be wary of a guy that makes every pitcher look like Bugs Bunny squaring off against the Gas House Gorillas. So, really, who are you going to convince without giving Rios a ton of playing time to work off his debt?
In that case, the best way to treat Rios' contract is as a sunk cost. Write it in pen on the balance sheet: the Sox will be on the hook no matter what for Rios' salary. And in that case, they need to figure out if Rios can outproduce de Aza (or whomever they can get for the league minimum) over the life of Rios' deal. If they think Rios can be a 1 win or so player well off into the future, then they should stick with him. It's the only way to convince another team he might be worth trading for and he's very likely better than the alternative player. If not, they're totally under water on the deal and they'll have to pay the whole thing no matter what. Trading him would only add to how much they'd owe. So release Rios and let de Aza take over full time.
Which is what y'all rabble rousers are clamoring for no doubt. But there is a reason why de Aza's in Charlotte rather than, say, Seattle or Kansas City. Whatever you think of him, most guys with his profile aren't to be relied upon for one reason or another. In de Aza's, health is probably the most significant factor. This makes him a much better prospect on the Sox than it does the average team, and it's one of the reasons the Sox picked him up I'm sure. Still, it's a closer call than we'd like to believe it is and there is a logic behind continuing to play Rios. At this point, it's presumably because they've had almost two seasons to figure out what they think Rios is capable of producing and more than a half of one to look at de Aza. If they don't think they know what they've got at this point, then they never will and we're worse off than we thought we were.