David Wright is back for one last weekend hurrah with the New York Mets in what will surely be an emotional sendoff at Citi Field. Injuries have cut short a potential Hall of Fame career, but even though Wright’s playing days are coming to a close his time on the Mets’ roster might not.
The simple reason? Insurance.
Wright last played in a major league game on May 27, 2016, felled since by various injuries to his back, shoulder, and neck. Since then he has undergone surgeries for a herniated disc in his neck, the rotator cuff in his shoulder, and a procedure on his lower back to relieve pressure from spinal stenosis.
After the 35-year-old played in 12 minor league rehab games in August, Wright and the Mets held a press conference earlier in September to announce that he would be activated for the final week of the season, including a start at third base on Saturday for a final goodbye.
“Physically and the way I feel right now, and from everything that the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement,” Wright said on Sept. 13, “I don’t see [playing after 2018] as a possibility.”
There are still two years remaining on an eight-year, $138 million contract signed after 2012, when Wright was a perennial all-star and one of the best players in the sport. Wright is set to earn $15 million in 2019 and $12 million in 2020, and if he technically retires he wouldn’t get that money.
You’d be hard pressed to find a major league player walking away from that kind of guaranteed money. The most recent example was pitcher Gil Meche, who forfeited $12 million when he retired in 2011, the final year of his contract.
For Wright to receive the rest of his contract the Mets could simply release him. But a possible scenario is to continue what has basically happened the last two-plus years, for Wright to stay on the Mets’ 40-man roster while unavailable. It’s not so restrictive during the season, when Wright can be stashed on the 60-day disabled list which frees his 40-man spot for someone else. But during the offseason, when building the roster, there is no DL, so the Mets would effectively be limited to 39 spots.
Keeping a disabled Wright on the 40-man roster would also allow the Mets to receive insurance to cover the bulk of Wright’s salary, which they have done the past two years. Insurance was on the hook for 75 percent of Wright’s $20 million salary in 2017, and mostly the same in 2018, save for the pro-rated portion of Wright’s salary the Mets will pay for the six days he is active, roughly $642,000.
Under this scenario the Mets would only pay $6.75 million of the $27 million remaining due Wright, with insurance picking up the remaining $21.25 million. The parties could agree to a buyout arrangement of some sort which could alleviate the Mets’ roster crunch, presumably at some financial cost.
Prince Fielder was in this position after his career ended in July 2016 with a neck injury. He remained on the Rangers’ 40-man roster until October 2017, with insurance paying a portion of his salary. With three more years left on Fielder’s contract, the Rangers reached a settlement with the insurance company and released Fielder.
Not all major league contracts are insured, for various reasons. The Red Sox did not insure their five-year, $95 million contract with Pablo Sandoval, who was a colossal bust in Boston and was injured for all but three games in 2016.
“The fact is that it’s a case-by-case basis, and we have insurance on some players, not all players,” Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said on WEEI in 2016. “Collecting on an insurance is not the easiest thing and then you have a debate on how much insurance and when do you collect? We do it on a case-by-case basis, and we did not do it for Pablo.”
The largest profile insurance claim of a baseball contract was Albert Belle, who was forced to retire after the 2000 season because of a degenerative hip condition. He had three years and $39 million remaining on his contract, and the Orioles filed a claim for just over $27 million, the 70 percent they insured.
Wright has already surpassed that with roughly $30 million in reported insurance claims in 2017 and 2018 alone, and with two years remaining that figure will certainly rise.