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Clause and effect

With exorbitant contracts come tremendous risk, so more teams are structuring deals to guard against major injuries to their star players

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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Injury clauses have popped up in contracts the past few years, designed to protect teams from incredible financial commitments to players in the event they break down. Why?

Injury expert Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated estimates that baseball teams have spent $1 billion over the last five years on injured players, a remarkable total considering the many breakthroughs in sports medicine. The Red Sox have been at the forefront of contract protection, mainly because of team physician Thomas Gill’s insistence on injury clauses and/or insurance to protect the team’s investment.

J.D. Drew’s contract includes a clause regarding his shoulder that protects the team from a pre-existing injury. John Lackey’s contract has a clause that states if the pitcher misses time because of Tommy John surgery on his elbow, he has to give the Red Sox a sixth year at the league minimum salary. The Sox also demanded that Jason Bay’s potential deal include a clause for his knee. Bay’s representatives balked, the Sox rescinded the clause and offered less money, and Bay elected to sign with the Mets.

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright came down with elbow trouble early in spring training and had Tommy John surgery last month. That created an interesting development.

Finishing runner-up for the Cy Young Award last season triggered a two-year, $21 million vested option for 2012 and 2013. The options have to be exercised at the same time. But there’s one caveat — the team built into Wainwright’s contract, signed in 2008, that if the pitcher finishes the 2011 season on the disabled list, the team can void the options. Wainwright will certainly miss the entire season, so what will the Cardinals do? Will they pay him $9 million in 2012, one year after major surgery?

Wainwright told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently, “I’m actually really happy that I have that option, that I have that clause in there right now.

“One way or the other, if I’m hurt and I can never come back, I would feel bad taking that much money from a team I couldn’t help. If [the Cardinals] don’t want to pick it up, then I’ll be a free agent sooner.’’

No team wants to pay a guy coming off Tommy John surgery $9 million. The Cardinals may stick to the contract, though, because of Wainwright’s past accomplishments and to continue the goodwill. Then again, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room — Albert Pujols’s expiring contract — and that extra $21 million could go far in re-signing Pujols.

Injury clauses actually have a long history. In 1916, the year the Red Sox beat the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series, team owners had an injury clause that would allow them to deduct money from a player’s contract if he missed more than 15 days because of injury. By December of that year, the National Commission, under intense pressure from the Players League, got rid of the clause. Funny how that 15-day window became the 15-day disabled list.

A big problem for Major League Baseball teams, unlike National Football League teams, is that their contracts are guaranteed. More teams are building in injury protections and taking out insurance policies to cover a portion or all of a hefty contract. Insurance premiums can be very costly; the Red Sox could pay up to $2 million a year just to protect part or all of a contract, as is the case with Josh Beckett’s four-year, $68 million extension.

More emphasis is being placed on preventative care and teams are demanding more of their trainers and medical staff.

The Oakland A’s have experienced a multitude of injuries the past few years and dismissed head trainer Steve Sayles after three seasons. A’s players went on the disabled list 22 times in 2010 and their players missed more than 1,500 days of work according to fangraphs.com, some five times more than the White Sox.

White Sox head trainer Herm Schneider has been with the organization for 30 years and is widely regarded as one of the best in baseball. He is often referred to as the White Sox’ secret weapon because of his ability to not only prevent injuries, but also get players back on the field quickly. Schneider’s next challenge is pitcher Jake Peavy, who came back wonderfully from a muscle tear but now has shoulder tendinitis.

There are star players besides Wainwright who are dealing with injuries. The Phillies are on pins and needles trying to figure out the next step for second baseman Chase Utley, who has two arthritic knees. The Phillies are hoping rest and traditional methods will be enough. Surgery has been discussed, but nobody wants to go there quite yet. This one will be one of the most challenging injuries any medical staff will deal with this season.

Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore had microfracture surgery on his knee and is slowly coming back, hoping to return by May. Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran’s knees are arthritic and aching, providing another challenge for the Mets’ training staff. The Brewers are dealing with injuries to two pitchers (Zack Greinke, broken rib; Shaun Marcum, sore shoulder) they acquired in the offseason.

“There’s more pressure on trainers and team doctors to get players on the field,’’ said one American League executive. “The investment by owners is greater than ever and the last thing they want is for a high-priced player to miss significant time with an injury.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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