|Where Have All the Dollars Gone? Fiscal Sanity Returns to Baseball||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on January 02, 2003
The 2002-03 offseason is shaping up as a very different one from in years past. Teams are more than a little reluctant to throw big money at mediocre players in the hope of getting a career year. In fact only one contract given this offseason seems to have attracted the big money we’ve been used to seeing get thrown about in the offseason. That contract was to Phillies first baseman Jim Thome who was given a six year $88 million dollar deal, which translates to about $14.5 million dollars a year.
This by far makes him the highest paid and longest signed of this years free agent class. In contrast other high demand free agents, like Tom Glavine and Jeff Kent, took much shorter deals than they wanted, and took lesser salaries then they would have in recent years. Greg Maddox, a pitcher who should have inspired bidding wars, was not offered a serious contract by anyone, since his agent Scott Boras was insisting on a multiyear deal.
In fact almost 100 free agents of varying quality remain unsigned as I write this. The real question is why? The answers are many. First off the best of this years crop of free agents are a older group of players, with many of them being over 35. This coupled with the second factor, many of these guys have injury histories or have age related injury risks, make it hard for GM’s to risk tying their financial hands by signing these players. Third and probably most importantly is that organizations are not being as secretive about their plans and what they are trying to do this season. Information is being shared, with the media and within the ranks of teams.
This is not collusion, as no active plans are made to take advantage of the players. What it is, is smart. Owners and GM’s are realizing that financial flexibility is king. Tying yourself into long contracts for big money is potentially crippling. Especially if the contract turns into a real stinker.
There are cases where the risk is worth it. The Phillies made that bet with Thome this season. He can and will be a franchise player for this organization for years to come. In fact he may have been the only free agent under 35 who may have been a franchise player.
In other cases the team takes a big risk. The Mets have already taken two. Tom Glavine is a pitcher who no one would deny is an ace. Still he’ll be 37 going into next season and had a rough second half last season after dominating in the early season. What will he be like at 40 when the contract expires? I tend to think he’ll still be a cut above the pack, but only if he remains healthy. Their other major acquisition, Cliff Floyd has not played a full season in the majors without injury, but has the tools to be worth every penny.
So what about the other guys, the ones who don’t have those kind of tools? Well offers for them have been low. Many players have been willing to take a big pay cut and still are not attracting much attention. More than that, the signings have been slow. Thoughts are that the Javier Vasquez/Bartolo Colon sweepstakes may be holding things up since flexibility dollars in owners wallets can be spent later in the offseason, but money tied up now could take teams out of the running for these stars.
One of the areas however which has been active is the foreign player market, although the major player has been the New York Yankees. Players from other countries which have not been as well scouted may turn out to be bargains. Asia and Cuba are the areas that are inciting the most interest right now. Orlando Hernandez made only $3.2 million last year and Ichiro Suzuki made only $2 million, and many teams are looking for bargains and hoping they get similar results.
The Yankees seem to be counting on that and have taken on $53 million dollars in contracts to sign Japanese star Hideki Matsui for three years, and Cuban defector Jose Contreras for 4 years.
If these moves and players pan out, it may signal the start of the expansion of the pool of available players, as teams from the majors would begin to scout much more heavily in other countries. This is something which could have long term effects on the free agent market.
However for now, the reason that responsibility seems to be coming into play, has more to do with baseball’s overall health and team finance than anything else. Without even a glimmer of parity in baseball, many organizations (16 by my count), are already out of the playoff hunt for 2003. The disparity between teams, especially the lack of monetary control on the bigger organizations, makes it nearly impossible for small market teams to just buy a star or two and be realistically competitive.
Without that, there is no reason for more than half of baseball’s teams to spend money.