Thomas Boswell on Baseball Free Agent Economics

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Manny Ramírez, and his agent Scott Boras, would love $100 million to play baseball the next four years, thanks very much. The laughter you hear is the rest of the sport cackling, "Wake up and smell the money burning."

Manny, how would you like one-third that much and only for a couple of seasons? Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it. Maybe you should've taken that two-year, $45 million deal before the Dodgers sniffed the wind and withdrew it.

The era when players could say, "Monday, red shirt, red Porsche, Tuesday, yellow shirt, yellow Lamborghini," may be ending. Finally. Who says an economic meltdown isn't good for something.

As the rest of America loses jobs and frets over its "201(k)s," the insulated world of rich ballplayers and their enablers is finally having its foundations shaken. Oh, they're still rich. And the best available ones, like Derek Lowe, who agreed to a $15 million-a-year deal for four seasons with the Atlanta Braves yesterday, still get big packages.

But except for players coveted by the Yanks, or aces like Lowe, baseball economics may be changing. The next few weeks will provide a mountain of data. And the Nationals will be near the center of the action.

Through multiple leaks, the Nats have said that they've lost interest in free agents Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf -- at their current salary demands. Believe the second half of that -- the salary part.

The Nats may, indeed, have looked at recent contracts -- like Pat Burrell, Milton Bradley (third in baseball in OPS) and Raúl Ibáñez (110 RBI) signing for $8 million to $10.5 million a year -- and lost interest in paying someone like Dunn the same $13 million he got last year in Cincinnati and Arizona. Or giving the oft-injured Wolf the kind of $9-million-a-year deal he once got in Philly.

But everybody in baseball assumes the Nats are more interested in these players than ever -- at the right price -- because the market, especially for a glut of free agent hitters, has come racing back to them.

"Good to hear you've given up on signing free agents," a Nats executive was told. "It's about time you got serious." He's probably stopped laughing by now.

As much as the Nats would love to have gotten Mark Teixeira at a price near the Yanks' winning bid of $180 million, they now still have dry powder. Will they use it?

That's the question throughout baseball now; the game's financial reality has changed in the last two weeks.

In December, the Yankees distorted every perception. Because they have a new park this season and because $83 million in contracts just came off their books and, of course, because they are the Yankees, they spent $453 million to sign Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

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