Deal Or No Deal

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.

That wasn't the real market. Now, with the Yanks sated, the truth of the economy's impact on baseball is arriving.

"I only remember one other offseason when salaries backed up" like this, Nats President Stan Kasten said. "The single biggest factor is the economy. We will get through this, but a lot of teams are being as cautious, and as responsible as they can be, to weather this storm."

Even ultra-rich clubs are concerned.

"The game is only starting to feel the [weak] economy. But the impact is going to be big," Boston President Larry Lucchino said. "Some teams can still bid high for the best players. But everybody's watching to see how it plays out."

Recently, the Red Sox have been Discount Nation, signing players coming off injuries or poor years, including Brad Penny, John Smoltz, catcher Josh Bard and outfielder Rocco Baldelli, for what would be Teixeira tip money.

As is often the case, baseball and society mirror each other. The game is digesting the same lesson as the culture: Greed isn't good.

But it is inexorable. Once in motion, greed undermines psychological barriers, supplants other values and justifies itself by celebrating its own excesses.

Baseball has lived through 30 years of such institutionalized respect for greed, called the free agent era. With it have come $250 million contracts, $1,500 box seats, billion-dollar publicly built ballparks and a sport leveraged to boom times. Nothing bubbles like prosperity.

When attendance records are broken almost every year, when a labor war wipes out the World Series, but only leaves ripples of discontent for a couple of years, it's easy to think that every new TV contract will be bigger, every city will kick in for a new park and no recession will last long enough for fans to cancel season tickets.

But, like so many assumptions that seem self-evident in good times, they come into doubt when the tide goes out.

If you want to see inflated pay, guaranteed regardless of performance, don't look at Wall Street. Baseball will do. Alfonso Soriano, now 33, has gone from 46 homers and 41 steals with the Nats to 29-19 with the Cubs, but he gets his $106 million the next six years no matter what he does.

At the moment, the Nats are the only team in baseball with a bottom-five payroll, a new park, healthy revenue, a barely developed big-market fan base -- and an awful team.

To improve themselves significantly, the Nats suddenly do not have to pay the prices of December. But, because they carry the stigma of 102 losses, they probably still have to outbid better teams and pay more than they'd like.

For a family like the Lerners that understands long-cycle planning, few principles are more important than "buy low." But are free agents now cheap, just because Burrell took a stunning 44 percent salary cut after hitting 33 homers or because Ramírez has only one tepid suitor -- the let-him-twist-in-the-wind Dodgers?

Nobody can call bottoms in markets or players. The job is to identify "low enough." The Nats, and others, will soon have players, including very good ones, come back to them with, if not hat in hand, then an unaccustomed humility.

For every Dunn, Hudson or Wolf, there is still a Bobby Abreu, Orlando Cabrera or Jon Garland still on the market.

In this annual supply-and-demand game of musical chairs, the team with baseball's worst record can seldom afford to wait until the music stops to make its move.

The Nats say they are out. Maybe they are. But few believe it is more than a basic negotiating tactic. The Yankees were almost invisible until they swooped and signed Teixeira. The Mets thought Lowe would probably be in their rotation on Monday. Now he's a Brave.

The part of this offseason that will be remembered the longest, within the whole game as it glimpses its economic future -- and in Washington, as the Nats decide whether to make amends for an abysmal year, has just begun.

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