In Baseball, Household Names Are Still Looking for Homes as Free Agents

Manny Ramírez is still unsigned.
Manny Ramírez is still unsigned. (Gene J. Puskar - AP)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

If Major League Baseball called you today and offered the rights to a new expansion team, with the freedom to build your roster from the list of free agents still available at this astonishingly late date, you could construct a lineup with potential future Hall of Famers at catcher (Iván Rodríguez), both corner outfield positions (Manny Ramírez and Ken Griffey Jr.) and designated hitter (Frank Thomas).

As your cleanup hitter, you could have the only player in baseball with 40 or more homers in each of the past five seasons (Adam Dunn). Your second baseman could be a player less than two years removed from an all-star/Gold Glove season (Orlando Hudson). And your starting rotation could include two more Hall of Famers (Pedro Martínez and Tom Glavine), plus the National League's starter in last year's All-Star Game (Ben Sheets).

Less than two weeks away from the opening of spring training camps, baseball's talent marketplace is facing a staggering reality: More than 90 free agents remain unsigned, and many of them simply won't have jobs when pitchers and catchers report, if they find jobs at all.

The most bizarre Hot Stove League in recent memory has seen some small-market owners calling for a salary cap to rein in the New York Yankees -- who are responsible for some 40 percent of the slightly more than $1 billion in overall spending on free agents this winter -- and some agents and union officials grumbling about collusion over the lack of big-money deals being signed by the other 29 teams.

What's behind the acute slowdown to the free agent marketplace? Commissioner Bud Selig and many owners pin the blame squarely on the nation's bleak economic picture, with a glum Selig telling reporters last month following the quarterly owners' meetings, "I used to console myself that baseball was recession-proof, but . . . this is something different from what we've ever gone through."

However, other observers see additional forces at work, primarily an industry-wide trend, visible for several years, in which teams place higher value on younger, cheaper talent at the expense of older, pricier veterans. In simplest terms, it means teams have discovered that a 23-year-old making $500,000 can do the same job, often just as well, as a 35-year-old making $10 million. The trend has only increased since baseball banned amphetamines in 2006, making it tougher for older players to withstand the game's daily grind.

At the same time, teams are locking up their top young players in cost-effective long-term deals, in many cases buying out some of the players' free agent years, which has downgraded the quality of the past several free agent classes.

It is a formula that was perhaps best expressed by the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who won the American League pennant with a payroll of roughly $44 million and a roster made up almost entirely of players in their 20s, four of whom had signed long-term extensions with the team in the previous year.

"We all saw last year's Tampa team, and Colorado, Arizona and Cleveland the year before that, all built on that framework," Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "And when you see something like that that works -- we all try to pull from the best sources and use the best practices. We all try to copy what works."

The question is, if every team in baseball has gotten smarter all at once about building a cost-effective roster, doesn't that get very close to the essence of collusion? Not according to Kasten.

"Collusion is about agreeing together to" depress salaries, Kasten said. "But in baseball, everyone is allowed to examine their own conditions and determine their own marketplace. And right now, the marketplace is down."

Indeed, by some measures the bigger economic shift in the free agent marketplace occurred last winter -- in a much rosier economic picture -- when big-name veterans such as Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, David Wells, Kenny Lofton and Shawn Green all went unsigned and eventually retired, either officially or effectively.


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