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.
According to data on ESPN.com, the 30 big league teams spent around $1.7 billion total on free agents in the offseason of 2006-07, but only $1.1 billion in 2007-08 -- a drop-off of roughly 35 percent. This winter, the final number once again is expected to be around $1.1 billion.
By waiting deeper and deeper into the winter, teams gambled that prices would fall, and they have been largely correct. While some huge deals were signed by quick-on-the-draw teams early in the offseason (for example, pitcher Ryan Dempster getting $52 million over four years to stay with the Chicago Cubs, and outfielder Raúl Ibáñez getting $31.5 million over three years from the Philadelphia Phillies), it is very much a buyer's market now.
"When the dollars the clubs are offering and the dollars a player feels he's worth don't mesh," said Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski, "it forces someone into making concessions."
Increasingly, it is the players making those concessions.
Early in the winter, the agent for veteran catcher Jason Varitek was floating the idea of a four-year contract worth $50 million, but last week Varitek wound up re-signing with the Boston Red Sox on a one-year deal at a $5 million salary, with a dual player-team option for a second season at no more than $5 million. Meantime, pitcher Jon Garland, who made $12 million in 2008 from the Los Angeles Angels and responded with a 14-win season, still took a substantial pay cut last week to sign a one-year deal with Arizona that guarantees him only $7.25 million.
Most if not all of the remaining free agents have at least one thing working against them. They are either well past their prime (Griffey, Rodríguez), defensively challenged (Dunn, Ramírez, Bobby Abreu), coming back from injuries (Sheets, Hudson) -- or, in the case of Type A free agents who declined their teams' offers of arbitration (Sheets, Hudson, Ramírez, Orlando Cabrera), would cost the team that signs them a top draft pick.
Some of the players are bound to sign for well below the figures they once expected. Others may wait until deep into the spring, or even deep into the regular season, to sign -- in hopes that injury situations will create demand. And still others will join veteran second baseman and potential Hall of Famer Jeff Kent in making the ultimate concession: retirement.