3-4-09: Free Agency Redux

Hello again everybody...

It's mid-week time again. And not only is it all downhill from here, but more importantly, it's 17 more days until I'm off for Phoenix. Now I do realize some of you might see my countdown as "rubbing it in", but try not to think of it that way. Instead, think of it as a wonderful thing that's happening to someone who's provided you with hours and hours (okay, maybe just minutes and minutes) of entertainment. You can also think of it as 16 days til my 2009 MLB Previews begin!

See? It's a win for everybody!

At this point, most of you have heard that Manny Ramirez has finally re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, D'backs fans, this is lousy news. The news broke last night that ManRam has finally agreed to some form of the 2-year $45 million contract that he's been negotiating with the Dodgers for what feels like forever. So that got me thinking. Back in early February, I wrote a column detailing some prominent free-agent names that were, at the time, unsigned. All of them (with one exception) have since signed contracts, and I thought it'd be interesting to break down what they got and where they went. So that's today's column! Let's get to it...

"We are generally better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others."
- Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher

Kudos to you readers! I got far more reaction to my "No Fair League" column than any in recent memory. I don't know if that means there's a large appetite for NFL information, or if my "conspiracy theory" touched a nerve. Whatever it was, I appreciate all the feedback. I love it when you all get riled up about something. Keep it coming!

Oh, and as far as the quote goes, I still like my theory. A lot!

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But on to baseball. I wrote on February 4th about some free agents that had yet to sign and what that indicated about the current baseball economy. So today I'd like to look at where all those guys signed and see what, if anything's changed with the economic climate in baseball.

Let's start where I started last time:

Manny Ramirez, OF, 2-year, $45 million contract with the L.A. Dodgers: I wrote previously that with Ramirez, the Dodgers are the favorite in the NL West and without him, they're just another team in a weak division.

Well they've got him inked to a deal now. The details are still coming to light, but from what I can determine, it's a 2-year deal in name only. Ramirez has an "opt-out" clause after the first year, so if he plays well enough, he can become a free agent again next year and try again for that pipe-dream 4-year, $100 million deal he thinks he deserves. Add in the fact that $25 million of the $45 million is deferred over 5 years, and the Dodgers mitigated their risk quite nicely.

In 53 games with the Dodgers last year, Manny hit .396, slugged .743, for an eye-popping 1.232 OPS. Toss in 17 home runs and 53 RBI and it's obvious why he's so critical to the Dodgers' offense.

There's some concern that he'll pout given the length of time it took to get him signed, and that it'll affect the quality of his play. But I think that since the deal is set up to let him become a free agent again next year if he wants, he'll be in "playing for a new deal" mode. And if I was an NL West pitcher, that mode would scare the bejeezus out of me.

Bobby Abreu, OF, 1-year, $5 million contract with the L.A. Angels: Manny may not have been punished that heavily by the new economy, but Abreu sure was. After making $16 million last year with the Yankees, Abreu agreed to a $5 million deal with the Angels.

I predicted in my earlier column that Abreu might end up somewhere in the AL West. Though to be fair, I discounted the Angels as a possibility because their outfield was crowded already.

But I have a feeling this is going to work out quite nicely for both the Angels and Abreu. Bobby will be surrounded by a potent line-up, so he'll have the opportunity to bounce back statistically. And the Angels should benefit by having yet another power bat in their line-up.

I mean seriously, Torii Hunter, Vlad Guerrero and Bobby Abreu? And that's just the outfield. Juan Rivera or Gary Matthews, Jr. as their DH and Chone Figgins at 3rd? Yeah, this team's going to score a few runs.


Orlando Cabrerra, SS, 1-year, $4 million contract with the Oakland A's: I said last time that this was the one that mystified me most. Cabrera is on the back side of his career certainly, but he's still a plus defender and doesn't hurt you with his bat.

So in the end, I think the A's made an absolute steal here. He'll fit brilliantly into that lineup and allows manager Bob Geren to shift Bobby Crosby around as a utility player. Plus Orlando's above average defense allowed the A's to sign Nomar Garciaparra, who's not the greatest glove-guy anymore, to help out Eric Chavez at third.

Cabrera made $10 million last year, so his salary hasn't been cut as dramatically as Abreu's, but it's still a significant drop.

Are you sensing a pattern? Sign a one-year deal at a relatively cheap rate and hope the market improves next year? Could Manny have gotten his deal done weeks ago had he recognize this pattern? Can Manny even spell "pattern"? We may never know...

Adam Dunn, OF/1B, 2-year, $20 million contract with the Washington Nationals: This one left me scratching my head a bit.

If you're Dunn, this was probably the most money you were going to get, so I understand it in that sense. Then again, you've signed with a team that has virtually no shot at winning. So I guess you've made it abundantly clear where your priorities lie.

If you're the Nationals though, I'm not so sure. I know they were making a play for Mark Teixeira, and were disappointed when they didn't get him. But this clubs a lot more than just a Tex or a Dunn away from being a contender. And in this economy you could've gotten a couple of solid two-way players (nobody's giving Dunn a Gold Glove award anytime soon) for the same money they gave just to Dunn.

He'll add some pop to the Nat's lineup no doubt. He'll also add a number of strikeouts. In the end, I'm not sure anybody will be happy with this deal.

Orlando Hudson, 2B, 1-year, $3.8 million contract with the L.A. Dodgers: Manny's contract will be the big news leading up to the start of the year. But signing Hudson might be the move that puts the Dodgers over the top this year.

Hudson's not only an above-average second baseman, but he's got a solid bat as well. Yes, he's coming off a broken wrist last year. But the Dodgers set up the deal to be heavily laden with incentives, so if he stays healthy that $3.8 million could turn into $8 million. And if he hits all those incentives, it'll be worth every penny.

I thought he might end up in New York, but apparently the Yankees really are done with their glutenous spending this year!

And, of course, this deal falls right in line with the pattern of 1-year deals. Next year's free-agent market is going to be especially interesting. Not only are you going to have a whole new crop of contracts expiring, but a higher than usual number of players who signed new deals this year will be free agents again next year. Could that help further depress the market? It's certainly something to consider.

And that brings us to the last member of the group I discussed a month ago...

Ben Sheets, RP, had surgery and will try it again after the All-Star break: This is an interesting strategy on Sheets' part.

The only serious interest Sheets had was from the Texas Rangers who wanted to sign him to an incentive-laden deal because they were scared of his health. Rather than go for that, Sheets decided to have elbow surgery and try to position himself for a guaranteed deal rather than an incentive deal.

Whether this works or not is entirely dependent on the success of the surgery and his rehab. If he's healthy and cleared by doctors, then he could have a significant impact on a contending club trying to win a division. If there are still questions, I'm not sure teams are going to be eager to take the risk.

But the overall point is, in the past, this is something that wouldn't have happened. Somebody out there would've given Sheets a contract he liked and taken that risk. But given the current economy, Sheets couldn't get what he wanted and decided to try a different tack. I like it. I hope it works for him.

Final Analysis: Clearly the economy has had a significant impact on baseball contracts. The elite of the elite are still going to get their big money, but it's created a large market of upper-level talent who have suddenly become quite affordable.

The question is whether this was just a one-year phenomenon, or if the market has changed going forward. I tend to think it's more of the latter. I said earlier that there will be a larger number of free agents next year than usual and that should in and of itself depress the market. Add to that the less-than-stellar economic forecasts going forward, and I don't see salaries rebounding to previous levels any time soon.

What that means is suddenly mid- and small-market teams are in line to sign some big-name players. It also means that those same teams have a better chance to keep their current stars (Joe Mauer? Free Agent after 2010? Is this thing on?!).

So maybe, in a sense, we're headed towards a renaissance of baseball as the talent gets more evenly spread out? Baseball's always been the most affordable of the major sports, so I think their attendance will suffer less than other sports. And if big name players start landing in the laps of mid- or small-market teams, baseball could be booming again sooner than later.


That's all for today. I'll be back on Friday with yet another amazing edition of the DFTU. Until then, thanks for reading!

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