LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Baseball's most valuable players this season raked in a combined $740,000 in salary, which is approximately what the Chicago Cubs plan to pay Alfonso Soriano every time he sneezes the next eight years.
If there seems an incongruity with Justin Morneau making $385,000 and Ryan Howard getting $355,000 while Jamie Walker signs for $4 million a year because he happens to throw his 50 or so innings with his left hand, there is. Other than World Series, there are no two sweeter words to a general manager than "under control," which is baseball-speak for bargain.
It's such a deal, in fact, that the under-control player – preferably one with less than three years of service time, though fourth- and fifth-year arbitration-eligible players qualify, too – no longer is simply a luxury. With free-agent salaries filling with helium leading up to this year's Winter Meetings and showing no signs of abating, a quality zero-to-five player is now the most desired commodity in the game.
"Forget the $20 million-a-year guy and forget prospects," one American League executive said. "Now it's guys who have established themselves who you can control for four or five years. It gives you maneuverability to do other things. Even if their talent level isn't elite, if you know they can be a starting pitcher, reliever or everyday player, it allows you to spend more in another area that you normally couldn't with a $6 million-a-year player."
Flexibility comes with cheap contracts, and even though the minimum salary was raised 16 percent in the new collective-bargaining agreement, it's still $380,000, pennies compared to the long-term deals free agents are snagging. In a player's first three years, salaries almost always stay under the million-dollar threshold unless he signs a contract extension, as David Wright and Jose Reyes did with the New York Mets. The Philadelphia Phillies likely will give Howard a raise for aesthetic purposes. Morneau, eligible for arbitration, should end up around $3.5 million.
Still less than Walker.
This season, Jered Weaver, Chien-Ming Wang, Felix Hernandez, Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder, Jonathan Papelbon, Ervin Santana, Brian McCann, Curtis Granderson, Huston Street, Garrett Atkins and Ryan Zimmerman – just to name a baker's dozen – should make less than $500,000.
In their first years of arbitration – the process in which a player states his worth, the team counters with a number and the parties either settle in between or let an arbitrator take one side – Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Chase Utley and J.J. Putz still will get about one-fifth of what they would on the open market, and Dontrelle Willis, a fifth-year player, should get $9 million, about half of what he would snag.
Only in a player's sixth season – one year before he becomes a free agent – does he get his true worth, as he can request a salary commensurate to his peers with similar statistics.
"Melky Cabrera is a huge example [of their value]," New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's an under-control, switch-hitting, 22-year-old outfielder, and look at what the marketplace is bearing for outfielders. The Phillies were having trouble moving Bobby Abreu because of his age and the money. By sheer change in market, that looks like a sensible contract, where before it was one that was tough to move. Johnny Damon, at $13 million a year, looks like a bargain.
"And when you go down to the Melky Cabreras of the world, it's gold. He can give you cost certainty going forward. What we're all trying to do is create a diverse talent foundation to stay out of the free-agent market. Whenever you go there, you're going to have to overpay. You have people competing for someone's talent. That's why you ought to rely on your amateur and international scouts to continue to feed that system."
With luxury-tax implications hanging over New York, the Cabreras, Canos and Scott Proctors allowed the Yankees to pick up Abreu's salary in a trade last year. Its desire to keep adding to them facilitated the Gary Sheffield trade to the Detroit Tigers, in which they received pitcher Humberto Sanchez, who figures to join New York's rotation in the near future.
"We all see guys like Cabrera, or like Jered Weaver, and we all want guys like him," one National League front-office man said. "And when we try to deal for guys like him, they're just not biting anymore. They want two arms and a leg."
Or two arms – preferably left-handed – and an everyday player.
"Every team asks about those players," said the front-office man. "If I don't ask about them, I'm not doing my job. And even though the answer is pretty much the same – he's not available – we'll all say, 'I've got to have a guy like that.' "
How to get an under-control player is a matter of circumstance more than anything. The Los Angeles Angels need a power hitter, and the free-agent crop is dry. Were they to dangle Weaver, who went 11-2 with a 2.56 earned-run average as a rookie last season, they could have their pick of 30-home run hitters.
The beauty of the small salary lies in the possibilities. Only a handful of teams can afford Manny Ramirez's $18 million salary, even if the Red Sox agreed to eat some of it. Even the Kansas City Royals and Florida Marlins can afford a $500,000 player.
"You're not limited to just talking to bigger clubs," said an AL talent evaluator. "When you have a player of that caliber, you can talk to all 29 teams. Doors open. You don't have to go to your owner. You don't have to negotiate with an agent. You don't have to worry about arbitration."
You just worry about the results, and every team can live with that. Salaries have spiked so dramatically this offseason that, as the front-office man put it, "we're worrying more about balancing our budgets than figuring out who can play," something that under-control players can alleviate, if not erase.
"We're all desperate for young talent that has a chance to succeed at the major-league level," Cashman said. "If you can hit on these guys, like the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves have done – and we're starting to show we can do that – it gets a great deal of value. We're pushing that direction, going back to our roots."
Not just because their near-$200 million payroll, full of bloated free-agent contracts, was excessive.
"It's what built our championship clubs," Cashman said. "We got away from that after the 2001 World Series, and we're getting back to it now."