Someday, and probably sooner rather than later, baseball's players' union and its owners will engage in a nasty debate about the 2009-10 free-agent market. The argument will center around an issue that even the most seasoned arbitrator will have trouble answering: whether teams truly colluded against players to drive down salaries or if they simply got smarter with how they spent money.
The nearest facsimile to the 2009-10 class – one not exactly teeming with talent – is the infamous group of 2006-07. Infamous at the time because of its ability to underwhelm, and infamous now, too, thanks to the number of laughable contracts general managers lavished on that mediocre talent.
The difference in contracts between the two years is striking. Thus far, more than halfway through the 2009-10 free agent signing period, teams have given only seven players contracts of three years or longer. In 2006-07, 31 players received deals of three or more years.
The owners did not discriminate that winter. They gave three years to backups (Frank Catalanotto(notes), David Dellucci(notes)) and middle relievers (Chad Bradford(notes), Jamie Walker(notes), Danys Baez(notes)). They gave five years to just about anyone (Gary Matthews Jr.(notes), Juan Pierre(notes), Kei Igawa(notes)). They handed out 29 multi-year contracts that averaged more than $5 million per season. This offseason, owners have given out a dozen multiyear, $5 million-a-season deals.
Most striking is at the top end. Three years ago, Alfonso Soriano(notes) got $136 million, Barry Zito(notes) $126 million and Carlos Lee(notes) $100 million. The Red Sox shelled out $103.1 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes). Matt Holliday(notes), a superior player to all four, remains a free agent 45 days from pitchers and catchers reporting because his quest for nine figures isn't drawing the number of suitors expected.
These are odd times. The recession struck and gave owners a convenient excuse to lessen their spending. In some cases it's legitimate, in others an excuse, the line blurry enough for tightfisted owners to play miser and get away with it.
At the same time, teams are getting smarter, are realizing that the free-agent market is one rife with inefficiencies, are allocating their resources elsewhere, sometimes their pockets. This sits well with neither the union nor agents, who understand the business necessitates teams adapting but can't allow that as an excuse for hundreds of millions of dollars that have disappeared from the free-agent coffers.
"Where," one agent wondered this week, "did all that money go?"
Well, spring training isn't quite upon us yet. And 26 of the top 50 players on Yahoo! Sports' ultimate free-agent tracker remain unemployed. Some of that money will show up.
There still is reason to panic. The closer the season gets, the likelier a player flinches. Teams see the glut of free agents available, many indistinguishable from others, and know the advantage swings to them. Players are pieces, parts, pawns, disposable as soda cans. Such is life in the era of the enlightened GM – or is it the latest episode of collusion?
Either way, enough big names remain to keep this offseason interesting as we see if the reticence to lock up players in the long term – and do so at a premium – continues. Here are 10 to watch in the coming weeks and their value in the current market.
Matt Holliday, LF: The top free agent reportedly received an offer in excess of $100 million from St. Louis. While agent Scott Boras compared him with Mark Teixeira(notes), whom the Yankees gave $180 million last offseason, Holliday never drew such attention. Projected contract: six years, $110 million.
Aroldis Chapman, SP: The 100-mph-throwing Cuban defector thrilled scouts with an open workout in Houston and has moved on to private sessions with interested teams. The number of series suitors could top a half-dozen, and compared to nearly everyone else on the market, Chapman's value actually seems to be rising. Projected contract: five years, $23 million.
Adrian Beltre(notes), 3B: Still just 30, Beltre suffered offensively in Seattle while positioning himself as among the two or three best-fielding third basemen. He still hasn't learned to take a walk and never will, yet because of some teams' predilection toward defense, he'll get close to the $10 million a year Boras wants. Projected contract: three years, $27 million.
Miguel Tejada(notes), SS/3B: He still can hit for average, and he's got positional versatility, and … he's not being investigated by the federal government anymore. So that's a plus. Tejada is the sort who likely will get multiple years on reputation, though he could be among the players who come February get antsy. Projected contract: two years, $13 million.
Ben Sheets(notes), SP: If healthy, Sheets is the best pitcher in this class, better than the $82.5 million man, John Lackey(notes). Of course, Sheets hasn't thrown a pitch since September 2008, so any expectation for eight figures isn't happening, unless half of it comes in incentive form. Projected contract: one year, $7 million.
Joel Pineiro(notes), SP: The surest thing among pitchers – seriously – is counting on the number of franchises that need pitching to start a bidding war. So far, it's been more like a snowball fight. Projected contract: three years, $27 million.
Jose Valverde(notes), RP: And this is what happens when a positional market totally collapses. Delusions of multiple years and tens of millions will have to wait another season. Projected contract: one year, $6 million.
Johnny Damon(notes), LF: Enough teams need left fielders to keep Damon's options open. That said, those teams aren't likely to go anywhere near his salary demands, and ultimately, Damon will be another casualty of the 2009-10 offseason. Projected contract: two years, $17 million.
Vladimir Guerrero(notes), DH: He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he wants multiple years, and while in the past it wouldn't seem an egregious request, it no longer flies. Guerrero can look back at 2006-07 and laugh. Rich Aurilia(notes) got two years. So did Nomar Garciaparra(notes). And Jim Edmonds(notes). As well as a 40-year-old Woody Williams(notes). Times changed, and they didn't spare anyone. Projected contract: one year, $7 million.