Recession makes bear market smell fishy

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

It takes only a few seconds to sign a contract, even in a huff, and then there'd still be plenty of time to fire the agent before reporting to Viera or Tucson or wherever.

It's not yet February, but you can see it from here, and at last count there were five free-agent contracts of four years or longer and seven others of three years. Of those 12 contracts, three were not awarded by franchises in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago; Derek Lowe's and Kenshin Kawakami's in Atlanta and Raul Ibanez's in Philly.

The free-agent market is a bit poky, that we know. Now a first-round draft pick, who might never see Double-A, means more to an organization than a Gold Glove, gap-hitting shortstop (Orlando Cabrera) or a guy who can throw a hundred miles an hour in the eighth inning (Juan Cruz). OK.

But, desperate teams will cave, desperate players will sign. They'll find each other in the next three weeks, with no place else to go.

What is odd, I guess, is the failure of the dominoes to fall on command. Mark Teixeira goes before Christmas and we're still looking at a free Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson and Ken Griffey Jr. Lowe signs and we wait on Oliver Perez, Jon Garland, Randy Wolf, Ben Sheets, Braden Looper, those guys. Orlando Hudson can't find work? What's wrong with Orlando Hudson?

“It's beyond odd,” said one high-profile agent who's been crying collusion for two months. “You can put together a pretty impressive team with the guys who are still out there.”

With that, he rattled off Wolf, Sheets, Garland, Perez and Pedro Martinez in the rotation, Jason Varitek and Pudge Rodriguez catching, Kevin Millar, Hudson, Cabrera and Joe Crede (or Ty Wigginton) in the infield, Dunn, Abreu and Manny in the outfield, Tom Gordon, Jason Isringhausen and Cruz at the back of the bullpen. The rotation is thin (we could pick up Paul Byrd and, sigh, Curt Schilling in June) and it probably wouldn't be happy with the outfield defense. We'd need a real closer, and we're not biting on Eric Gagne. Jim Edmonds could play some center and first. Cliff Floyd could DH.

It's not the '98 Yankees, but we'd compete in the NL West and we'd certainly beat the U.S. entry in the WBC.

“Teams are trying to create a system where players are fearful of free agency,” the agent said. “They're trying to get players to take the bad deal early.”

Early, late, owners probably don't care either way.

“It's a very slow market compounded by a saturated market,” another agent said. “The problem is, there's a lot of mediocre pitching out there. There was a pretty good tier of guys but, after that, a bunch of guys clubs look at as homogenized.”

You can't really go wrong. Of course, you might not go right, either. They're OK. They're flawed. They're threes and fours in your rotation, probably.

“It's really a poor market,” the second agent said. “I mean, how can Manny Ramirez not be done yet?”

The Manny market has been sluggish from the get-go, primarily because the one team that is confirmed in (Dodgers), the one team that maybe is in (Giants) and anyone else that might pop up (Nationals?) are not inclined to go four or five years on him. Scott Boras needs a bidding war and it hasn't happened yet.

Meantime, the Dodgers are sitting today on a payroll of about $70 million, or $50 million under where they were at the end of 2008. They need at least one starting pitcher, likely to be Wolf, and maybe two. They'll come relatively cheap. That gets them to, what, $80, $85 million?

Other clubs in larger markets – the Mets, Angels and White Sox – could spend more (and, indeed, the Angels tried to give Teixeira $160 million), but are choosing not to. Crying for starting pitching, the Mets were outbid for A.J. Burnett and Lowe. Needing a bat, the Angels have not yet sniffed Ramirez, and promise they won't. The White Sox are shedding payroll.

The economy stinks for all but the Yankees, sure. But, doesn't this feel excessive?

Last winter's darlings – the Tigers – badly needed a closer. They let all the expensive (and somewhat reliable) ones pass by, and now appear to be nearing an agreement with Brandon Lyon, who couldn't hold the job in Arizona last year.

More this winter than in recent winters (again, with one significant exception), clubs appear to be holding down expenses first and making baseball decisions second.

“I don't know those answers,” one National League GM said. “Is it expectations of players versus reality caused by economic concerns and facts?”

So, does this mean baseball – most of baseball, anyway – is learning to live without? Keeping the gluttony to a minimum? Saving for the future, when there are no more record-breaking revenues? Perhaps few news items chilled owners more than reports of the Yankees' troubles selling their luxury suites. Because, they know, when the Yankees have economic problems, they're next. And no one wants to get caught extended.

“I blame the economy,” said an official from an American League club. “Agents and players still have this idea that eventually clubs will pay. But, my dialogue with other clubs says that the money is just not there."

What to Read Next