Let the bidding begin
Flush with cash, owners can't wait to go shopping for stars
Posted: Friday October 29, 2004 4:53PM; Updated: Friday October 29, 2004 4:53PM
After winters of Bud Selig singing the blues, you wonder if the baseball boss is ready to step up and admit the game is now flush with cash? Or, as the free-agent season officially began Thursday with player filings, are we in for another tune about the game going broke?
Sorry, Mr. Commissioner, crying poverty should no longer be an option. Whether the availability of free-agent pitchers like Carl Pavano, Eric Milton, Brad Radke, Jaret Wright and Pedro Martinez ignites a spending frenzy remains to be seen, but Major League Baseball owners -- and not just the deep-pocketed George Steinbrenner -- clearly possess the bucks to pump up their rosters. Fans should throw a fit if their local franchise utters a peep of cutting payroll this off-season.
Attendance, TV ratings and revenue are up. MLB executives are stumbling over one another to sign eight- and nine-figure sponsorship and media contracts.
According to some accounts, baseball revenues are likely to top $4 billion from the 2004 season, up from $3 billion in 2000. That's before MLB cashed in on a $650 million deal with XM Satellite Radio to air regular-season and playoff games on the upstart radio service, plus signed another $115 million in top-tier corporate sponsorship pacts with Taco Bell, Ameriquest and Bank of America.
More upbeat news comes in the recent sale by Selig of his beloved Milwaukee Brewers for a tidy $220 million -- about $35 million more than the large-market Anaheim Angels went for fewer than two years ago. And sale of the Montreal Expos, purchased by MLB owners for $120 million in 2002, figures to bring upwards of $350 million from among bidders in Washington, D.C.
Then, in case you missed it, the owners awoke earlier this month to discover the value of their franchises spiked in the neighborhood of 5 percent overnight, thanks to a favorable change in tax law signed by Congress.
So when owners talk this off-season about holding fast or lowering payroll, you have to wonder if they're not really looking just to pocket more of the money.
Suggesting the same as they watch the clubs' good fortune is a slew of feisty agents, all looking to make an extra buck for the players they represent. But none is working the numbers harder than Scott Boras, the mere mention of whose name is enough to make most owners shudder. Boras is known for, among other things, landing an outrageous 10-year, $252 million contract for Alex Rodriguez four years ago.
"The economics of the game have never been better, [which] proves that investment in players, star players, is the way to go,'' says Boras, not oblivious to his self-interest. "The fact is if an owner wants to win there are premium players out there. And we know the revenues are there for them to pursue them.''
Star players? Boras is nothing but a handler of stars, especially in this free-agent class. Where he came to market with A-Rod in 2000, he's back hawking two young, near equally talented position players in Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Beltran, who helped lead the Houston Astros to the playoffs and tied a postseason record with eight homers. And his stable also includes in-demand players like right-hander Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek of the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Kevin Millwood and productive right fielders J.D. Drew of the Atlanta Braves and Magglio Ordonez of the Chicago White Sox.
"My expectancy is the demand for these players is going to be very high, cause they are franchise-type players,'' Boras suggested. "In the case of Beltre and Beltran, these are guys in their mid-to-late 20s, and it's rare that anybody that plays center field or third base that has 30-40 home run power has ever hit the [free-agent] marketplace. Teams have to look at the commodity and say, 'How often are these players available and how aggressive are we going to be?'"
Boras won't discuss the asking price on any of his players, but the sense is he may start out looking for 10-year deals for Beltre, 25, and Beltran, 27, which is what A-Rod and Manny Ramirez got. Whether from the Red Sox or someone else, he expects Varitek, 32, to eventually sign a five-year contract. And he says Ordonez will be ready to go by spring training from surgery to repair a torn meniscus of his left knee, and blames White Sox GM Ken Williams for spreading doubt about his recovery.
The best guess on Beltre is the Dodgers will find the money to re-sign him after a breakout season that saw him lead the majors with 48 homers. Everyone has Steinbrenner paying whatever it takes to outbid the Astros for Beltran, though Boras predicts, "There are going to be a plethora of teams bidding.''
Should Beltran land in New York, it would be interesting because Boras also represents incumbent center fielder Bernie Williams, whose contract includes a no-trade clause. Boras hasn't had any conversations yet with the Yankees, but the sense is Williams may have already told Beltran he'd change positions if it meant his coming to New York.
Who is going where and whether the owners are in a spending mood this winter should come into focus when the general managers gather Nov. 8 for a week of meetings in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.