Deal or no deal: Which free agents will get their price?
CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira figure to sign top-of-market contracts
Francisco Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez will likely have to compromise on deals
It's always entertaining to see, early in baseball's free-agent signing period, exactly how much players think they're worth. Or at least what the agents claim that their clients are worth. Most of the time, as we all know, the number-chucking is just a lot of smoke. It's Negotiating 101. And really, it's the smart thing for any agent to do.
Once in a while, though, what the agent wants and what the market's willing to cough up actually come together. It's the only way to explain, for example, Barry Zito landing a ridiculous $126 million contract a couple years ago. Still, there are plenty of other times when players have to swallow a little pride. And a lot of zeroes.
Remember Andruw Jones last year? He was part of a packed class of free-agent center fielders. A perennial Gold Glove winner just two years removed from a 51-homer season, Jones -- in agent Scott Boras' mind, anyway -- was by far the best available center fielder, better than Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand or Mike Cameron or anyone else.
So early on in the process, Boras set loose a $140 million, seven-year trial balloon with Jones' name attached to it. It never got off the ground. Jones finally had to sign a two-year contract with the Dodgers for a little more than $36 million. The deal was one of the richest ever on a per-year basis. But it was a long way from $140 million. And after Jones' disastrous 2008 season -- unless he makes a miraculous recovery in '09 -- that contract might well be the best deal Jones does for the rest of his career.
Another example: At the beginning of last offseason, Kyle Lohse, a durable 28-year-old right-hander with a so-so record and a so-so ERA, was looking for a contract somewhere around four or five years at somewhere around $10 million a year. At the time, it sounded unreasonably high, but then Carlos Silva -- a one-time pitching mate of Lohse's with the Twins -- signed a four-year, $48 million deal with the Mariners.
Still, no one would bite on Lohse who, like Jones, was represented by Boras. (Earlier in the offseason Lohse reportedly had turned down a three-year, $20 million offer from the Phillies, his last team in '07.) February came and Lohse still had not signed. He finally relented, signing off on a one-year contract with the Cardinals for $4.25 million. Like Jones, that was a long way from what he or Boras originally had wanted.
For Lohse -- unlike with Jones -- it worked out. Lohse went 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA over 200 innings with the Cards in '08, and late in September signed a four-year $41 million deal to stay with St. Louis.
Go back further: Even acknowledged great players, Hall-of-Fame-types, often have trouble getting what their agents say they're worth. Back in the winter of 2002, Greg Maddux was looking for something long-term, from the Braves or anyone else, but no one was biting. Advised by Boras -- maybe there's a pattern here -- Maddux instead stunned the Braves by accepting arbitration, at a cost of nearly $15 million for the 2003 season.
The next year, Maddux (with Boras) again went out looking for something long-term. They ended up with a two-year deal with the Cubs -- a deal that totaled not much more than Maddux made the year before with the Braves -- with an option for a third year. (That option, based on innings pitched, kicked in and Maddux made about $24 million over the three years with the Cubs, which you can bet is a lot less than Boras figured he'd get.)
So, as always, we enter the free-agent signing period trying to find out who is blowing smoke and who might really be onto something.
Here are five top free agents -- the top five in Ben Reiter's Top 50 -- and their outlooks for getting what they want:
Going for him: The big lefty is one of the rare ones, a 28-year-old workhorse who doesn't have to be sold at all. In the past two years he has thrown more than 250 innings per year (counting the postseason) as the ace of the staff in both Cleveland and in a half-year stint with Milwaukee. Splitting time between the leagues last season, he led both in shutouts, was second in strikeouts (to National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum) and threw 10 complete games, one more than Toronto's Roy Halladay. He's also, by all reports, a great teammate.
Going against him: He's big -- 250 pounds is being kind -- and people worry that his weight may presage injury problems. His workload in the past two years is a little worrisome, too, though in his last 12 starts of 2008 he was 7-2 with a 1.58 ERA, with 94 strikeouts in 91 innings.
The asking price: His agents have barely opened their mouths publicly, figuring that Sabathia's youth and résumé would enable him to sign the richest contract ever for a pitcher. They're right.
Will he get it? If he wants it, he will. The Yankees have already offered him a six-year deal for $140 million, topping the record $137.5 million paid to the Mets' Johan Santana last winter.
Going for him: He's only 28, he's a switch-hitter with power, he gets on base (a .378 career on-base percentage), he's durable (157 games last year between the Braves and Angels), he's a Gold Glove-type at first base and he's so clean-cut and Boy Scoutish you just want to pinch his cheeks.
Going against him: Not much. He had a bit of a sticky departure in Texas in 2007, and he's perceived in some places as placid and a bit too perfect -- the same kind of criticism that Alex Rodriguez gets. But clearly this guy has few visible zits.
The asking price: Teixeira is another Boras client, and although specifics have been hard to come by, reports have put the total worth of an upcoming contract at a minimum of $100 million and perhaps as high as $200 million. "Having done this for 30 years, I would say this is one of the more aggressive markets for a player," Boras told reporters earlier this month. The minimum length on a contract, as a guess, would have to be six years, which would put Teixeira in position to land another big deal while in his early 30s. But if he wants to go longer, the worth of this deal would definitely push $200 million.
Will he get it? Yes. Whether it's a relatively shorter-term deal (six years) or longer, whatever Teixeira and Boras want on this one, they'll likely get.