Lock 'em up
Teams are inking their young stars to long-term deals
Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 4:49PM
Revelations, observations and ruminations from the first week of the championship season:
1. The free-agent market grows more inefficient almost every day.
The Blue Jays followed the established industry trend, buying potential free-agent years from Alex Rios and Aaron Hill by signing them to long-term deals. Teams no longer are satisfied with buying out arbitration years; for the security of long-term guaranteed money for young players they are asking those players to give up at least one year of potential free agency, even if it means one year at the club's option. That means most good young players are not getting on the free-agent market with the usual six years of service time; they're on the market with seven or more years -- if they get on the market at all. So teams who think they can rebuild through free agency will find mostly older and second-tier players in that market. Even the Yankees and Red Sox, for instance, largely sat out last winter's dull free-agent dance.
The extensions for Rios and Hill, on the heels of deals this spring for such stars as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan, mean clubs have bought out a total of 108 potential free-agent years (including club options) from 50 players who would be free agents for the first time after this season and beyond. AL Central rivals Cleveland, Detroit and Minnesota -- hardly traditional financial powers -- account for 32 years among 15 players.
Not long ago the free-agent class after this season would have promised such players as Nathan, Travis Hafner, Josh Beckett, Michael Young, Carl Crawford, Brett Myers, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Bonderman, John Lackey, Aaron Cook, Chris Carpenter, Scot Shields, Lyle Overbay and Hank Blalock. All of them, however, are under their club's control through at least 2009, wiping out a total of 39 potential free-agent years for those 14 players.
The trend carries far beyond this year. The 2009 free-agent class would have included Cabrera, Chase Utley, Jose Reyes, Joe Mauer, Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy. No more. And the free-agent class of 2010? It no longer has Rios, Morneau, Grady Sizemore and David Wright. All have been pushed farther down the free-agent timeline. And just as Colorado locked up Troy Tulowitzki through 2014, the Brewers would like to do similar deals with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun while the Diamondbacks are close to locking up Chris Young through his first potential free-agent season.
There will be exceptions to the trend, of course, such as your typical Scott Boras client who prefers to use the leverage of free agency (Mark Teixeira, for instance.) But the growth and sharing in baseball revenues has allowed every club, even the smaller-market ones, to end the cycle of losing players after six years of service. It's good news for franchise stability, but bad news for fans who enjoy loaded free-agent classes that provoke offseason bidding wars.
2. Johnny Cueto officially is a phenom.
How amazing was Cueto, 22, in his no-walk, 10-strikeout debut for the Reds? Since 1956 there have been 4,113 pitchers who debuted in the big leagues. Cueto is the only one of them to start his career with a double-digit strikeout game with no walks.
True story: While Cueto was tearing up the Midwest League in 2006, the Blue Jays offered outfielder Frank Catalanotto for the smallish right hander. Cincinnati GM Wayne Krivsky, on the job only a few months, didn't reject it out of hand simply because he was still getting acquainted with the Reds' farm system. It took only a brief check with his minor league people to come up with an answer: That would be a definite no.