By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
When one player lands a quarter-billion dollar contract and another finagles a $160 million deal, well, the ensuing public scrutiny might as well be written right there, in small print, next to all those zeroes. It comes with the territory.
But you know what? As we close in on the quarter point of the season, baseball's free-agent class of 2001 -- one of the more heralded and certainly the most expensive in the history of the game -- is doing just fine for itself. Better than fine, in fact.
In fact, if you can't exactly say the top free agents of 2001 are worth all that money, you'd have to admit -- at least in the screwy economics world of baseball -- they're coming awfully close. Certainly, the biggest of the big-dollar free agents aren't letting the pressure of living up to those dollar signs affect them on the field.
Here's our look at how the top six free agents of the past off-season are doing, along with a handful of other higher-profile freebies. (Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, for example. They are below our best six.)
A word of warning to those who like to jeer the rich and famous and cry about how overpaid they are: It's just not that easy this year. At least not yet.
Then: He was the Seattle Mainers' hope for the future, the guy who would be loyal when Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. wouldn't. Considered the finest hitting shortstop of his generation -- maybe ever -- Rodriguez averaged almost 37 home runs and nearly 115 RBIs a season the past five years while hitting .315. And the four-time All-Star is not yet 26.
Now: Well, he didn't stay, did he? But, then again, who would've for what the Rangers forked over? Yet, with all the expectations, A-Rod is off to a screaming start despite playing for a team that has maybe the worst pitching staff in baseball (a staggering 6.40 ERA), already has fired its manager and is talking about trading maybe the best catcher ever to play the game. In the middle of all that, Rodriguez is hitting .307 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in his first 38 games in Texas. Over a 162-game season, that translates to more than 50 homers and 150 RBIs. MVP territory -- if voters can overlook the Rangers' sure-to-be rancid record.
Then: In the past six years in Cleveland's cozy Jacobs Field, Ramirez averaged 36 homers and 123 RBIs. He's a four-time All-Star who led the league in slugging percentage for the past two years and drove in a league-high 165 runs in 1999, the first player in 61 years to top 160 RBIs in a season. The Indians wanted him back, but when the Red Sox waved the big money in front of him, it was "Hellooo, Green Monster."
Now: The fans love him in Boston. In the past week (ending Tuesday) he had driven in runs in six of seven games and had at least two RBIs in five of those six games. In 38 games he's knocked across 46 runs (first in baseball), clobbered 13 home runs (sixth) and has a .745 slugging percentage (third). Oh, he's also hitting .407 (first). The numbers would be astonishing over an entire season: 55 homers and a whopping 196 RBIs.
Then: One of the most sought-after lefties in the game, Hampton has proven to be both durable (at least 200 innings and 30-plus starts a year for the past four seasons) and a winner (he entered the season 85-53 with a 3.44 ERA). His best year was 1999, when he went 22-4 for the Houston Astros and finished second in the Cy Young race to Arizona's Randy Johnson. He started with the Astros, pitched well last year in helping the New York Mets to the World Series, then took the free-agent money and went to … the Rockies?
Now: Critics thought him nuts to go to Colorado and the pitcher's graveyard that is Coors Field. But the bulldoggish Hampton has ruled there, going 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA and allowing only one home run in that rarified and homer-helping air. Overall, he started off 5-0 with a 2.34 ERA in his first seven starts before the Atlanta Braves nicked him for his first loss Tuesday night. He is now 5-1 with a 2.83 ERA.
Then: He wanted to stay in Baltimore, where he had spent his whole career as one of the steadiest pitchers in the game. He was a guy who had won at least 10 games every year since 1992 and had never had a losing record until last season (and even that was because he had the worst run support in baseball). He was a five-time All-Star in Baltimore who has been in the Top 10 in Cy Young balloting seven times. He was the unquestioned ace of the Orioles staff. But nooooooo. The O's thought him too expensive and let him go to the rival New York Yankees.
Now: He blanked Kansas City in his first start as a Yankee, but dropped to 1-3 as his ERA swelled to 4.78. Two wins over the O's last week, though, have him back to a winning record (4-3, with a 3.67 ERA). A control pitcher's control pitcher, he has walked only four in eight starts. His .7 walks per nine innings ranks second in baseball to Rick Reed's .3 for the Mets.
Then: From 1996-99, there was not a better, or more fearsome, slugger in the American League than Texas' Gonzalez, who averaged 43 homers and 143 RBIs and grabbed two AL MVP awards ('96 and '98). Last year, after fleeing Texas for a big contract in Detroit and struggling with back problems, he was lost in the vastness of Comerica Park, finishing with a career low 22 homers and 67 RBIs.
Now: He has eased the Indians' loss of Manny Ramirez by reverting to his slugger-self at more hitter-friendly Jacobs Field, where he's hitting .375. Overall, he is hitting .359 with 10 homers and 40 RBIs in 36 games for the Indians. He trails only Boston's Ramirez in total bases (108-95). And he's a free agent again after this season!
Then: An All-Star catcher on the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins (he hit .357 in the seven-game shocker over Cleveland) and a four-time Gold Glove winner, Johnson is considered maybe the best defensive catcher in the game. He was thrown out of Florida in the salary purge of 1998, banged around with Los Angeles, Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox, but re-signed with Florida in the off-season in large part to handle the young and promising Marlins' pitching staff.
Now: Johnson is feeling at home back at home. He's fed off the last part of the 2000 season -- when he had 10 home runs and 36 RBIs in 44 games with the White Sox -- hitting .328 with 10 homers and 32 RBIs in 32 games for the Marlins. This could be a short-lived return to Florida for Johnson, though. If the Marlins don't get a new stadium, Johnson has a clause in his contract that says he can bolt.
And the rest ...
Maybe the biggest splash by a free agent is being made by Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners, who was not technically a free agent. Still, he accepted $13.125 million from Seattle just for the right to try to lure him from Japan. Ichiro, as he prefers to be known, had a 20-game hitting streak though Tuesday, had reached base in 36 of Seattle's 38 games, had a .362 average (.563 with runners in scoring position) and led baseball with 64 hits and 19 multi-hit games. Nice start.
Denny Neagle ( five years, $51 million from the Rockies) left the Yankees and has a 3-1 record with a 4.07 ERA in eight starts.
The Mets' Kevin Appier ( four years, $42 million ) is off to a 2-4 start with a 5.61 ERA. Last year with the Oakland Athletics, he was 15-11 with a 4.52 ERA.
One-time Oriole David Segui ( four years, $28 million ) came back to Baltimore but has been sidelined since April 23 with a sore tendon in his left hand. He's due back in the lineup now and is hitting .269. He played 93 games with Texas last season.
Catcher Todd Hundley jumped from the Dodgers to the Chicago Cubs ( four years, $23.5 million ) and is flirting with disaster, at .207 with four homers and 16 RBIs. He's a career .239 hitter.
Andy Ashby ( three years, $22.5 million ) is 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he's got a bum right elbow and could be shelved for a while. The long-time San Diego Padres hurler spent time with the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies last season.
Milwaukee's Jeffrey Hammonds ( three years, $21.75 million ) hit .335 in Colorado last season but is off to a .237 start with the Brewers, with three homers and 11 RBIs.
Ellis Burks ( three years, $20 million from Cleveland) is hitting a nice .294 with seven homers and 30 RBIs. He hit .344 with 24 homers and 96 RBIs last season for the San Francisco Giants.