Scott Boras, agent for some of baseball's highest-priced players, had to laugh when he heard that commissioner Bud Selig had lectured major league general managers last week about fiscal responsibility. "That's like a Jenny Craig meeting where they're telling people, 'Don't eat cheeseburgers,' " Boras said. Management just can't help itself. Only the day before, the woeful Detroit Tigers gave one-dimensional free-agent third baseman Dean Palmer (he hits home runs but doesn't hit for average or field or run well) $36 million over five years. You want fries with that?
The 1994 World Series was lost to a strike caused by the owners' attempts to strong-arm the players into helping management curb its profligate ways. Other than revenue sharing and an inadequate luxury tax, the landscape hasn't changed—except the spending has become even more inflationary. Though the best of the free agents ( Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Mo Vaughn and Bernie Williams) were still on the market as of Monday, the signings this off-season have set a standard for folly. The going rate for a slap hitter with 22 lifetime home runs is now $6.5 million a year, thanks to the four-year deal the Boston Red Sox gave infielder Jose Offerman. A 30-year-old pitcher who has never won eight games in a season? He's worth $9 million over three years, based on what the Colorado Rockies handed lefty Brian Bohanon.
The spending highlights the value of pitching—any kind of pitching. Bohanon, Greg Swindell ($5.7 million from the Arizona Diamondbacks) and Alan Mills ($6.5 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers) got three-year deals despite ordinary credentials. A less obvious trend is contracts that will pay mediocre players into their mid- and late 30s. "Large-revenue teams don't care because they can get other teams to take these old players off their hands by paying part of the contract, as the Yankees did with Kenny Rogers and Charlie Hayes," says Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin.
Long-term crapshoots aren't limited to large-market clubs. Detroit tacked a fifth year onto Palmer's deal after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays—showing no humility after bombing with free agents Wilson Alvarez, Wade Boggs, Roberto Hernandez and Paul Sorrento last season—offered him four years.
If faceless players such as Palmer are worthy of five-year deals, what about stars in their prime? Boras says the signings are "evidence of just how healthy our game is." Given that four of the nine biggest spenders last season didn't make the playoffs, a better evaluation could be borrowed from Fed chairman Alan Greenspan: irrational exuberance.