The reluctance of teams to bid has cast a big chill on the market for free agents
By this time last year the Rangers had signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million deal; the Red Sox had committed $160 million to Manny Ramirez over eight years; and, in another eight-year deal, the Rockies had shelled out $121 million for Mike Hampton. The blockbuster free-agent signings at the winter meetings last week in Boston? Besides the seven-year, $120 million bonanza Jason Giambi got from the Yankees, try the four-year, $18 million contract Roger Cede�o received from the Mets. That was hardly the market breaker we've come to expect from baseball's annual flesh bazaar, which adjourned last Thursday.
As of Monday, Barry Bonds, Juan Gonzalez, Moises Alou, Johnny Damon, Tino Martinez, Bret Boone and Chan Ho Park, among others, were all unsigned and having trouble even drumming up offers. Instead of pounding out deals in their suites, agents milled around the lobby of the Sheraton Boston like recent college grads at a job fair. Several player reps and general managers called this year's the slowest free-agent market they'd seen since the mid-1980s, when owners were colluding to hold down player salaries. During the meetings only six players signed with new teams, for a total of $188.5 million (most of that was Giambi's). Compare that with last year's gathering, when $739.2 million was lavished on 25 guys.
In fact, only 14 of the 154 declared free agents had signed with new clubs since the off-season began. "A lot of teams looked at their economics and were forced to get back to improving the old-fashioned way, by dealing," says Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who signed free-agent third baseman Vinny Castilla (two years, $8 million) on Dec. 8.
There are several reasons for the slowdown. The game is gripped by the uncertainty created by commissioner Bud Seng's contraction plans for next year, which are undefined and under legal assault. There's also the little matter of the expired collective bargaining agreement, for which no replacement is being negotiated. As Gonzalez's agent, Jeff Moorad, says, "The marketplace is confused."
Mostly, though, the slowdown is a sign of the economic times. Several teams that usually can be counted on to throw money around are intent on being fiscally restrained this winter, in some cases because their payrolls are already bloated from past shopping sprees. The Indians, Rockies, Braves, Dodgers, Mets and Red Sox, for example, are all erstwhile big spenders who are either cutting salaries or trying to keep payroll increases to a minimum.
Fewer buyers mean fewer bidding wars. Boone, for example, drew mild interest from the Red Sox but received a concrete offer only from the Mariners. (As of Sunday he appeared likely to re-sign with Seattle.) Agent Scott Boras insisted last week that several teams are interested in Bonds, but the Giants were alone in making an offer. There was no word on where two other Boras clients, Damon and Park, might land. Martinez had drawn serious interest from only one team, the Cardinals, and appeared to be willing to settle for a three-year deal after originally seeking five. "There might be 15 high-priced players in the room," says one agent, "but only six or seven spots for them to sit."
Rolen: To Deal Or Not to Deal
It happens every winter: A team gets trapped in the no-man's land between trading a young star nearing free agency (but at least getting something in return) or keeping him in hopes of re-signing him (but risking he'll leave without the team being compensated). This year it's the Phillies, who were told months ago by third baseman Scott Rolen not to bother offering him a multiyear deal because he wants to test the free-agent market when he's eligible after next season.
Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade was ready to pull the trigger last Thursday on a deal that would have sent Rolen to the Orioles for righthander Sidney Ponson, utilityman Jeff Conine, lefty reliever Buddy Groom and a pair of pitching prospects. The swap was scotched at the last minute by Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, who flinched at the potential price of signing Rolen to a long-term deal.