Free-for-all of free agency now is limited to just a few

Unsigned elite, rich teams pair up in bottom-line era

November 09, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball's free-agent market used to be a happy place. It used to be a place where players and their agents walked around with big theoretical pillowcases and coaxed pennant-hungry team executives to fill them with large sums of money.

Sort of like Halloween, except that the treats were much, much better.

Oh, the team owners always complained that the players wanted too much candy and the players complained that the owners were holding back the best stuff for themselves, but the system was fairly straightforward and the auction was pretty entertaining for the fans.

Not anymore.

This year's market will open tomorrow with a wide array of talented players available to the highest bidder, but the tortured economics of the industry have turned it into a system only an MBA and an MVP can truly appreciate.

If you're superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, for instance, you can sit back and wait for the contract offers to roll in. The Montreal Expos already have offered a five-year deal worth a reported $75 million, so the bidding presumably will start from there.

The same goes for a small handful of other top players, including power-hitting shortstop Miguel Tejada, outfielder Gary Sheffield, catcher Javy Lopez and veteran pitchers Andy Pettitte and Kevin Millwood. No matter how soft the overall market might be, those players won't have to worry about the rent for a long, long time.

It is baseball's huge middle class that has to wonder. The last labor agreement helped create a new economic system in which teams must pay much greater attention to the bottom line and adhere to strict debt limits, which could take the fun out of free agency for all but a few teams with surplus cash.

Nearly 200 players were eligible to file for free agency, and that number will increase significantly when teams choose not to tender contracts to many arbitration-eligible players in December.

"I think the market may move slowly," said St. Louis Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "There are so many guys out there and so few teams with money to spend.

"Like last year with Jim Thome, I think certain high-level guys are going to get a lot of attention early. The clubs that can afford to compete for those guys, they'll be OK. For the rest, it [the market] is going to be slow to develop."

For Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, working on a tight budget is nothing new. The A's can't look seriously at a significant free-agent purchase until they determine which of their eligible free agents are staying or going.

"Our biggest priority is trying to hold onto one of our own guys," said Beane, who has key players Tejada, Keith Foulke and Jose Guillen headed into the market, "and some people aren't even at that level."

Happily for fans in Baltimore, the Orioles are one of the teams with money to spend. They traded away veterans Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine during the summer and have moved a number of big contracts off the books over the past few years, leaving their once-bulging payroll among the lowest in the sport.

Now, they have both the money and the motivation to make a big splash this year, if they can convince quality players such as Guerrero and Lopez that they truly are ready to climb back into contention for at least a wild-card playoff berth in 2004.

For the teams with less flexibility, the winter could be a major logistical challenge.

The Cardinals, for example, expect to be involved in the free-agent market at some point, but Jocketty has to restructure the payroll to make room for the pitching help the club desperately needs.

"We have to re-allocate our payroll money," Jocketty said. "We've got a lot tied up in position players and we need to improve our pitching. That means we'll have to find ways to restructure some contracts to get some relief or try to move some people."

It almost certainly will be a buyers' market, but that doesn't mean that the right players will be there at the right price. The competition for the top talent still could be stiff, especially if some of the big-revenue teams that came up short this season decide that one big acquisition might make the difference a year from now.

The Yankees -- dubbed "The Evil Empire" by Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino when they spent a fortune to snag foreign stars Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui last winter -- are expected to be more judicious in their offseason dealings this year, but never underestimate George Steinbrenner's desire to maintain his dynasty.

Despite whispers that he will pare down the Yankees' payroll, there remains speculation that he'll order general manager Brian Cashman to make a play for Guerrero.

The New York Mets, still smarting from a very disappointing season, remain under pressure to win the PR war with the Yankees at the same time they are trying to compete with the well-heeled Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies and, of course, the surprising world champion Florida Marlins in the tough National League East.

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