Baseball lowdown: Free agents cash in on rising salaries

Attendance, TV ratings have teams spending more

December 20, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

To better grasp how much baseball salaries have escalated this offseason, consider the case of Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson.

Last fall, he hit the free-agent market after a breakout season and returned to the Orioles with a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Some industry insiders thought that was steep, and Ponson didn't exactly quell the concern when he reported to spring training overweight and went 3-12 before the All-Star break.

But Ponson finished strong, going 8-3 after the break, and then watched as baseball's latest free-agent class stepped into a new windfall.

First, the New York Mets locked up Kris Benson with the same contract the Orioles gave Ponson - three years for $22.5 million. Later, the New York Yankees and Carl Pavano agreed on a four-year deal for about $40 million.

Right then, Ponson knew he was a year late to the party.

When Ponson signed his contract, he was 27. His career record was 58-65 with a 4.54 ERA and he had pitched 1,097 innings. In 2003, he was 17-12 with a 3.75 ERA.

Compare that with the other two pitchers:

Benson. Opening Day age: 30. Career record: 47-53 with a 4.28 ERA. Innings pitched: 850. 2004 record: 12-12 with a 4.31 ERA.

Pavano. Opening Day age: 29. Career record: 57-58 with a 4.21 ERA. Innings pitched: 937. 2004 record: 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA.

Ponson had battled weight issues, he had a partially torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, and he'd made some questionable off-field decisions, but in this market, he probably would have commanded upward of $30 million.

"It's obvious, for a number of reasons, that teams have a lot more money to spend this year," Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, said yesterday.

Rising attendance figures and television ratings have left baseball teams feeling flush again. After a two-year downturn in the market, many have returned to their free-spending ways.

It's a far different world than last winter, when the Orioles jumped in and spent $123 million on Ponson, Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike DeJean.

Less than a week before Christmas, the Orioles have yet to sign a significant free agent, even though they shed $18 million off their payroll when the contracts for David Segui, Omar Daal, Marty Cordova and Buddy Groom expired.

"I think the landscape has changed," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie.

It started in mid-November, when the Montreal Expos - who were fully expecting to play next season in Washington - signed free-agent shortstop Cristian Guzman to a four-year, $16.8 million contract. This came one month after the Minnesota Twins had declined a $5.25 million option to keep Guzman in 2005.

Then the Mets signed Benson, rattling the entire industry. To many, it seemed New York had overcompensated for fear of losing Benson after acquiring him from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trade deadline.

"There wasn't a general manager in the game who wasn't [ticked] off by that contract," one industry source said.

Soon the pitching market exploded. The Yankees had hoped to retain veteran Jon Lieber with a two-year, $12 million contract. But the Phillies swooped in and grabbed him with a three-year, $21 million deal.

The Arizona Diamondbacks also blindsided the industry, when they jumped in the fray and signed third baseman Troy Glaus (four years, $45 million) and pitcher Russ Ortiz (four years, $33 million). Saddled with $175 million in deferred payments on previous contracts, the Diamondbacks weren't expected to be high rollers again for years.

On and on it went. Pedro Martinez, 33, lost about 5 mph off his fastball last year as his ERA jumped to 3.90. Even after winning the World Series with Martinez, the Boston Red Sox refused to offer him more than a three-year contract.

But the Mets swooped in and signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract.

The Seattle Mariners also threw caution to the wind with first baseman Richie Sexson, who was limited to 23 games last year and underwent shoulder surgery. The Orioles drew the line with a three-year offer, and the Mariners signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal.

After experiencing what one Orioles official called "sticker shock" after pricing their targeted free agents at the winter meetings, the team redirected most of its attention toward trades.

The Orioles made a four-year, $40 million offer to Pavano but turned their backs on the rest of the free-agent pitching class. They liked Matt Clement and Eric Milton, for example, but not at $8 million per year.

Teams such as the Oakland Athletics (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder), Florida Marlins (A.J. Burnett), and Los Angeles Dodgers (Brad Penny) started taking the best trade offers they could find for those pitchers after seeing teams like the Orioles frustrated by the free-agent market.

"There are always opportunities in everything," said A's general manager Billy Beane, who shipped Hudson to the Atlanta Braves and Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals. "The higher prices go on players, the more [over-pricing] there will be, and therefore, the more opportunities there will be for us."

Hudson will make $6 million in 2005. Mulder will make $6 million, and the Cardinals have a $7.25 million option for 2006. Compared to Pavano, Benson, Martinez and Clement, that makes those two former Oakland pitchers relative steals.

"We've got to go back and assess what we can do and what our options are," Beattie said. "Because there are different options available to us now."

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