IN A DYNAMIC move that should all but lock up third place in the National League East, the New York Mets reportedly have reached agreement with budding superstar Carlos Beltran on a seven-year contract worth $119 million.
I guess that means Beltran is only going to be half of the next Alex Rodriguez, but it's still quite a chunk of change, and it sends an unmistakable message to long-suffering Mets fans:
Don't get too comfortable with your current ticket prices.
The Mets have succumbed again to the pressure to compete with the gaudy-rich Yankees for the heart of the Big Apple, even though it is apparent to all (most notably, the Orioles) that trying to go dollar for dollar with George Steinbrenner is a lot like trying to go beer for beer with Sidney Ponson ... eventually, you're going to be lying on the floor with your pockets out.
The Yankees, after all, just spent almost $16 million per year for a 41-year-old pitcher (Randy Johnson) who has to have the oil changed in his knee before every start - and they didn't even blink.
Beltran is a nice player who put together the season of his life to set up his ultimate payday. He'll certainly make the Mets a stronger, more marketable team, especially in tandem with fellow big-time free agent Pedro Martinez. It just won't be enough.
This is the kind of offseason you have when you're focused on what your fans think of you before the season rather than after it. The Mets needed to mollify their discouraged following after three straight dismal seasons, and what better way to do that than with the best pitcher and best hitter on the free-agent market?
Trouble is, they bought more of Pedro's past than his future, and they may come to wonder why they paid $17 million per year for a hitter who had always been a 28-homer guy until he broke through with a big second half at cozy Minute Maid Park to finish with 38 during his salary drive.
Don't get me wrong. Beltran is a great all-around player who is a lock to drive in 100 runs every year, but he batted a combined .267 for the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros last season and his run-production averages (28 homers and 104 RBIs, excluding an injury-marred 2000) don't exactly put him in Barry Bonds country.
Now, I'm going to throw a couple of statistics at you that you might find oddly enlightening.
During his six-year major league career, Beltran has averaged one home run every 24.14 at-bats. Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons, who is almost the same age as Beltran, has averaged a home run every 22.19 at-bats.
Beltran has averaged an RBI every 6.19 at-bats. Gibbons has averaged an RBI every 6.69 at-bats.
No one is saying that Gibbons is in the same class as Beltran, who has far more speed, versatility and marketability than blue-collar Jay, but the similarity of their run-production potential ought to make you wonder how Beltran rates a nine-figure contract while Gibbons was lucky to get about $3 million for one year.
Sure, Gibbons has played his whole career in a hitter's ballpark and Beltran has played most of his career at spacious Kauffman Stadium, but we're talking 45 times as much money.
It's just possible that Beltran is one of the most over-hyped free agents in history, which means that he ended up right where he belongs.
That said, you've got to give the Mets credit for trying. The Orioles, meanwhile, have spent the offseason marveling at the high prices like so many Midwestern tourists on Rodeo Drive.
Hey, I totally accept the club's explanation that the uncertainty generated by the unresolved territorial dispute over the Washington Nationals has made it difficult to justify any big expenditures this winter. It's not my place to tell anyone else how to spend his or her money (except my wife, of course, and what good would that do?).
Still, it's fair to wonder whether the Orioles - through their inactivity - are in danger of getting outflanked and out-marketed by the Nationals at this critical juncture in the history of both teams.
Thousands of Orioles fans showed up yesterday for FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center, but a few went home disappointed. Orioles MVP Miguel Tejada arrived late and cut short his autograph session to rush back to the airport.
Club officials said Tejada had to get back to the Dominican Republic for a ballgame last night.