The changing landscape of free agency in professional basbeall

10 Jul

Blame it on the economy, blame it on greed, or blame it on years of overindulgence, but the landscape of free agency in professional baseball is changing. For better than three decades players and agents have played high stakes games aimed at squeezing every available dollar out of owners and then some. The owners were hardly victims though as even with huge salaries profits were reaching record levels every year. Then in 2009, things changed.

The mega-stars, the Derek Jeters and Albert Pujols’ of the world will always get their money, their value transcends what is done on the field. The bottom end of the payroll players have realized a small freeze in raises but it hasn’t been drastic as they are now seen as more valuable than ever thanks in large part to economical contracts. it is the middle tier and star but not quite superstar players feeling the pinch.

Suddenly players that were on the downside of their career that used to demand and get overvalued contracts by the second week of December found them self hanging around until just before spring training kicked off wondering where they would ply their trade. An excellent player like Bobby Abreu for instance suddenly found nobody valued his talents at $13-$14 million per year and had little choice but to accept a deal for less than half that or sit out the season until he could prove he deserved a more secure deal all over again. Thirty-something year old players found that if they wanted to make the money they were used to previously it was going to be by performing on the field one year at time with heavy incentive laden contracts like Andy Pettite did with the Yankees.

Many players entering the winter of 2009 came to terms with the simple fact that the economy just isn’t going to support the types of deals they had become accustomed to and accepted reasonable deals or exercised their arbitration rights and hoped for the best. A few however passed on early offers and may have to settle for far less than was initially available. Consider it the Scott Boras phenomena.

In years past Scott Boras held nearly all the top players in his stable and pitted one team against another in insane bidding wars. Boras was the prestige agent that had the ability to get his clients signed to some of the richest deals in professional sports history. Things began going south in camp Boras however when three clients criticised him in one year, most notably Alex Rodriguez, and essentially cut him out of negotiations aside from

making sure the contract was legal. many thought Boras clients would take a cue, but some of his long timers like Johnny Damon and Matt Holliday kept their faith in Boras and as such are likely to pay a huge price for it.

These two players are a perfect example of the saying about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and a lesson for free agents of the future – times have changed and he who holds the gold makes the rules. Matt Holliday is going to see a nice pay day, maybe somewhere in the range of the $60 million for 4 years along the lines of what the Cardinals offered him, but it certainly won’t be the $100 million 5 year deal Boras was admant his client get.

Then there is Johnny Damon who is even more puzzling. Damon was loved in New York by the fans, his teammates, and the management. They gave him an early offer that for a player of his age coming off a bit of a flukish career year was more than fair of about $14 million over two years according to multiple reports. They told them it was all they could spend although most agreed they may go a little higher. Boras instead insisted on a three year deal around thirty million. When the music stopped the Yankees had five younger outfielders and a less expensive DH while Johnny was was wondering what happened. The last ditch Boras counteroffer of $20 million over two years was too late and too steep.

Some pointed out Damon’s situation was particularly odd in that at his age and having earned nearly $100 million over his career nearly everyone thought Damon would take less for improved odds of being on a winning team, a team that bailed him out when his assets were frozen after losing money in the great Madoff ponzi scheme. As fate would have it the Red Sox didn’t want him either, nor did they want Holliday or slugger Jason Bay whom they let walk. Suddenly Bora’s two favorite bargaining chips were no longer chips, and Boras was left scrambling to find a suitor that was desperate enough to show him the money.

The problem is the Met’s will almost certainly sign Jason Bay making the Cardinals bidders against them self for Holliday. Johnny Damon will likely have to settle for a deal less than he was originally offered in terms of cash and length to play for a losing team most likely. It’s the new reality of the game.

The day of the $100 million deal isn’t dead, it just isn’t going to be a given anymore. Only the true titans of the game are going to see numbers like that anymore and the sooner agents and players realize that the better the deal they will get. If the last two years have taught us anything it is that unless you are a staff ace or perennial MVP threat in the prime of your career, you have to sign early. Players playing the waiting game no longer have leverage because they only have suitors that are working on the most limited of budgets for the most part.

Whatever it is, there is a new money game in action and even when the economy rebounds and fans have the money to spend on a diversionary activity salaries may not rebound. Some may say it’s collusion and others may say it’s just good business sense for a change, but it’s different and in the minds of most people it’s about time. For the first time in recent memory small market teams can sign big market talent and that has to be good for the game.


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