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 Cedeno received from the
Mets. That was hardly the market breaker we've come to expect
from baseball's annual flesh bazaar, which adjourned last
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 Selig'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
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.
Another potential suitor dropped out when the Mariners acquired
Jeff Cirillo from the Rockies last Saturday. It now appears Rolen
will remain in Philadelphia, "which definitely isn't the worst
thing in the world," says Wade.
The Phillies can look at the A's, who held on to Jason Giambi
last winter and rode him to a playoff spot, to see the wisdom in
not making a move. However, Oakland received no compensation
other than a draft pick when Giambi walked last week. Wade will
spend the rest of the off-season weighing the value of one
potential postseason appearance against the talent Rolen could
bring in a trade.
Mets' Multiple Moves
Keeping Up with The Yankees
The Mets, as usual, were overshadowed by their rivals in the
Bronx, but general manager Steve Phillips pulled off a series of
moves that made his team the most improved club in the National
League. The key stroke was the eight-player swap that delivered
Roberto Alomar from the Indians for outfielder Matt Lawton,
righthanded reliever Jerrod Riggan and outfield prospect Alex
Escobar. It was the steal of the winter meetings.
New York, which maintains that it can't afford to chase top-tier
free agents, acquired a second baseman who is on track for the
Hall of Fame without adding significantly to their salary burden,
mandated by ownership at around $95 million. (Alomar will make $8
million next year, but Lawton signed a new deal on Monday that
will pay him $6.75 million a year for four years.) As Phillips
said, "To juggle the payroll and get a number 3 hitter who plays
Gold Glove defense and slugs like Robbie Alomar, I wouldn't have
thought it was possible."
The Mets, who scored the fewest runs in the majors last season,
bolstered their lineup further by signing outfielder Roger Cedeno
last Thursday. Cedeno, who will hit leadoff, batted .293 and
stole 55 bases (one fewer than major league leader Ichiro Suzuki)
for the Tigers. He adds speed at the top of the lineup that New
York has lacked since it traded him to Houston after the 1999
season. The Mets also signed pitcher David Weathers (three years,
$9.4 million) to strengthen their bullpen.
Phillips also executed two other important deals. On Sunday he
traded outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo and infielder Desi Relaford to
the Giants for lefthanded starter Shawn Estes. Two days earlier
he sent David Justice and his $7 million salary, acquired from
the Yankees for Robin Ventura a week earlier, to the A's for
reliever Mark Guthrie. Shedding Justice freed payroll space for
another trade or a run at a free-agent such as Juan Gonzalez, a
close friend of Alomar's who has expressed interest in the Mets.
Gonzalez had been seeking a deal worth $18 million a year. If he
lowers his price, New York could be in a position to improve even
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Despite a banner year, free agent Boone has gotten few offers and appears headed back to Seattle.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN The Mets stayed within their $95 million payroll budget yet greatly improved with a trade for Alomar.
Further proof that little matters to some clubs but talent: The
Red Sox found several teams, including the Padres and the
Brewers, willing to take clubhouse pariah Carl Everett off their
hands before dealing him to Texas....
The early favorite for best divisional race of 2002? How about
the American League Central. The trade of Roberto Alomar and the
probable departures of free agents Juan Gonzalez and Kenny
Lofton weaken the defending champion Indians. Meanwhile the
upstart Twins, winners of 85 games in 2001, should remain intact
(if they don't get contracted), and the White Sox, winners of
83, expect to welcome back a healthy Frank Thomas....
It's hard not to feel sorry for Expos general manager Larry
Beinfest. To save his team money, he drove from Montreal to
Boston for the winter meetings....
The Braves have no qualms about having fortysomething Julio
Franco as their every-day first baseman next year. According to
G.M. John Schuerholz, Franco is Atlanta's strongest player and,
defensively, he "made plays that no other first basemen we've
had ever did."