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Buyer's Market This winter's crop of free agents will feel the cold, hard reality of the new collective bargaining agreement

Consider the case of a worker named Edgardo, who has toiled for
the same company for 12 years, since he was a raw 17-year-old.
The company trained him and groomed him into a polished
professional. He's not the most skilled practitioner of his
craft, but he is considered well-rounded and above average at his
job. In Edgardo's mind he's been a loyal and model employee. A
year ago he even switched jobs at the company so that some
high-priced, hotshot new hire could take over at his position.

But when Edgardo's contract is up and it's time to talk salary,
the company drags its feet. Even though Edgardo, by law, can't
negotiate with other employers for a few weeks, the company wants
to wait and see if it can lowball him, if demand for his services
isn't high.

Sounds like fodder for a Michael Moore documentary, doesn't it?
It would be if Edgardo pressed drill bits or manufactured
widgets. But he's actually New York Mets third baseman Edgardo
Alfonzo, whose contract expired when the 2002 season ended. Like
all free agents, Alfonzo, who made $6.2 million this year, can
negotiate only with his former team for the first 15 days of the
off-season, a period that began on Monday, the day after the
conclusion of the World Series. Last week the Mets told Alfonzo,
the best-hitting third baseman on the market this year (.308, 16
home runs, 56 RBIs), they'd love to see him in blue-and-orange
next season, but they won't be making an offer during that
exclusive negotiating period.

"They said they thought there was going to be a market correction
this year," says Alfonzo's agent, Peter Greenberg, using a Wall
Street euphemism for falling stock prices. "The Mets said they
wanted to follow the market, not set it."

They're not alone. Many general managers and agents are bracing
for a bearish free-agent market this winter. "This will
definitely be a buyer's market," says San Francisco Giants G.M.
Brian Sabean, who must decide if his team can afford free agent
second baseman Jeff Kent, who will be seeking an increase on his
$6 million salary after hitting .313 with 37 homers and 108 RBIs
this season. "Everybody is tightening their belts."

It's not just a reflection of the country's general economic
malaise. To begin with, this year's crop of free agents is a
lackluster one. There's no marquee star guaranteed to break the
bank after being courted by several teams, as Texas Rangers
shortstop Alex Rodriguez (he signed a 10-year, $252 million deal)
and Boston Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez (eight years, $160
million) did after the 2000 season. Cleveland Indians first
baseman Jim Thome, who finished second to Rodriguez in the
American League home run race this season, with 52, will be the
best free-agent hitter available. (Kent is next in the pecking
order.) Atlanta Braves aces Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, who will
both turn 37 early next year, will be the top starters on the
market. All are All-Stars, and Glavine and Maddux are on their
way to the Hall of Fame, but none carry the buzz that created
past bidding wars.

That's partly because there's no one to bid. If there are few
enticing players available, there are even fewer teams entering
the market with loose purse strings. Call it the Curse of the
Collective Bargaining Agreement. The labor deal struck in August
levies a 17.5% luxury tax on the portion of teams' payrolls over
$117 million in 2003 and also provides for revenue sharing from
richer teams to poorer ones. Most teams are expected to treat the
luxury-tax threshold as a de facto salary cap. Even traditionally
high-spending clubs--the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers
and the Rangers all exceeded that threshold in 2002, and the Red
Sox fell just short--are anxious to avoid the tax.

The Yankees, who led the majors with a $135 million payroll this
season, will suffer the most under the new labor deal. If the new
system had been in effect this year, owner George Steinbrenner
would have had to cough up more than $30 million. "The one team
we could usually count on to drive up the market was the
Yankees," says one player agent. "They have made it very clear
that they're not going to be big spenders."

So who might step into the market with an open wallet? The
Philadelphia Phillies, anticipating increased revenue from the
opening of a new stadium in 2004, are expected to vigorously
pursue Thome. The Indians have already told the slugger that it
will take a substantial hometown discount for them to sign him.
(G.M. Mark Shapiro plans to present an offer by the end of
October.) Thome, who made $8 million in 2002, has expressed a
desire to stay in Cleveland, but the Phillies could lure him by
coming closer than the Indians to the $15 million per year he
wants. The high-revenue Baltimore Orioles, whose $60 million
payroll in 2002 leaves them far short of any luxury-tax
liabilities, are also expected to be active.

Glavine and Maddux are the two most interesting cases. The Braves
are intent on reducing their $93 million payroll, which would be
difficult to do if both pitchers are re-signed. (They made
Glavine a one-year, $8 million offer last week that was quickly
rejected.) Both are still among the game's best starters, but in
this market, teams will be leery of signing older pitchers to
expensive, multiyear deals.

As for Alfonzo, he may find a significant pay raise hard to come
by. Two years ago he appeared to be a rising offensive star, but
over the 2001 and '02 seasons he averaged 17 home runs and 53
RBIs, paltry power numbers for a corner infielder. This season he
switched from second base to make room for Roberto Alomar, who
was acquired from the Indians last winter. Alfonzo's defense at
third was solid, and he'll market himself at both positions this

But few teams can afford to pay more than $6 million a year for
that kind of production. "I don't see a player like Alfonzo
breaking the bank this year," says another agent. "He doesn't do
anything that's far superior to the best-paid player at his
position. And loyalty and agreeing to play a position he didn't
want to aren't factors. That's life."

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SALE Alfonzo (13) and Floyd are not highly coveted by their current teams, and neither figures to have a long list of suitors.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM ROGASH/AP [See caption above]


COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BUDGET ANALYSIS Glavine (above) is a proven but pricey starter, while Byrd could be a more cost-effective alternative.



Making Their Pitch
In a relatively shallow pool, these are the best available
free-agent arms


Tom Glavine, Braves 18-11, 2.96 ERA
If Braves are intent on cutting costs, keeping Glavine and Maddux
is unlikely

Greg Maddux, Braves 16-6, 2.62 ERA
Off-season home in Las Vegas makes Arizona possible alternative
to Atlanta

Ugueth Urbina, Red Sox 40 saves, 3.00 ERA
One of highest-paid closers ($6.7 million); another victim of
Boston's cost-cutting

Paul Byrd, Royals 17-11, 3.90 ERA
Won't return to K.C.; could be bargain for team in need of
quality No. 2 or 3 starter

Jamie Moyer, Mariners 13-8, 3.32 ERA
Has averaged 15 wins over past six seasons but, at 40, won't
command ace money

Slim Pickings
Jim Thome is the best slugger on the market; after that the
quality drops off


Jim Thome, 1B, Indians .304, 52 HRs, 118 RBIs
Wants to stay in Cleveland, but Indians can't afford much more
than $10 million a year

Jeff Kent, 2B, Giants .313, 37 HRs, 108 RBIs
A former MVP, but will teams spend big for a
soon-to-be-35-year-old middle infielder?

Ivan Rodriguez, C, Rangers .314, 19 HRs, 60 RBIs
A virtual lock to leave Texas, but knee and leg problems make him
a major risk

Cliff Floyd, OF, Red Sox .288, 28 HRs, 79 RBIs
Boston can't afford to keep him, but other teams will be leery of
his frequent injuries

Steve Finley, OF, Diamondbacks .287, 25 HRs, 89 RBIs
Excellent CF, but age (38 in 2003) limits prospects for lucrative
long-term deal