Soriano deal epitome of big-bucks trend
Game is prospering financially, but balance not yet achieved
When it comes to finances, baseball teams generally don't function in the manner of the federal government. If the clubs don't have the money, they don't spend the money.
Based on the early returns from Offseason 2006-07, some of the clubs have the money, in fact, a lot of money. The game is prospering again, and this is very good news for the employees, or at least the playing employees.
The latest beneficiary would be Alfonso Soriano, who signed an eight-year deal worth roughly $136 million with the Chicago Cubs on Monday. Soriano is doubtless an impact player, someone who combines a rare blend of speed and power. Still, this is a blockbuster package for anybody, both in terms of cash and duration.
This is the fifth-largest contract in baseball history. It immediately boosts the status of the Cubs, but you never know how these things work out until the player has actually played. By the final years of this contract, Soriano might still have the power, but there is an excellent chance that the speed will have diminished.
It is ironic that this contract will now be mentioned in the same breath as the largest of all time, the $252 million over 10 years that went to Alex Rodriguez. Soriano was traded by the New York Yankees to the Texas Rangers for Rodriguez, but that was in February 2004, when Soriano was merely making six figures per year instead of the eight he will earn now.
And it comes on the heels of the Cubs retaining third baseman Aramis Ramirez with a $75 million, five-year deal. Ramirez is also a proven run producer, but his overall performance does not put him on the absolute top shelf of Major League hitters.
That's two players, two positions, for $211 million. The Cubs, given a healthy Derrek Lee, with the addition of a solid Mark DeRosa, should have a formidable lineup for 2007. But to achieve success, they would still have to do something to fortify their pitching. And that's a commodity that isn't exactly on sale, either.
The clue in that area came early with the $51.1 million bid of the Boston Red Sox to win the negotiating rights on Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka. This was nearly four times as much as the Seattle Mariners bid to gain the rights to Ichiro Suzuki before the 2001 season. It could be argued that the Red Sox bid was excessive, but it did reflect how pricey the market for pitching would be this winter.
Matsuzaka, of course, is regarded as another rare blend, a power pitcher with terrific command. He should be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for some time to come. But that $51.1 million just allows the Red Sox to speak politely to Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras. The Red Sox needed pitching help, and by all reasonable accounts, Matsuzaka will help fill this need. But this is going to be an extremely expensive procedure for the Sox.
However, the big spending is not going to be limited to star pitchers. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, one of the unsuccessful suitors for Soriano, added reliever Justin Speier to their bullpen, at the cost of $18 million for four years.
The four years is even more striking than the money in this deal. What it says is that to get any sort of pitching, you are not only going to have to spend, you are going to have to make what in pitching terms is a long-term commitment. Speier, 33, is a competent Major League relief pitcher, but it is not as though, for $18 million over four years, he will be asked to record 40 saves per season.
So the fiscal table has been set for this offseason. Enormous amounts will be required to sign major talent. And larger than usual amounts will be required to sign even mainstream talent, especially mainstream pitching talent.
This kind of spending reflects the general prosperity of the game. It reflects another attendance record being set. It reflects the presence of a record television deal. It reflects the fact that the baseball economy, not that long ago struggling, is now prospering. But there is a downside.
The three clubs that have whipped out their checkbooks and set the early offseason spending pace are, in these cases, all big-market operations. While there is no doubt that the growth of revenue sharing has spread some of baseball's current prosperity around to the clubs that are not blessed with enviable media market size, there are a lot of clubs that could not come anywhere close to making these deals. Or, if they did make these deals, they would be over-extending themselves in the process.
So while the increasing cost of talent illustrates the availability of cash in Major League Baseball, these signings do not improve the overall competitive balance. You could make the isolated case that the Soriano signing improves competitive balance because the Cubs won only 66 games last season, but theirs is a particular case from which there should be no generalization.
Small-market teams have more revenue than in the past, but it is also obvious that they, too, will have to spend much more money to obtain any sort of talent. It is all relative. As much as parity has increased in baseball, you will not see small-market teams spending more than $50 million for the right to sign a Japanese pitcher, or laying out $136 million for a second baseman turned outfielder. You won't see that unless these clubs are, like the federal government, spending money they don't have, in which case baseball would have a different sort of problem.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.