Manny market not recession-proof
Undisputed star finds few suitors as economic downturn persists
Perusing the list of free agents still available with Spring Training little more than three weeks away, the name of a future Hall of Famer leaps off the page, demanding immediate attention.
It's Manny Ramirez. Wow. How can this be? This has nothing to do with Manny being Manny. This is the market being the market, which in today's world means depressed, concerned, cautious, maybe even scared to the point of inactivity.
At any rate, here is Ramirez, far from decrepit at age 36, and coming off an amazing stretch run in the service of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 53 games with the Dodgers, he hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs. He encored with a postseason that was even more spectacular -- a .520 average with four home runs and 10 RBIs in eight games.
Plus, Manny was on his very best behavior. He was charming and gregarious and a positive influence in the clubhouse. None of these three descriptions could have been attached to him in the last, declining days of his tenure with the Boston Red Sox.
So now, one of the finest hitters of this era comes to free agency. His best work is his most recent work. His best behavior is his most recent behavior. And -- we're definitely in the bonus round now -- his agent is Scott Boras. Nothing but top dollar will suffice.
The Ramirez/Boras team was reportedly seeking a four- or five-year deal at something like $25 million per year. This was part of the reason that the whole thing soured in Boston, with the Red Sox being unwilling to produce another mega-deal for Ramirez.
But what offers were forthcoming? The Dodgers offered $45 million over two years, but when Ramirez/Boras expressed no interest, the offer was withdrawn. Beyond that, there were rumors potentially linking Manny with any number of teams, but the flood of highly lucrative offers has not yet materialized.
What gives? Why is one of the biggest impact hitters in the contemporary game still unsigned and apparently not particularly desired by a whole bunch of clubs?
There can be specific questions here about Manny's age, or his defense, or how long his really terrific mood will last. But more than anything else, arrayed against Manny Ramirez's chances for another immense payday are the forces of a recessionary economy. Baseball, for all its recent record-breaking prosperity, cannot expect to be immune from the economic forces that are clobbering the rest of the populace.
It turned out that there were two economies at work for free agents in the offseason of 2008-09. You could be in for a true bonanza if the New York Yankees really wanted you. That concept covered three guys and $423.5 million.
Elsewhere, no. There have been very substantial contracts awarded, such as the free-agent deals that starting pitchers Derek Lowe and Ryan Dempster received, or the extension that Kevin Youkilis got. But the 29 clubs that are not the Yankees have generally been conducting themselves with a measure of restraint. Someone almost always screams "Collusion!" when baseball owners do not spend money in record amounts. But the fiscal restraint might seem like a reasonable path for anyone to follow in these most uncertain financial times.
Where does that leave the Hall of Fame career of Manny Ramirez? If there is any sort of market out there for his services, Scott Boras will discover it, develop it and get every available red cent out of it.
But at the end of the day, in this market, Manny may have to return to the Dodgers for much less than his original asking price. He may be able to get something resembling the $25 million per year, but it very likely won't be for the length of time that he desired.
His return to the Dodgers makes all sorts of sense. He was comfortable with this club. He liked the Dodgers. The Dodgers liked him. All parties discovered that Manny could not only play for manager Joe Torre, but he could absolutely flourish in this setting. There is a world of mutual goodwill already in the bank here. Manny Ramirez changed the Dodgers from a contending team to a postseason team. That kind of thing is, as they say, worth more than money, although money ends up being the way in which this whole process is measured.
For a lot of other clubs, those who haven't been personally lifted by Manny being Manny, Ramirez looks like someone who will soon turn 37, who is often an indifferent outfielder and who hasn't always been qualifying for good-conduct merit badges the way he was with the Dodgers last season.
But mostly, Manny Ramirez looks very expensive. And the worse the outside economy gets, the more expensive he looks. Perhaps, as his agent contends, he will pay for himself in the increased interest that he can create. But in this economy, some clubs that might have been mightily tempted to add a potentially big -- but expensive -- draw will decide to take a pass on this opportunity, Hall of Famer or not.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.