Marquee names still looking for a home
Economy, large number of free agents leaving many unsigned
A number of factors this offseason have forged a perfect storm that has conspired against many of Major League Baseball's free agents: a 14-month recession, an abundance of players on the market and rule changes in the current Basic Agreement that give clubs more flexibility and time to sign them.Between six-year free agents and non-tendered players, 216 of them hit the open market on Nov. 14 and Dec. 12. Last year, there were 159. There still were 89 free agents as of early Friday morning, including a plethora of former All-Stars such as Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, Adam Dunn, Ivan Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu. "This is unheard of, very unusual," said Kevin Towers, the longtime general manager of the Padres. "I can't believe when I look at the list how many big-name guys are still out there. It's probably better to be an arbitration-eligible player this year rather than a free agent. Arbitration isn't driven by the economy. It's driven by past contracts." Most insiders believe there will be a flurry of signings during the final two weeks before the start of Spring Training. The inking of Jon Garland on Thursday by the Diamondbacks to a one-year deal, which could guarantee him as much as $8.75 million, has set up a domino-effect scenario for pitchers. Oliver Perez could sign with the Mets, who have offered him three years at $30 million, and then Randy Wolf could head to the Dodgers, who have a dearth of front-line pitchers. "There are probably a few more free agents out there this year," Twins general manager Bill Smith said. "I think it will start to fall and some guys will start to take Minor League deals. "Alex Cora signed a Minor League deal with the Mets the other day. Here is a big-league guy who probably had hopes of a better deal. But guys will start to accept Minor League deals or they'll take the best deal out there." To punctuate that point, Juan Uribe, who last played with the White Sox, signed a Minor League contract on Thursday with the Giants. The 29-year-old third baseman has an invitation to join them next month at their Scottsdale, Ariz., camp. To be sure, the sagging economy continues to have a ripple effect. Most clubs, outside of the Yankees, have been hampered by projected losses in ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and advertising.
The Padres, for example, are expecting to lose half of their 15,000 season-ticket base this season at five-year-old PETCO Park, Towers said. This will put them back to where they were in the last throes of Qualcomm Stadium, the multi-purpose facility they played in from 1969-2003.To wit, the Padres' player payroll was $53 million in 2003, their final season at Qualcomm. This season, it's projected to be $45 million. But San Diego isn't the only city affected by the slumping economy. "I can tell you there's been a real and profound impact on everyone in this world," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "When I read anonymous comments by agents that are accusing clubs of not reacting to natural circumstances, I want to ask what world they're living in?" "The economy is being felt by everybody," Nationals GM Jim Bowden added. "Certainly, there are the [stars] who are special and don't feel it. But certainly, the rest of the market is feeling it because the economy affects everything -- ticket sales, advertisers. We have to be aware and be careful." Commissioner Bud Selig has been so concerned about the economy this offseason that he's had guest speakers to share their experience about it at the last two owners meetings: former fed chairman Paul Volcker in November and columnist George Will earlier this month. Still, the collective owners have spent more than $1 billion on free agents, with the Yankees accounting for more than 40 percent of it. The Yanks' free spending on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira led Brewers owner Mark Attanasio to call for a salary cap. He hasn't abandoned that position since going public with the idea in December, after Teixeira signed the highest-priced deal of this offseason: eight-years at $180 million. "We're not looking for a handout here in Milwaukee," said Attanasio, whose $100 million offer to keep Sabathia was dwarfed by the Yanks' winning bid of $160 million. "We're just looking for a fair shot to compete." Attanasio admitted that the Yankees are undoubtedly doing what is good under their economic structure, which varies from city to city and team to team in Major League Baseball. But what hasn't changed throughout the 43-year era of free agency is that the larger-revenue teams establish the value for players that the smaller-revenue teams have to match. If they don't, they can't compete in the financial game. "We're in the same boat as everyone else," new Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "You'd like to go out and bring a player or two in. But you have to agree on two things -- dollars spent and length of contract. There's a degree of reality that has set in with the current market and the economic times we're in. I think some of this is going to fall into place as we move forward." In other times, Griffey returning to finish his career in Seattle might be a foregone conclusion. But the Mariners are coming off a 101-loss, last-place season at the cost of a $118 million player payroll. Griffey is still a sentimental favorite even though he forced his trade from Seattle to his hometown of Cincinnati after the 1999 season. But the 39-year-old left-handed hitter, who has 611 homers and a .288 lifetime batting average, is still among the multitudes looking for a job. "The only thing I can really say is I am still talking to some teams," said Brian Goldberg, Griffey's longtime agent. "But they are in the mode of waiting until some of the younger, longer-term guys reduce their demands and things should fall into place." On why the market has reacted so strangely this offseason, Goldberg added: "There are several reasons, one factor being, quite honestly, that some players and their agents are not being realistic as to what their clients are worth now compared to the same situation they were in one or two years ago." If there's any time to readjust, it is now. Last year, only 16 free agents went through the season without finding jobs. That list included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, David Wells, Sammy Sosa, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Mike Piazza and Julio Franco. Piazza and Franco ultimately retired. Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Sean Casey are free agents who have already done so this offseason. It only remains to be seen how many of the remaining 89 will be left out in the cold. The next few weeks will tell that tale. "It's about this time that managers want to know what their team is going to look like," Smith said.
"Managers and general managers are trying to finalize rosters. Players are talking to their agents because they want to know, 'Where am I going to Spring Training in two weeks?'"
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.