Baseball's middle class may feel pinch again
Big players still get big dollars, but long-term deals dwindling
Barring some major surprises, Matt Holliday will become a very, very wealthy man this winter. So will John Lackey, Jason Bay and quite possibly Chone Figgins. It may not be such a good time, however, to be Jon Garland, Braden Looper or Garret Anderson.
Not that any of the latter group will be hard-up for cash. But baseball's middle class doesn't seem to be doing as well in recent years as it used to. Top players get top dollar, but many clubs have grown reluctant to issue three- and four-year contracts to free agents who don't stand at the top of their class.
It's hard to envision a Benson-caliber pitcher getting a deal like that in 2010. Not that Benson wasn't a useful hurler. But he was essentially average, and it's clear that clubs are less inclined, most of the time, to make large, long-term commitments to average players or pitchers.
"I think clubs are starting to realize that deals that are five, six, seven years, they might be worth two or three years' [value] but they're not going to get better," said Kevin Towers, the long-time Padres general manager who was relieved of his duties recently. "More than likely, you're going to suffer on the back end of those deals. They're older, their skills are diminishing and they're harder to move [in a trade]."
Whereas a pitcher like Garland might once have been highly regarded for double-digit win totals, now his relatively low strikeout rate might stand out. A hitter like Anderson, once regarded as a premium run-producer, is now identified more by his sub-par on-base and slugging percentages (as outfielders go). And of course the numbers that teams use are much more sophisticated than that.
A Minor League free agent, as Ryan Ludwick was when the Cardinals signed him three years ago, is now understood to be similar in value to many more established players.
"There's been a demystification of the separation between the top levels of the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues," said a National League executive who asked to remain anonymous. "People are much more comfortable understanding how those talent pools relate to each other. You see that in a lot of places."
If you're talking about a superstar, it's another matter. Mark Teixeira got his eight years last winter, and CC Sabathia got seven. Holliday and Lackey will get theirs. But it looks a lot like the days of three years and $27 million for Matt Morris, or three years and $16 million for Jacque Jones, are fading.
And while that may be partly due to simple economic reality, it's also a factor of some new baseball realities. As teams -- and outside analysts -- devise ever-cleverer means of evaluating talent, the wheels of player acquisition spin differently. Members of MLB front offices have ever-better tools for assessing the players they're signing. That makes it less likely for mediocre players to get big deals.
"It's a combination of things," said Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash. "Of course there are the general economic concerns, but there is also more data going around, like FIP [fielding-independent pitching statistics], and others that give you a better feel for a pitcher rather than the traditional wins and losses and ERA."
It's most notable when it comes to marginal veterans. In short, teams are figuring out that there's no reason to spend eight figures on a mid-level first baseman or back-of-the-rotation starter when 90 percent of the production might be available at five percent of the price.
Besides Sabathia and Teixeira, only three Major League players received free-agent deals of longer than three years last winter: A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe and Ryan Dempster. In each case, a club was paying for at least the perception of something more than bulk innings.
Burnett and Dempster were both viewed as guys with big stuff, pitchers who had the potential to be front-line performers even if their production hadn't always matched that. Lowe represented a player with significant playoff experience and a long history of being well above average, if not a major star.
Oliver Perez was the only Major League free-agent starter who signed a three-year deal, and again he came with at least the perception that he could be something special. Pitchers like Looper and Garland, who might once have garnered three years, instead settled for one. It's not that they don't have value, it's just that the market now acts more rationally, according to some executives.
To some that looks like a simple tightening of the purse strings. And it may well be, at least in part. But it's also clear that clubs value young players and freely available talent more than ever.
"The overall economic principle that we have when it comes to payroll is we always need players to outperform their contracts," said Marlins president David Samson. "That's a line I've used over and over, because you can't afford any dead weight."
If a $400,000 player doesn't perform, a team isn't out much. When Jeff Suppan posts a 4.93 ERA in the first three years of a four-year, $42-million deal, that's a problem.
They're two principles, intertwined. Without a doubt, there's simple economic benefit if a team can use a cheaper player. That's money that either doesn't need to be spent, can be allocated to other players or can be kept in wait for a midseason acquisition.
But there's another side to that same truth. It is entirely possible to come close to the same production of those more expensive players with cheaper players -- be they products of a team's own farm system or "freely available talent," like Minor League free agents.
"Your ability to evaluate players, combined with the rules that are in place ... that all influences which players get paid, but it doesn't influence how much money gets paid to players," said the anonymous executive. "As the industry gets more adept at finding cheaper alternatives to certain types of players, that means there's a bigger pool of money that's now chasing these other types of players [i.e, stars]."
That is to say, the world remains a very good place for guys like Holliday. But it's a little tougher than it once was on players like Anderson, Looper or Garland.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Adam McCalvy, Corey Brock and Joe Frisaro contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.