The unquestioned top free agent of the 2009-2010 class, Matt Holliday, just signed a nice, fat contract to stay in St. Louis for a long time. With Holliday off the market, as well as the two other marquee names, Jason Bay and John Lackey, what does this mean for the rest of baseball? Normally, when a big player signs, the impact is mostly felt divisional rivals, with small ripples felt by the rest of the league. However, due to the unique circumstances of this off-season, the fallout of the Holliday deal is widespread. To understand more about this situation, we must look at another professional league, the NBA.
Of course, comparing MLB to the NBA is hardly flattering. The NBA is struggling with revenue and attendance problems (home games for the Atlanta Hawks, one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, are so empty that the lower deck looks like the opening page of “Where’s Waldo for Toddlers”), and has games so long and boring they make baseball games look fast-paced. However, as far as the free agent market goes they are some amazing similarities.
With Holliday gone, the pickings are amazingly slim. The number one free agent left on the market, according to ESPN.com, is Joel Pinerio, a 31-year old with a 4.39 career ERA and 87-79 record. Looking further down ESPN’s top 10, we find Orlando Hudson at number eight. I have lobbied hard for the O-Dog, who would be a great fit in DC, but is a second baseman that hits .283 with nine dingers and does not steal bases really a top 10 free agent? Seriously? The rest of the top 50 is downright comical. Chan Ho Park? Randy Winn? Wow. Not a lot of value out there. As a result, is it not shocking that very little movement (outside of DC, that is) has taken place this winter. Looking a year ahead, the lack of movement makes even more sense, as does the NBA metaphor.
The real reason the Holliday deal is such an important transaction for the free agent market is not just who’s available this year, but who will be next year. Here is brief list of the players who could hit the market at the end of this season: Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, our own Adam Dunn, Derrek Lee, Jayson Werth, Bradon Webb, and Carlos Pena. There are ten names right there that would blow this year’s class out of the water. Compare that with the potential NBA free agents this summer (a historic group that could include Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Shaq, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Manu Ginobli, Chris Bosh, and oh yeah, LeBron James – essentially a list of the best players in the league), and you can see where I am going.
In the NBA, most teams were very prudent this summer, and are engaged in a death race to be below the salary cap this summer to make a run at some of the available players. It has gotten so absurd that the New York Knicks have basically tanked the season and have assembled an astounding 11 players with expiring contracts in a not-so-subtle effort to clear their entire roster to allow for the pursuit of LeBron James and his free agent friends. A situation like this is not out of the question in MLB. For example, why would the Twins waste money on a guy like Doug Davis when they are trying to save every penny to re-sign Joe Mauer, the face of their franchise and the most valuable asset in the American League? Looking at it less direct terms, why would franchises tie up money long term in mediocre players now, with all that is available next year? This type of scenario is more likely for the small market teams, but we have even seen the Yankees be more frugal this year (see today’s “Small Notes”) as they gear up to re-sign Jeter next year. I’d be looking at a lot of small, one-year offers being tabled to this year’s class.
If that is all that is out there for this year’s crop of free agents, what is the recourse for this group of has-beens, also-rans, and never-will-bes? Last year, it worked out well for teams like that Nats, as they were able to snag guys like Adam Dunn late in the off-season for cheap, short contracts. I imagine that will be the case this year, as free agents will hold out for more money and more years (which are worth their weight in gold in this era of guaranteed money), many will be forced to sign last-minute deals for one or two years and possibly for (gasp!) six figures. However, looking back to the NBA, there is another option.
Last off-season, with NBA teams beginning to pinch pennies, a few mid-level free agents hit the road, or the sea to be more exact. Lured by more money (and little or no taxes), many players such as Earl Boykins (now back in the U.S.), Josh Childress, Nenad Kristic, and Carlos Arroyo took their game to Europe. Unlike other players forced overseas by the lack of NBA opportunities, those players willingly accepted the trip. Such a precedent has not been set in MLB as of yet, mostly due to the lack of many other options, but it is not totally out of the question. The only real “competition” would be in Japan, and in 2003 then-Marlins eccentric slugger Kevin Millar chose to leave the team and join the Chunichi Dragons. In Millar’s case, he ended up being unhappy in the Land of the Rising Sun, and returned (much to the joy of the Fenway Park Jumbotron) to the Majors. Still, it will be interesting to see if in the face of less-than-enticing offers, any Major League-capable players can find more money and security in Japan. The league is already littered with guys who couldn’t cut it in the Majors, like Lew Ford and former Nat Termel Sledge, and could soon be the home of guys who still can play, but choose not to.
Small notes around the Bigs: It appears one of the more interesting players in the free agent pool we have been discussing, Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, is about to sign with the Reds. This is a fairly stunning development that a mid-market team would snag a guy that seemed destined for the Yankees or the Red Sox. This deal tells me two things. First, Chapman may not be quite as good a prospect as previously reported, or at least not as much as sure thing (his power is unquestioned, but his control has been an issue). Second, continuing the themes discussed above, it appears that the two giants of the AL East did not want to give the young Cuban as many years as the Reds’ did. Again, with all the big names popping up in the 2010 market, it is very likely the Sox and Yanks did not want to have too much money tied up.
Song of the Day: The Avett Brothers – Salina (live)
Nats’ Video of the Day: A true classic (Who? Wil Nieves!). This guy, who looks like he should be my Dad’s best friend, tells us just how lame the Nats were behind the plate last year.