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Winter binge

After the top few players, free-agent talent isn't deep, but baseball's inflated pockets are, already doling out more than $1.2 billion

December 19, 2006|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

The milestone has gone unnoticed, but this is baseball's 30th winter of free agency.

Has it been a traditional anniversary of pearls? Or perils?

"The clubs have more money from more sources than ever before, but there has been no basis, no justification, for many of this winter's signings," said Dennis Gilbert, a former player agent and now special assistant to the Chicago White Sox chairman.

Awash in revenue, assured of continuing labor peace and stopping only to order new checkbooks, the clubs have managed to underscore baseball's economic health by richly endowing a free-agent class basically bereft of season-turning talent beyond pitcher Barry Zito and outfielder Alfonso Soriano.

Never has so much been spent so broadly -- or, perhaps, badly.

It has been enough to make the record splurge during the 2000-2001 winter -- $252 million for Alex Rodriguez, $160 million for Manny Ramirez and $121 million for Mike Hampton (before the Colorado Rockies realized that investing in a humidor made more pitching sense) -- seem like economic restraint.

"So, what's new," said a high-ranking baseball official. "Every time the clubs get a little extra money in their pockets it ends up going to the players."

At this point, 24 of the 30 major league teams have spent more than $1.2 billion spanning 166 years on 76 free agents.

That stunning outlay does not include the still unsigned Zito or the $103 million that the Boston Red Sox have invested in Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, yet to appear in a big league game, or Tampa Bay's $12-million purchase of Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura.

What has contributed to all of this?

* Competitive parity that has led to seven different World Series winners in the last seven years, spawning widespread visions of the same one-season turnaround that the Detroit Tigers engineered in 2006.

* A third consecutive season of record attendance, 76 million, helping produce record revenue, $5.2 billion, enhanced by expanding Internet, satellite and global opportunities, or as the high-ranking official said, "We're still just scratching the surface in those areas."

* The guarantee of nearly $5 billion in national TV revenue through 2013 and labor peace through 2011 -- meaning there will have been 16 years since the eighth and last work stoppage.

* A $326-million net revenue-sharing distribution from large revenue teams to smaller in 2006, with that total becoming larger and marginal tax rates smaller under the new bargaining agreement.

Since 1995 and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, "baseball has had an average annual growth rate of more than 11% in revenue, and that's an impressive percentage for an impressive number of years in an established industry," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who has written extensively on the financial aspect of sports.

"Some of that is a reflection of the national economy, but some of it also reflects better guidance from the commissioner's office and better management by the clubs. That's not to say they don't get carried away by the animal spirit at times, and there is evidence of that this off-season. It's not always easy being an owner in an industry where there's enormous pressure from media and local culture to produce a winner."

Perhaps the 2006 Animal Spirit of the Winter Award should go to Jim Hendry, the Chicago Cubs general manager, who was waiting for an angioplasty procedure in Florida after being hospitalized during the recent winter meetings when he used his cellphone to close a four-year, $40-million agreement with free-agent pitcher Ted Lilly, who has a seven-season record of 59-58 and has never pitched 200 innings in a season.

"Clubs are paying for performances from players who have never performed at the level at which they're being signed," Gilbert said. "What I'm saying is that I don't believe any team ever has to overpay. That's a weak excuse. These teams are operated by smart people. They know what should be spent, and sometimes you have to say no. I mean, there were times when I was still representing players that I had to refrain from laughing, watching teams bid against themselves."

The market has been so skewed from signing to signing this off-season that it's tough to know "what should be spent," as Gilbert put it.

Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, said, "What is unreasonable one week may be reasonable the next. A year ago, trying to gain some immediate credibility and sign a very good leadoff man and shortstop in Rafael Furcal, we stepped out at $13 million a year for three years. People thought we overpaid. How does it look today?"

He implied that Furcal represents a bargain in the current market.

"Teams need to compete," Colletti said. "The risks and expectations, the costs and contracts, are all higher. To this point, we've been able to improve without giving up our best young players, but it's a rare team today, under the pressure of competing, that has a five-year plan anymore.

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