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In the major leagues' new economy, many free agents are listed year to year

BASEBALL

Big-money, multiyear contracts are becoming increasingly rare, with more and more players settling for one-year deals and often having to wait until late winter to sign. Clubs say it's just a sign of more austere times, but some players and agents harbor suspicions.

March 29, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Phoenix — Last year was a solid one for Orlando Cabrera.

No shortstop in the American League started more games, had as many at-bats or more chances in the field than he did. Only Derek Jeter had more hits.

Clearly a summer like that would pay off in the winter — or so he thought.

Instead, Cabrera spent the off-season sitting by the phone waiting for a free-agent offer that never came. So, less than three weeks before spring training, he signed a one-deal with the Cincinnati Reds.

"Five years ago everybody wanted to be a free agent," said Cabrera, who got a four-year, $32-million free-agent deal from the Angels in 2005, when baseball operated in a different economic environment. "I was trying to compare it with the real estate market. Houses that would sell for $2 million five years ago, if you put them up for $500,000 [now], you don't get anything."

Cabrera, who played for Oakland and Minnesota last season, isn't the only one feeling that pinch. Of the 216 major leaguers who became free agents this winter, only 26 signed multiple-year deals — just eight for more than two seasons. A hundred got no big league deal at all.

Compare that with 2006, when 29 players — including journeymen such as Justin Speier, David Dellucci, Frank Catalanotto and Chad Bradford — signed contracts for at least three years and $10 million.

Now, players who once pointed to free agency as a way to earn job and financial security find themselves begging for an invitation to spring training after their contracts run out.

For teams, the new economic landscape is a better one. Before, expensive long-term deals that looked good at the time they were signed often became albatrosses.

The Dodgers, for example, will pay $12.7 million this summer to three players — Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt — who are no longer with the team. The Angels owe $5.25 million to Speier, whom they released in August, and must pay Gary Matthews Jr. $21.5 million through next season even though they traded him to the New York Mets.

"You always want to be flexible," said Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, who inherited the Speier and Matthews contracts from former GM Bill Stoneman. "When you get locked into one player for — just round figures — 20% of your payroll, then that player goes down, you have some problems. Because you're locked into that contract for four or five, six years."

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As a result, Reagins proceeds cautiously. The last two winters he has signed only five significant free agents — outfielders Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui and pitchers Fernando Rodney, Brian Fuentes and Joel Pineiro. None of them got more than two years or $9 million a season.

Compare that with 2006-07, when they signed Torii Hunter and Matthews to five-year deals worth a combined $140 million, and Speier got a four-year, $18-million contract.

"We don't have a problem with giving multiyear contracts. It just depends on the situation," Reagins said. "We take it case by case."

Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty said the depth of a team's minor league system can help dictate what a club offers. In the case of Cabrera, Jocketty said the Reds have a number of young shortstops and don't anticipate needing a veteran at that position beyond this season.

"We're all looking to maximize our dollars the best we can," Jocketty said. "If you've got a steady flow of talent going through your system, you tend to try to go that route more so and add in, whether it's a free agent here or there or a trade of a veteran player."

Some players and agents find it suspicious that, after years in which teams from Toronto to Houston spent freely, most of baseball appears to have turned frugal at the same time.

Abreu, for example, went into free agency following a 2008 season in which he hit .296 with 100 runs and 100 runs batted in. Still, he had to wait until the week spring training began to sign a one-year deal for $5 million with the Angels. And Johnny Damon matched a career high with 24 homers while batting .282 with 107 runs for the Yankees last season, but the Tigers were already in training camp before he signed for one year and $8 million.

Both those players are on the wrong side of 35. But what about Orlando Hudson, an All-Star for the Dodgers last season at 31? He was unsigned into February before agreeing to a one-year, $5-million deal with Minnesota — his eighth consecutive one-year contract despite two All-Star berths and a .291 average since 2006.

The players' union, which studies figures from every free-agent signing period, says it is gathering information from this winter's market and has yet to draw any firm conclusions, leading a spokesman to decline to comment on the situation.

"It's supply and demand," said one prominent agent, who did not want to be identified talking about what he considered to be a union matter. "It depends on how strong a market is for a particular player."

Sometimes it's in the player's interest to sign a one-year deal, put up some good numbers and then cash in the next winter.

"It's the age-old question," the agent said. "You're trading security and taking a risk."

Abreu has also made his peace with the new reality.

"Business is business," he said. "I guess it's a different mentality right now. There's nothing you can do about it."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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