Market madness impacting '07 class

Market madness impacting '07 class

Almost everyone has made the point that this year's class of free-agent players is on the thin side.

You wouldn't know it by the contracts being given out, but, as they say, that's supply and demand.

Now, here's the sobering news for Major League teams -- the talent pool doesn't get a lot larger as you look ahead to next year.

Leading the class of starting pitchers figures to be Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs have been wheeling and dealing since the free-agent period opened, and their shopping list seems to have started with "A," as in Alfonso Soriano, but hasn't reached "Z," as in Zambrano.

Zambrano has to be one happy camper as he observes what has been taking place in free agency, with the Cubs in the middle of the mix.

The Cubs have spent $271 million this winter, with Soriano taking the biggest bite with a $136 million contract covering eight years.

Furthermore, Zambrano is going to benefit from the signing of a fellow "Z" pitcher, as agent Scott Boras continues to run up the numbers related to Oakland pitcher Barry Zito.

If the Cubs knew what was going to happen with free-agent pitchers, they would probably wish they had started their signing list with Zambrano, and thus have avoided the comparisons of this winter.

The going rate for top starters at the moment shows Andy Pettitte, age 34, reaching an agreement with the New York Yankees for $16 million for next season, and Jason Schmidt, 33, receiving $47 million for three years from the Los Angeles Dodgers for an average annual value of just under $16 million.

When Zito signs, the stage will be set for Zambrano and his negotiating team. The Cubs right-hander doesn't turn 26 until June of next year.

The free-agent picture for the end of the 2007 season is so frightening, that the Chicago White Sox decided to trade 17-game winner Freddy Garcia to the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday for two promising young pitchers.

"With the madness that is in the market today, how could we have counted on being able to re-sign Freddy?" said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

Other starters who figure to be free agents at the end of the 2007 season, assuming they don't sign before that point, are Mark Buehrle of the White Sox, Jason Jennings of the Colorado Rockies and Jake Westbrook of the Cleveland Indians.

Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd has said he would like to extend Jennings' contract, but acknowledges that is a tough task in view of recent signings. Jennings will be just 29 when next season ends.

There also is a group of veteran pitchers such as John Smoltz, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and they have to look upon the Pettitte agreement for $16 million a year as a sign that it might be worthwhile to stick around for another year or two.

The market for signing or extending player contracts is so tough, that the St. Louis Cardinals dished out big bucks for star right-hander Chris Carpenter on the first day of baseball's Winter Meetings, even though he is under contract for $7 million for 2007 and had an option for $9 million for 2008.

The Cardinals picked up the 2008 option, added guaranteed years for 2009, 2010 and 2011, and then tossed in an option for 2012. All of that ran the Cardinals' potential payout from $17 million for the next two seasons to a grand total of about $77 million if the 2012 option is picked up.

That is what is called escalation, and that is what the Major League market is all about at the moment.

There is no prime-time closer who figures to be available after the 2007 season. Mariano Rivera is in the last year of his contract with the New York Yankees, but anyone who thinks the great closer is going to make a move doesn't know George Steinbrenner.

There are almost no prominent corner men who will be available in free agency after next season. The Detroit Tigers took a look at the situation and decided to sign third baseman Brandon Inge to a four-year, $24 million deal on Friday.

The class of the middle infielders figures to be Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles and Detroit shortstop Carlos Guillen. Here again, don't look for the Tigers to let Guillen go free, despite the ways of the market.

If there is one talent spot in next year's potential free agent class it would be in the outfield and the center of attention will be Vernon Wells of Toronto, Andruw Jones of Atlanta, Torii Hunter of Minnesota, Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle, Mike Cameron of San Diego, Milton Bradley of Oakland and Aaron Rowland of Philadelphia.

While many baseball executives moaned about the contracts given to Soriano, Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews and Juan Pierre you can be assured the likes of Wells, Jones, Hunter and Ichiro were cheering as if they had just witnessed a game-winning home run.

The Blue Jays have said they would like to sign Wells to an extension, but if they can't, they will attempt to trade him.

It may or may not be a sign of things to come, but the Blue Jays sent out their holiday greeting card featuring their top players, and Wells -- the brightest star on the team -- wasn't pictured.

It seems to be a case where the price for presents has even impacted the accompanying greeting card.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. His book-Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue-was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.