It is possible that later, after the big-ticket pitchers are signed, fiscal restraint will be the order of the day and free agents, as well as agents for the free agents, will all leave the bargaining table in deep disappointment. But for the moment, this is still a bull market for pitchers.
The case of the prize pitcher in this winter's market, CC Sabathia, ought to be instructive. He's left-handed, he's 28, he's healthy, he's coming off an astounding second half with the Milwaukee Brewers. And the market is meeting him with open arms and windfall offers.
In the first instance, the Brewers made Sabathia a reported offer of $100 million for five years. That's a remarkable offer for a small-market franchise to make. This offer demonstrated that the Brewers were sincerely grateful to Sabathia for being the single performer most responsible for their first postseason appearance in 26 years.
But this offer also confirmed that baseball's recent prosperity is truly widespread. Baseball's economic playing field is not level, but it is more level than it used to be. This offer also indicated that with 2008 franchise record attendance of 3 million, the Brewers didn't see hard times dominating their immediate future.
But that bid might become a mere footnote to the history of the Sabathia Sweepstakes. The New York Yankees checked in with a reported six-year, $140-million offer to Sabathia. The largest pitching contract is the $137.5 million for six years that Johan Santana is currently receiving from the Mets.
The Yankees' bid was both huge and astounding. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin opined publicly that the Yankees seemed to be "overbidding." If public speculation had the Brewers' bid at $100 million, then, Melvin suggested, perhaps the next logical bid would be something like $110 million.
And if the rights to employ CC Sabathia were at public auction, perhaps that would have been the next bid. But these are the Yankees, baseball's wealthiest franchise, with nearly $90 million worth of contracts coming off their books for next season, and moving now into a new and even bigger revenue-producing Yankee Stadium. Their offer to Sabathia was designed not merely to outbid the Brewers, but to blow away all of the potential competition for this winter's most sought after starting pitcher.
There is also the notion that while Sabathia was an exceptional pitcher in the American League, winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2007 with Cleveland, he was a dominant pitcher in his short stay with Milwaukee. The NL, without the designated hitter, is, even at Sabathia's level, a more pitcher-friendly environment.
There have been other indications that spending on pitchers has not yet reached an era of fiscal restraint. The Chicago Cubs re-signed starter Ryan Dempster for $52 million over four years. In the previous year's market, that kind of money for a 17-game winner, essentially a No. 2 starter, would not have been out of line. But it also doesn't indicate any sort of market depression.
And by all reports, the bidding for free-agent starter A.J. Burnett, most recently of the Toronto Blue Jays, is also going to be expensive, with early estimates running from $15-18 million year. The Yankees are going to be on that bidding, too, which is good news for the Burnett family. The Yankees were expected to be hyperactive in the free-agent pitching market this winter, anyway, but the news that Mike Mussina has made his retirement official will only serve to heighten their resolve, and maybe also their bids.
Even with all of this occurring, baseball does not operate in a vacuum. It is not immune from the economic problems of the larger society. At a Major League owners' meeting in New York on Thursday, Commissioner Bud Selig brought in former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to speak to the owners on the topic of the economy. Selig declined to elaborate on Volcker's remarks to the owners, but Volcker's very presence at this meeting indicated the presence of a serious issue facing the game.
But at the moment, baseball's record prosperity of recent seasons is trumping economic concerns, as the bidding for Sabathia clearly indicates. The times are economically troubled, but apparently the high-end free-agent pitchers will still be in an era of some serious prosperity.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less