It may not quite resemble the start of an Indianapolis 500 -- bunched drivers ready to storm their cars -- but baseball players crowded around the door to free agency are about to begin the charge to Indianapolis, scene of next month's Winter Meetings.
With the Yankees having drawn the curtains on the 2009 World Series, and on the Phillies, that door is about to open to admit the first of 200-plus players eligible for free agency.Major League Baseball rules allow for players to begin declaring their free agency the day after the conclusion of the World Series, and normally there is neither waiting nor suspense.
In 2008, the 65 players who jumped into the pool on the first day included some of the biggest eligible names -- Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Derek Lowe. So expect another rush Thursday, the beginning of the 15-day filing period, the same term during which players' 2009 clubs retain exclusive negotiating rights. In three cases, the parties didn't even need that window: Second baseman Freddy Sanchez has inked a new two-year deal with the Giants, and Gabe Kapler and Geoff Blum have re-upped for one season with the Rays and Astros, respectively. Then, starting on Nov. 20, it will be an open market. But will it be an active market? Most in the game anticipate competition and bidding for free agents to drag due to various factors, primary among them the economy, teams' growing affinity for young, home-grown talent, and an overall mediocre class compared to last year's star-driven group. The debate over that latter point is already underway. Ned Colletti, the general manager of a Dodgers team which tops the field with 16 players eligible for free agency, said, "This class to me doesn't have that type of allure to it. It's a thin market in my mind." Michael Weiner, the new incoming executive director of the players' union, countered by telling the Boston Globe, "This year's market could be where you don't have those values, but you have a lot of valuable players that an awful lot of teams considered bidding for. There are a lot of teams which could say, 'You know what? This player can help me.'" It should be a late-stirring market. Perhaps as never before, general managers will hold off until the options swell with other players under club control not tendered contracts by the Dec. 12 deadline, the foreseen fate of dozens of mid-level veterans. And last winter's lessons of patience were not lost on baseball executives. Some of the most successful signings out of the 2008 free-agent class came uncommonly late: Randy Wolf (Feb. 6), Bobby Abreu (Feb. 11), Orlando Hudson (Feb. 20), Manny Ramirez (March 4) and Ivan Rodriguez (March 20) all were key contributors, and of course Pedro Martinez (July 14) helped the Phillies reach the World Series. Similar expectations a year ago of a slow market were essentially met everywhere except in the Bronx. The Yankees made a $441,500,000 investment in four free agents as a down payment on the World Series championship they now own -- but the 29 other clubs combined to spend "only" a comparable $520,175,000 on 70 other prime free agents. The current developing market, however, lacks two stimuli present last year: the Yankees in a shopping mood and marquee names of the wattage of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Teixeira. Ramirez remains in the mix -- if he doesn't exercise his 2010 option for $20 million with the Dodgers, or until he does so. Other offensive headliners on the bill include Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Miguel Tejada, Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre and Johnny Damon. Then there is perhaps the best pure left-handed hitter in the whole bunch, Hideki Matsui. With two worn-down knees and coming off a season in which he didn't play on defense, the 35-year-old Matsui typifies a market in which even the most alluring names come with caveats. From Holliday's struggles in his half-season in the American League with Oakland to Tejada's declining power, they and other free agents have sides which could limit their markets and prompt suitors to proceed with caution. Yet perhaps nothing captures the underwhelming feel of this market as well as does the situation among the usually most valued commodities -- pitching, on both the starting and closing end. Angels right-hander John Lackey is considered the plum of the 48 starting pitchers eligible for free agency, a status supported by his age (31) and his resume (11-8 this season, 42-22 the last three seasons). There appears to be precious little else around Lackey in the fruit bowl: the only other under-33s coming off a winning record without their clubs holding options over them are Joel Pineiro, Jason Marquis, Vicente Padilla and Brad Penny. In fact, the second-most alluring bait among starters could be someone who didn't pitch at all this season: Ben Sheets, the former Brewers ace coming off arm surgery in February. As for closers ... Fernando Rodney tops a short list, coming off his 37-save season for the Tigers. It is nothing like the scene a year ago, when Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Trevor Hoffman and Kerry Wood flooded the market. Sounds like quite a persuasive argument for Billy Wagner not to retire (or for the Red Sox to exercise his option). The just-concluded postseason certainly demonstrated the value of the free-agent market to title aspirations. The Yankees, with their aforementioned haul, and the Phillies (Raul Ibanez, Martinez) both converted shrewd signings into pennants. So there is incentive to buy, and among observers most interested in how this market plays out will be the MLB Players Association and its new lead watchdog, Weiner. The union and the MLB Commissioner's Office reached an agreement on Oct. 20 to defer until the end of this offseason the players' deadline for filing a collusion grievance over the 2008-09 free-agent market. "We'll see how things develop in this year's market," said Weiner. So will everyone else. Following the exclusive 15-day period for the inner circle, the sign will go up on the free-agent storefront, "Open for Business."