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Free agency impacted by long-term deals

Free agency impacted by long-term deals

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The 2009-10 market of free agents is overwhelmingly rated as bearish. Certainly, some clubs will dive into the deep end of the pool, where Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey splash. But the crowd is at the shallow end, where the pickings for serious upgrades are slim.

Of the 171 players who declared for free agency according to the Major League Baseball Players Association's official scrolls, only 16 are 30 years old or younger -- and of them, only four have reached All-Star status.

Holliday is one of those four (along with corner infielder Hank Blalock, second baseman Felipe Lopez and right-hander Jon Garland). Bay and Lackey, both 31, just miss that arbitrary cutoff, which helps explain why the trio stands out.

Of the larger group, 112 of those who filed for free agency are at least 34 years old, removed from the prime years that ordinarily would attract the type of long-term offers free agency's golden era routinely spawned.

The aforementioned facts are worth minding in the coming weeks, which could again be chilly for unsecured older players.

For sure, the market would be hopping more if it included prime-time studs such as Chase Utley, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau, Zack Greinke and Brian Roberts. All of them would now be free agents if not locked up by long-term contracts years ago -- in some cases, even before their arbitration-eligible years.

Major League teams' growing tendency to enter into such speculative agreements is partly responsible for drying out the marketplace, and so is Florida. The state, not the team: Both the Marlins and Rays have fielded recent contenders built on young, unproven players, evincing the payoff for trusting youth.

In few enterprises is the flattery of imitation as prevalent as in sports, so other clubs are joining in this greening of baseball.

For most teams, a choice between the promise of a prospect and the price of a veteran has become a no-brainer.

However, a major factor in the cooling off of the free-agent market has been teams' willingness to make long-term commitments to younger players.

The overwhelming historical evidence is that free agents rarely re-sign with their teams, so such contracts protect clubs. Meanwhile, the players swap future choices for security.

The practice has escalated since it was pioneered in the mid-'90s by Cleveland general manager John Hart, who broke the mold by giving multiyear deals to such young players as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, setting up the Indians for a long run of success.

And it reached a virtually unsurpassable peak in April 2008, when Tampa Bay signed Evan Longoria to a nine-year contract after the third baseman had played a total of seven games.

Such deals are controversial with the players' union, which is leery of players bargaining away too much future earning power.

A prominent agent had a dim reaction to Longoria's deal, at the time saying he "might have cost himself $40 million over the length of the contract. I can't understand it. If he's the player everyone thinks he's going to be, there will be many regrets."

In this case, the agent's premonition could have been spot-on. Longoria went on to earn 2008 American League Rookie of the Year honors, and this season, the slugging third baseman stepped up to 33 homers and 113 RBIs. It is a pace that makes the guaranteed portion of the contract -- $17.5 million for six years -- look like a major bargain.

Other predictions have not proven as accurate. Years ago, reflecting on the trend toward using long-term contracts to diverge young players from arbitration and free agency, another agent forecast that it "will create excess demand for whatever talent ends up on the open market."

That doesn't appear to have been the case, with the possible exception of versatile veterans who offer flexibility. Role players Marco Scutaro and Mark DeRosa have been among the most popular in the early stages of the current market.

Preemptive long-term contracts involve shared risks -- by maintaining his early career track into his first arbitration foray following the 2010 season, Longoria could have dwarfed the $2 million he will make in 2011 -- but regrets are also shared.

There are always coins that land on the flip side, leaving miscalculating clubs feeling burned.

The Toronto Blue Jays have been twice-scorched: Vernon Wells was given a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2006, one season before he would've been a first-time free agent; Alex Rios, allowed to go to the White Sox on waivers for no compensation in August, was bought out of his first four free-agent years with the seven-year, $69.8 million deal he signed in April 2008.

But the Jays aren't alone. For example, the D-backs signed outfielder Chris Young to a five-year extension in April 2008 that kicked in this season -- part of which he spent in the Minors.

Young potentially signed away his first two years of free agency, including a club option for 2014. Other players have made similar decisions, which will continue to thin out future free-agent markets.

Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, who would have been eligible for free agency after the 2012 season, is signed through 2013; the Brewers' Ryan Braun (2012) is signed through 2015 and the Mets' David Wright (2010) is signed through 2012.

They had all turned potential into big league production very early in their professional careers, just another incentive for clubs to use their own prospects as blinders to the free-agent market.

All one needs to do is look at the chosen replacements for some of the highest-profile position players on the move as free agents a year ago.

The Angels replaced Mark Teixeira with Kendry Morales, the Mariners replaced Raul Ibanez with Wladimir Balentien, the White Sox replaced the right side of their infield -- Orlando Cabrera and Joe Crede -- with Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham. In all those cases, the successors took over with fewer than two years of Major League experience.

Yet, don't be too quick to dismiss this free-agent market as incidental. The caveat is the possibility that the less sizzle, the more steak. With fewer headliners and more affordable choices, clubs that normally don't pursue free agents could become active shoppers.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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