Sportsticker Baseball Notebook

@tvbp1985 (999)
November 25, 2006 7:57pm CST
LOS ANGELES (Ticker) - Charley Finley, the former owner of the Oakland Athletics, clearly understood the law of supply and demand as related to major league baseball players. With the emergence of free agency more than 30 years ago, Finley was one of the few executives in baseball to express the thought that the best structure for management would be to allow all players to become free agents every year. In this situation, Finley reasoned, supply would be matched up with demand. Finley didn't get his way as to how the topic of free agency would be defined and this wasn't surprising in that his fellow owners were seldom, if ever, in step with him. In baseball today, there is a great demand for free agents and very little supply. This has created a situation where players have used clauses in their contracts to become free agents and join the fun in the market place. The Boston Red Sox paid $51.1 million just for the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, while the Chicago Cubs have signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year contract for $136 million. From the standpoint of the players, the other economic factor that seems to be at play is the old saying that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Whether it is a Soriano or a lower-caliber free agent, the players are being rewarded with loads of money. Aging stars such as Nomar Garciaparra and Frank Thomas were forced to sign one year contracts last year, but in this year's market they each have been rewarded with two-year deals in the $18-million category. The front-line starting pitchers have yet to sign but the market is being built from the bottom up. Setup guys like Justin Speier and Jamie Walker have jumped ship from their previous teams to sign lucrative contracts. Speier, 33, signed a four-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for $18 million, and the Halos were happy to do the deal in that a half-dozen teams were in the bidding for the righthander who was 2-0 with Toronto last season. Walker is a 35-year-old lefthander who pitched for Detroit last season and many times was used to face only one batter in a situational matchup. Even so, the demand for lefthanders who work out of the bullpen is high, and the Baltimore Orioles were willing to pay Walker $12 million for three years. Most of the deals seem small when put measured against the signing of Soriano. The Cubs apparently settled on the amount of $17 million per season for Soriano because that is what is known as "Beltran money." Two years ago, Carlos Beltran signed a seven-year deal with the New York Mets for $119 million. That's $17 million per season on an average annual value basis (known as AAV in baseball financial terms). By signing a contract for eight seasons at $17 million per year, Beltran money has become a term of the past. Presumably, it has moved to Soriano salary. Soriano now has the fifth-largest contract in baseball history, topped only by the deals of Alex Rodriguez ($252 million), Derek Jeter ($189 million), Manny Ramirez ($160 million) and Todd Helton ($141.5 million). What makes the Soriano deal so remarkable is that he has been used as a leadoff hitter and the megabucks usually are reserved for the guys who are known as true power hitters. Obviously, this is a different time. With the Soriano deal in place, the Los Angeles Dodgers went out to acquire a top-of-the lineup guy of their own in Juan Pierre. The team was willing to spend $44 million on a five-year contract for a player who has never driven in more than 55 runs in seven seasons. Pierre either slipped away from the Cubs or the team finally ran of cash after spending $230 million this offseason on Soriano, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, second baseman Mark DeRosa, catcher Henry Blanco and pitchers Kerry Wood and Wade Miller. There was a time when $230 million could buy a major league team - not be invested in the contracts of six in one yet to be completed offseason. That brings us back to Finley, who bought 52 percent and controlling interest in the Kansas City franchise in 1960 for $1.975 million. Finley had a hand in all of this free agent business when he failed to pay $50,000 to a life insurance fund related to the contract of pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter in 1974. Hunter, in turn, filed a breach of contract in that the payment represented half of his salary for the year. Hunter was declared a free agent by arbitrator Peter Seitz and the other major league teams immediately made a mad dash to the pitcher's North Carolina home to submit offers. On New Year's Eve, Hunter signed a five-year contract with the New York Yankees for $3.75 million triple the salary of any other player. It was reported that the Yankees and Boston Red Sox were first in line in Hunter's hometown of Ahoskie to try to sign the star righthanded pitcher. And this year we have the Red Sox offering $51.1 million just to talk to Matsuzaka, with the Yankees falling short in the bidding process. In a strange way, it is shades of Catfish Hunter - except Hunter had proven himself at the major league level. When you come right down to it, perhaps the only thing that has changed in this free agency business is the numbers. (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 SportsPublishing LLC. Fred can be reached at
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