Commentary

It's been an offseason like never before

Originally Published: February 6, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We don't use words like "collusion" lightly at times like this, in a world like this.

So somewhere in this column, we're going to search for a different word, a more fitting word, to describe what might be the strangest offseason in modern baseball history.

For the moment, we don't know quite what to call it. But let's just say we're convinced what we've been witnessing hasn't been business as usual.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireManny Ramirez is one of many free agents still without a job for the 2009 season.
How far from usual has it all been? Well, we interrupt our national obsession with the continued unemployment of Manny Ramirez for this important announcement:

It isn't just Manny.

He has lots of company. Lots and lots and lots. Want to know how much? Here are some 100-percent factual tidbits that drive home precisely how widespread this free-agent meltdown has been:

• There were five free agents this winter who drove in at least 100 runs last season. Three of those five are still unemployed (Manny, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu).

• There were four free agents who scored 90 runs or more. Three of those four are still putting the "free" back in free agency (Manny, Abreu and Orlando Cabrera).

• There were 10 free agents who had batting averages over .295. Four of those 10 still don't have jobs (Manny, Orlando Hudson, Mark Grudzielanek and Abreu). And the job held by one of the other six (Sean Casey) is "broadcaster" -- a field he decided to enter because no team apparently thought a guy who hit .322 could play anymore.

• There were also 10 free agents who had an on-base percentage of .374 or better. Four of those 10 are still looking for work (Manny, Dunn, Ray Durham and Doug Mientkiewicz). And it would be five if we count Casey.

• There were 13 free agents who hit 20 home runs or more. Five of those 13 are still out there (Dunn, Manny, Abreu, Kevin Millar and Jim Edmonds). And a sixth (Ty Wigginton) didn't sign until two days ago.

• Finally, want to talk pitching? Five of the 12 free-agent starting pitchers who won 11 games or more don't have teams (six if you count Mike Mussina). Three of the eight who saved 15 games or more are still out of work. And three of the eight starters who had strikeout rates of better than seven whiffs per nine innings are still team-less.

And do we even need to remind you that it's February? Or that spring training starts in a week?

Yet we count 72 players who logged significant time in the big leagues in 2008 who are still out there, wondering where they're going to play -- or whether they're going to play -- in 2009. Yessir. That number was 72.

That number is closer to 90 if you count all big-league free agents. And if you count all unemployed free agents (including minor leaguers, players coming back from injuries or Japan, etc.), there are still well over 100 guys out of work. In the first week of February.

Amazingly, eight of those players made at least $10 million last season. But now, with a week to go until spring training, none of them has a job.

So how do we explain that, huh? Well, depends on whom you ask. Obviously.

TRIVIALITY

Only four pitchers have won 10 games or more in all nine seasons of the '00s, believe it or not. Bet you can't name them. (Answer later.)

When we raised this topic with Bud Selig a couple of weeks ago, he spent the next half hour reminding us that this was "the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression" -- and concluded: "I'm stunned if anybody thinks that there's something [like collusion] going on [and] doesn't understand what the economy is doing. I really am."

He isn't the only one. A high-ranking official of one AL team said: "Out of the 30 teams in the sport, 15 are scared to death by this economy. They're scared about ticket sales. They're scared that sponsorships are going to be cutting back. They're just scared."

Meanwhile, one NL club official had a more basic explanation. Essentially, he said, it's the agents' faults.

"Everybody predicted this," he said. "All the predictions said this market would be difficult, and these guys just misread it. They didn't take jobs that were offered, and now those jobs aren't there anymore. They had jobs. They didn't take them."

There's some truth to every one of those assessments. Nobody argues that. But is there more going on here than the struggling economy, the fear it's generated and the misjudgments made by individual agents and players? If you step back and look at a slightly bigger picture, we think there is. Here is what we see:

• The waiting game: Clubs used this same strategy last winter, before the economy blew up, with great success. And it worked so well, they're hauling it out there again. It's what one long-time baseball man calls the "Let 'Em Sweat" approach. After the CC Sabathias and Mark Teixeiras of the market collect their Mega Millions payouts, the rest of the market shifts into slow-mo -- and the other 100-plus players looking for work wait weeks just for an offer. It's a classic "demand-supply imbalance," said the same source, "where demand just about dries up."

• No more secrets: What happened on the Manny Ramirez front this week is the ultimate illustration of how this little wrinkle has worked all winter. The Dodgers make a new offer. Word of that offer leaks out. Then GMs from five different teams announce publicly they're not pursuing Manny -- an announcement that makes it much tougher for Scott Boras to play his time-honored Mystery Team game. Now for us reporters trying to cover the old Hot Stove circuit, this is fine. But as a business strategy, it's odd. Isn't it? As another veteran baseball man put it, "Most businesses do not want their competitors to know what they are doing. In this industry, every day a club makes some public pronouncement, so that all of its competitors will know exactly what they are doing." And remember, these teams are all supposed to be competing against each other.

• Don't trust anybody over 35: During two different labor negotiations back in the '90s, the owners made an interesting proposal: No more multiyear contracts for players 35 and older. There was a zero-percent chance of the union's agreeing to that proposal, obviously. But it was fascinating nonetheless. And if you've been paying attention over these past two offseasons, you might notice something: That same mindset is back. We count 34 free agents age 35 and older who still don't have jobs. And of the 13 contracts of three years or longer signed by free agents this winter, only three went to players 35 or older -- Raul Ibanez, Derek Lowe and Casey Blake. All of a sudden, only young players can be trusted? As one GM put it recently, "Why not go with the kids? What's the difference?" Well, here's the difference: "The kids" work cheap. The Junior Griffeys and Pedro Martinezes of this world actually want to get paid more than $400,000 a year.

It's the perfect storm. You've got a lot of good players on the market. The rules [on offering arbitration and the calendar] have changed, so there's no pressure to get deals done the first week of January. Draft picks are at a premium now. The economy is horrible. And these agents misread it.

-- A team official

We ask people in baseball all the time: Is there a logical explanation for all this? And on a lot of levels, there is.

"It's the perfect storm," said an official of one club. "You've got a lot of good players on the market. The rules [on offering arbitration and the calendar] have changed, so there's no pressure to get deals done the first week of January. Draft picks are at a premium now. The economy is horrible. And these agents misread it."

Again, it's all true -- to a point. But we've also heard agents say all winter they didn't misread the market. They knew this would be tough. They knew they wouldn't get the same deals they did three or four years ago. They expected offers to mirror the projected decline in revenues. But they're not even getting offers -- on good players.

And most of these agents never once, for one second, dispute that the economy is a nightmare. It would be disrespectful for any of us to suggest that, in any context. But that doesn't mean that there isn't something more, well, strategic at work under what one agent has called "the legitimate umbrella of the bad economy."

We should remember that the good folks at MLB have tried their hands at manipulating the market numerous times -- and they've been caught manipulating it illegally more than once. And not just in the late 1980s, either. They had to pay $9 million in damages to 59 players only two years ago, based on their actions in the winter of 2002-03.

That offense wasn't, technically, collusion. And neither, we'd guess, is this. In the midst of an economic cataclysm like this one, it probably isn't even provable.

"In this economy," said the longtime baseball man we quoted at the top of this column, "it's so easy to show that so many teams are in trouble, or that a lot of owners themselves are in trouble. And some of their lives have been horribly impacted by what's going on. … So this would be very difficult to prove, particularly in this environment.

"You'd have to prove," he went on, "that [a concerted, orchestrated effort] was the only reason this was going on. So lotsa luck. In this economy? Lotsa luck."

In other words, "collusion" clearly isn't the right word for what we've witnessed out there on the free-agent seas this winter. But that doesn't mean nothing abnormal happened out there, either.

You can call it strategy. You can call it cooperation. You can call it brilliant. You can call it sinister.

But here's one thing us Rumblers and Grumblers think you shouldn't call it: An accident.

Ready to rumble

• He left his dreadlocks in San Francisco?: Are people underestimating the Giants' ability to reel in Manny Ramirez? Absolutely, according to an official of one club who speaks regularly with the Giants' brass.

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez

"I would watch the Giants," the official said. "I think Bill Neukom [their new managing general partner] wants to make a splash. They were in on Sabathia. It makes sense for them to want to [stick it to] the Dodgers. There's no love lost there. So I can see them bringing him in there in a Bonds-like scenario. And if they get Manny, I really think they can win the West."

The Giants haven't portrayed themselves as a team looking to make that splash, of course -- in part because they don't want to get involved in any lengthy, $100 million deals. But it's possible, the official said, they have more dollars to spend than they've been letting on.

"I believe they were going to find money for Sabathia [if CC wanted to go there]," he said. "And if they were going to find it for Sabathia, they can find it for Manny. So if he winds up there, it really wouldn't shock me. If he wound up with any other team but the Dodgers and Giants, that would totally shock me."

• Northward bound: So which team has added the most money to its payroll in this strange, penny-pinched winter? No, not the Yankees. Their payroll will actually be $5 to $10 million lower this year, despite that $400-million shopping spree. And it's not the Cubs, Braves or Red Sox, either.

The correct answer: It's the Phillies -- whose payroll has exploded from $98 million to something in the neighborhood of $130 million. And that $30-million hike could close in on $35 million if Ryan Howard wins his arbitration case.

"We're very, very fortunate we won the World Series," said GM Ruben Amaro Jr., "because we got to stay afloat. We got a reprieve -- for one year, at least."

Amazingly, that entire increase was spent on keeping the Phillies' World Series cast in place -- not on adding to it. Their two free-agent signees -- Raul Ibanez and Chan Ho Park -- will actually make significantly less money this year ($11 million combined) than their outgoing free agents -- Pat Burrell, Tom Gordon and Rudy Seanez -- made last year ($19.9 million).

• Philling in the blanks: Then again, the Phillies might not be done.

Nomar Garciaparra
Garciaparra

They're waiting to see if Nomar Garciaparra decides to play again, although Amaro says that decision might not come for "another few weeks." But if Garciaparra passes, they may not add another right-handed bat until spring training or even later, even though they continue to have interest in Rich Aurilia, Mark Grudzielanek and Moises Alou. They offered a one-year deal to Ty Wigginton this week, but Wigginton took a two-year offer from the Orioles.

The Phillies also continue to troll for bullpen depth. According to clubs and agents who have spoken with them, they've looked into Joe Borowski and Seanez, dangling minor-league contracts with spring-training invites. But because they're offering only low-budget, one-year deals to the bigger-name left-handed relievers on their shopping list -- Will Ohman, Joe Beimel and Dennys Reyes -- they're long shots to land anyone in that group.

They also had interest in former Cardinals left-hander Randy Flores, but Flores is probably out until June after having shoulder surgery in September. So he's not a fit because the Phillies are looking for more immediate help, with J.C. Romero suspended for the first 50 games of the season.

• Jones-ing it: It will be fascinating to see whether Andruw Jones winds up spending his spring with the Braves. A friend of Bobby Cox told Rumblings the manager is lobbying harder for Jones than the rest of the baseball operation. Jones has several other teams with cautious interest (including the Rangers and Phillies), but none appears to be offering what he's really looking for -- playing time, to rebuild his market value.

Nick Swisher
Swisher

• Swish-hitting: In the meantime, the Braves seem to have emerged as the club most interested in Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher. But there are indications the teams got hung up when the Braves asked the Yankees to eat some of the $22.05 million Swisher has coming over the next three years -- and got turned down flat.

• Book it: The Dodgers apparently have no reason to worry about Joe Torre's writing a gut-spilling, sanctity-violating book about his current team. A friend of Torre says the Dodgers included a confidentiality clause in Torre's current contract. So sadly, we'll probably never get to read the Dodgers' catchy clubhouse nicknames for Manny or Derek Lowe.

• He's no Angel: Two different baseball men have told us in the past week that Angels owner Arte Moreno is "furious" about the way Scott Boras treated his team during the Mark Teixeira negotiations.

"Arte is ticked at Boras, and he's ticked at Teixeira," said one source. "They made one offer, and they never got a chance to make another. They were led to believe by Teixeira that he was really interested in being back there. But after they made their offer, they literally got no response. So they feel like they were lied to."

By the time the Angels knew Teixeira was signing elsewhere, it was already late December, and their Plan B (Sabathia) was also off the board. So they've wound up going through the winter without making a single addition to either their lineup or their rotation. Not quite what anybody envisioned when this offseason began.

But when we asked Angels GM Tony Reagins about these rumors, he replied, carefully: "We were disappointed we didn't get the player. We thought we made a fair offer, but we didn't get the player. Were we disappointed? Yes. But then we moved on."

Juan Cruz
Cruz

• The A list: Poor Juan Cruz. His free-agent value has been crushed this winter through zero fault of his own. His crime? He was ranked as a Type A free agent. So a bunch of teams that were interested in signing him would have to give up a No. 1 draft pick -- and that ain't happening.

In a winter in which set-up men like Cruz and Darren Oliver were ranked as Type A's, but Trevor Hoffman was mysteriously rated as a Type B (after saving 72 games, with a WHIP not much over 1.00, the past two years), we've never heard so many people say it's time to change this "antiquated" system.

"This rule itself is bad," said one GM. "The execution is even worse. … Something needs to be done."

What's unclear is what can be done. The owners and union agreed to tweak the rating system in the past labor agreement, by reducing the percentage of Type A free agents. Whether the formula itself can be changed without a special negotiation is a question we've gotten conflicting answers to. But neither side seems happy with this mess.

"I can't believe the Players Association will let that go," said one NL exec. "Juan Cruz would be a highly coveted guy, but he's being held hostage by this Type A rule. And if a rule is restricting free trade, doesn't the union have to jump all over this?"

• On the Hudson: Meanwhile, Cruz's old teammate in Arizona, Orlando Hudson, is having Type A issues of his own. Hudson started out the winter looking for a five-year deal, at $9-10 million a year, and telling everyone he wanted to play in New York. Now, neither the Yankees nor Mets have pursued him, and he's probably looking at a one-year contract with either the Nationals or Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have moved on, signing Felipe Lopez to play second. But they do have some interest in bringing back Cruz in the right deal.

Ben Sheets
Sheets

• Just asking: Something doesn't add up in the wake of the news that Ben Sheets will probably need surgery on the torn flexor tendon in his elbow.

Why did the Brewers -- who knew Sheets' condition better than anybody -- offer him arbitration in December if this condition was that serious?

And clearly, if Sheets had had any inkling this was coming, he would have accepted that arbitration offer, which would have given him the chance to earn $12-14 million.

So the questions baseball people were asking after hearing this news were: Did the doctors miss something last fall? Or did Sheets do something to aggravate this injury while working out this winter?

• Ups and downs: We mentioned earlier in Rumblings that no team's payroll will rise more than the Phillies' payroll this winter. According to clubs that track payrolls, it looks as though only 10 other teams in the whole sport will see their payrolls head north:

Those 10 are the Cubs, Mariners and Astros from the top half of last year's payroll charts, and the Indians, Rockies, Marlins, Royals, A's, Pirates and Rays from the bottom half.

That means 19 teams are either projected to reduce their payroll or stay about the same. Last year, only eight teams cut payroll.

• Fernandomania: One scout says the best-looking young player he saw in the Dominican Republic this winter was much-ballyhooed Mets prospect Fernando Martinez.

"He looks to me like he can be a young Bobby Abreu," the scout said. "His discipline at the plate is good. He worked counts. He hung in against left-handers. He did a lot of good things. He may be 20 years old, but he doesn't look like it, the way he handles himself. He really plays under control."

Michael Wuertz
Wuertz
Rich Hill
Hill

• Sweet ex-home Chicago: The reviews are in on the two Cubs trades this week -- Rich Hill to Baltimore for a player to be named later and Michael Wuertz to Oakland for two faded prospects. And that verdict is: Two more pitchers had to be exported because they never connected with their laid-back manager, Lou Piniella.

"Wuertz is an inventory guy who gets right-handed hitters out," said one scout. "But I think Rich Hill can win 10 to 12 games in Baltimore. He's a back-of-the-rotation starter, but he's a major league pitcher. He's left-handed. And he's going to be around the right people. [Pitching coach] Rick Kranitz will be good with him, and [manager] Dave Trembley will be good with him. So he should be a lot more relaxed than he was in Chicago."

• WBC-ing may not be believing: Here's one assistant GM's reaction to the news that Pedro Martinez will use the World Baseball Classic as a glorified job audition:

"The problem with trying to judge him there is that he's on a pitch count. And I think he's OK if it's a short stint. His velocity will be higher if he only has to throw 50 pitches. For me, the issue is not how he responds to short outings in that setting. It's how he'll be throwing in July and August. And I don't know how you can judge that in the WBC."

Caribbean Series box-score lines of the week

• The Dominican's Jorge Sosa, in a wild 12-9 loss Wednesday to Mexico:

4 1/3 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, faced 25 hitters and allowed 12 to reach base.

• Mexico's Adrian Gonzalez, in the same game:

6 AB, 3 R, 3 H, 4 RBIs, 3 home runs off of three different pitchers.

Contract clause of the week

We've seen limited no-trade clauses in our day. But we've never seen one quite like the clause -- or clauses -- in Eddie Guardado's new contract with the Rangers.

TRIVIA ANSWER

The only four pitchers to win in double figures in every season of the '00s is the eclectic quartet of Tim Hudson, Javier Vazquez, Mike Mussina and Livan Hernandez.

First off, Guardado signed only a minor-league contract. So none of this even comes into play unless he makes the big-league team (which, of course, is likely). But this has to be the most creative trade/no-trade provision in any minor-league deal in history. Ready? Here goes:

• If Guardado gets traded to an AL Central or NL Central team, he gets paid an extra 100,000 bucks.

• If he gets traded to an AL East or NL East team, he'll collect $250,000.

• He can also pick four teams -- from any division -- that would generate an even bigger bonus -- i.e., $500,000 -- if the Rangers trade him to any of those destinations.

• But if he gets dealt to an AL West or NL West team? That nets him zero dollars.

So what does this tell us about Every Day Eddie? He's a home-body.

"At this stage of Eddie's career and life, he doesn't want to play too far from home," Rangers GM Jon Daniels told Rumblings. "He's got three young kids. So he doesn't want to be too far from them, on the west coast."

Good to know. So just keep all this in mind in case the trading deadline comes around and Guardado is being rumored to land in New York or Philly, OK? You'll need to remember his division-by-division breakdown. There's going to be a quiz.

Headliner of the week

Finally, all you regular readers of the relentlessly ingenious parody site/mag, The Onion, may know this headline actually appeared in November. But it's never too late to pass along overlooked brilliance:

CUBS, ABSENCE FROM WORLD SERIES
AGREE TO 4-YEAR EXTENSION

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com