Free agents just aren't what they used to be.
When Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez made their millions (and millions) of dollars off enormous contracts at the 2000 winter meetings, everyone focused on two numbers: 252 million and 160 million. What was missed were the more important numbers: 25 and 28. That's how old each of the two players were when they signed their megadeals.
Rodriguez, already a seven-year veteran after breaking into the majors at age 18, was about to hit his prime and had a chance to become the best offensive shortstop in the history of baseball. Ramirez was a year removed from a season in which he had driven in 165 runs for the Cleveland Indians, the most since Jimmy Foxx had 175 RBIs in 1938.
Albert Pujols is 31 this offseason. So is C.J. Wilson. Jose Reyes is an injury-prone 28 years old. Prince Fielder is 27, but his body type doesn't scream "durability." And yet, all four are trumpeted as the crown jewels of this offseason's free agents. They all underscore the fact that teams need to find value with their homegrown talent.
To find a superstar any other way isn't just isn't worth it anymore.
Why take the chance on signing one of these big names when the chance for a spectacular flameout outweighs the chance that a players lives up to the deal? Who wants to sign the next Adam Dunn?
Each player is demanding many, many years of millions and millions of dollars. The catch is, team's can't and won't know for sure if a player is going to be worth the extra years it will take to sign him.
Is Albert Pujols worth $22 million per year? Maybe, but for how long? It's the last five or six years of his contract that he probably won't be. Yet, teams have no choice but to guarantee those extra years because if they don't, somebody else will.
The arms race for any so-called "elite" players has forced teams' hands to the point of no return.
Would anyone sign Alex Rodriguez to a six-year $165 million deal this offseason? Absolutely not. But that's what he has left on his 10-year deal with the Yankees signed in 2007.
Teams are now better off investing in their young players and their draft picks. That's where the value is, especially with the slotting system implemented in the latest CBA. It's too easy and too expensive to make a mistake overvaluing an older player on the open market that demands more years than they will actually end up being useful for.
Short-term deals on mid-level free agents and low-risk, high-reward free agent options still provide value. Chris Capuano's two-year, $10 million contract with the Dodgers is one example. The Red Sox' one-year deal with Andrew Miller is another.
But as the price tag mounts on the top players, teams will be better off staying disciplined and waiting for their farm system to turn up a winner. It might take a little longer, but in many senses, it will be worth the wait.
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