Despite more than a dozen deals done and the innumerable negotiations hatched, the lasting impression from the 2012 winter meetings is likely to be the things that didn’t happen inside the labyrinthine corridors of Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
The biggest names in the market didn’t sign.
The biggest team in the game didn’t stir.
When Major League Baseball bolted Thursday after four days in Nashville, Tenn., pitcher Zack Greinke almost single-handedly was holding up the free-agent market and outfielder Josh Hamilton had yet to settle on a suitor. But late Saturday, The Associated Press reported that Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers were close to a deal worth $147 million over six years.
Those who did agree to a deal in Nashville found a sellers’ market with soaring salaries, but also with a conspicuously absent spender.
The New York Yankees, termed a “Goliath” by agent Scott Boras for their usual lavish winters, upended Opryland by role reversing into a model of fiscal restraint.
A year after Albert Pujols’ $240-million contract whopper dropped on the final day of the meetings, this year’s swap meet ended with a relative whimper. Baseball went from the Angels committing $317 million to two players over breakfast one morning to Angel Pagan’s $40-million contract being the largest dish at the meetings.
“It doesn’t look like it will have quite the blockbuster type deals that there were last year,” said Cardinals’ general manager John Mozeliak, who landed lefthanded pitcher Randy Choate with a three-year, $7.5 million contract.
The contracts that were completed showed “there is more money in the market. The cost of playing poker is going up when you look at revenue going into the game. As a team we have to adjust to that.”
One easily calculated measure of activity at any winter meetings is the number of times the main dais was used to announce a player acquisition.
Opryland was oh-fer. Zero.
The only time the announcement podium was used by team executives was when the Yankees detailed Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery and the Mets announced a $122-million extension with David Wright that they had agreed on a week earlier.
Nashville often was dull. But it was never inert.
As one general manager told ESPN.com: “It was shopping, not buying.”
The incline in salaries was not one sudden whoosh hitched to a three-time MVP but steady lunges that show perhaps more profound changes in the game.
A year ago, about $562 million was committed to players in the four days of the meetings in Dallas. That included Pujols’ deal and $191 million guaranteed to three players by the Miami Marlins.
This year, 20 players had deals reported during the winter meetings and the total guarantee was around $216 million. The developments were in the details. The 2011 windfall signed players who combined for 23 All-Star Game appearances, and four of the deals were at least four years in length. This year, the players with deals combined for nine All-Star appearances — as many as Pujols’ has alone — and the longest deal was four years.
This year’s meetings found a player who has had only two seasons with 500 plate appearances and rewarded Jeff Keppinger with a three-year, $12-million contract.
Two players who are 37 years old and never have had contracts longer than two years agreed to three-year deals. The Cardinals pursued both. Marco Scutaro re-signed for $20 million with the Giants and Choate came to St. Louis.
“It’s interesting that a lot of money flew around last year,” Mozeliak said. “That’s the problem of these meetings some times. You get the ping-pong effect with 30 teams under one roof and things escalate rather quickly. As a group, we need discipline and to stay true to our process but in this environment sometimes irrational thinking happens.”
Some agents bank on it.
“Obviously, the game was about a $2.8-billion system and now it’s about four times that,” Boras said at the meetings. “So, we’re going to have appropriate chances in demands for superstars. These markets work like your pants. You put on the bottom first and pull them up. And that’s what’s really going to go on with the value of those select players people want.”
There are other influences at work besides the “pants” principle. The spigot for broadcast rights has become a fire hose. Forbes estimates that the 30 clubs will surpass $1.5 billion in local rights fees by 2015. That doesn’t include the national package that kicks in with increased revenue for all teams starting in 2014.
Broadcast income has fueled the cash available in the marketplace, but other factors are in play.
First, this is a thin market. Supply meets demand. Greinke, who has fielded interest from two of the TV-rights titans, Texas and the Dodgers, reportedly was seeking $160 million or perhaps a record for the largest contract ever for a pitcher. He is accomplished — one Cy Young Award, a 3.77 career ERA — but hardly dominant. Since 2008, Greinke’s 123 ERA+, a measure of how he compares to peers (100 is average), ranks 15th among starters, behind Adam Wainwright’s 133. Greinke is three years younger.
Second, there is a new collective bargaining agreement. The new CBA has limited draft bonuses, shifting spending, and expanded the calendar, shaping free agency.
The period of free agency is longer by starting right after the World Series. Non-tendered players hit the open market earlier instead of in mid-December.
Finally, there is a trend. As more teams lock-in players to extensions, like the Cardinals did with Yadier Molina and hope to do with Wainwright, the talent available through free agency lessens.
It’s not the role players getting the extensions.
“It’s how teams start to fill those complementary roles,” Mozeliak said. “We’re becoming a more competitive market for them.”
That was abundantly clear in Nashville.
The San Francisco Giants wanted to keep their champs together and committed $60 million to Pagan and Scutaro, two members of the World Series lineup who combined don’t have an All-Star appearance. Lefty relievers like Choate did well. Shane Victorino turned his disappointing 2012 into a three-year, $39-million contract with Boston, the same deal the Red Sox got with slugger Mike Napoli.
At the end, Boston was the biggest spender in Nashville, without a peep from its rival, the Yankees.
The two clubs used to swat at each other with their wallets, but the Yankees are intent on (relatively) slashing payroll down to $189 million by 2014 in order to avoid a stiff spending penalty built into the new CBA.
Their absence could also be a reason why the market, so far, lacks sizzle.
“Timing is what I think most people are struggling with,” Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told USA Today.
Waiting for Greinke
Greinke appears to be the domino that starts the rally. When he gets his deal done, Hamilton’s options might advance and free-agent starting pitchers such as Kyle Lohse will have a better sense of their suitors.
The winter meetings were a hint — a hint of the salaries ahead and what increasing revenue means for players at all tiers of production. Many teams said they laid the “groundwork” in Nashville for what’s ahead.
They did that at a sprawling resort that featured nine acres of indoor gardens, several waterfalls, a river, 600,000 feet of meeting space and a color-coded map to help guests find their room among 2,880 of them.
That search served as a lasting metaphor for Winter Meetings.
There was a lot of walking around looking for the right door to open.
The Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel
contributed to this article.