Baseball’s free-agent market is already open for business, and it’s only a matter of time before a few big spenders step forward to throw their money down.
The franchises that hand massive contracts to Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and other notable free agents will stage showy news conferences to crank up the hype machine.
The team owner and GM will smile as they’re applauded for their steadfast commitment to winning. The player will declare instant and everlasting loyalty to his new team and community. The fans will be delirious. The local media will predict increased home attendance, a division championship, and a World Series.
After the initial euphoria fades, reality will set in. Will the enormous contract lead to success and happiness or failure and frustration? No one knows, but don’t bank on it. In fact, if we judge by recent history, there will be a significant chance of disappointment.
In 2010, only five of the teams with the industry’s 10 largest payrolls made it to the playoffs. Only three of the top-10 payroll teams reached the postseason in 2011, and only four of 10 qualified for the tournament in 2012. Add it all up, and that’s 12 of 30.
A year ago, two franchises made an aggressive bid for baseball’s offseason championship making shocking extravagant free-agent purchases that generated the desired level of high-volume buzz.
The Miami Marlins, aroused by the imminent opening of a gaudy new ballpark, went to the market for pricey accessories and gave $106 million to shortstop Jose Reyes, $58 million to starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, and $27 million to closer Heath Bell. Owner Jeff Loria named charismatic Ozzie Guillen to manage the reinvented Marlins.
Nice try, Marlins, but you finished second in the offseason standings. The heaviest credit card belonged to Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno. The former advertising salesman turned on the full charm and spent $240 million on luxury item Albert Pujols, and threw in $77.5 million for starting pitcher C.J. Wilson.
By dishing out $317.5 million in one of the most excessive impulse buys in the history of professional sports, Moreno attempted to purchase a World Series trophy and enhanced status for the Angels in their turf battle with the Dodgers for prestige and popularity in the Los Angeles baseball market.
Unfortunately for the Marlins and Angels, their 2012 seasons peaked at the introductory news conferences.
Miami (69-93) finished in last place in the NL East, averaged only 27,400 fans per home game, traded Bell to Arizona and fired Guillen at season’s end.
Moreno raised ticket prices by four percent to help defray the cost of signing Pujols and Wilson. Pujols started slowly and was accused of getting popular batting coach Mickey Hatcher fired. The erosion of Pujols’ batting average, onbase percentage and slugging percentage continued.
The Angels’ average home crowd of 37,799 was their lowest since Moreno’s first full season (2004) as owner. At $154 million the Angels had MLB’s fourth-highest payroll, but the frenzied spending got ‘em a third-place finish in the AL West.
The Angels finished five games behind the division-champion Oakland A’s, who won 94 games with MLB’s second-lowest payroll, $55 million. Moreno owes Pujols $228 million over the next nine seasons. In the final five years of the contract, when the declining Pujols goes from age 37 through age 41, he’ll be paid $140 million.
Oh, well. But there are more immediate concerns in Anaheim. The Angels’ payroll is clogged. They’ll be making an aggressive effort to sign free-agent Greinke, but he’ll cost a fortune, especially if Moreno gets caught up in an epic, egotistical showdown the Dodgers’ new billionaire owners.
Moreno defended the Pujols contract by pointing to the Angels’ increased revenue that’s guaranteed by a lucrative new deal for local television rights. Fine. But if the Angels are so wealthy, then why are they dumping salary?
The Angels traded starting pitcher Ervin Santana to Kansas City (which was smart, actually) and declined to make qualifying offers to starting pitcher Dan Haren and the popular and productive outfielder, Torii Hunter.
Moreno’s plan to take over LA? Well, the best of luck with that. The Dodgers’ new owners are rolling in cash, are feverish with ambition, and crave attention. The Dodgers have gone Hollywood again, returning to the top of the heap. Moreno is headed back to the “B” list in LA.
Moreno’s big mistake: He didn’t listen to the irate but enlightened owner of a major-league franchise that cautioned against profligate spending.
After making substantial pitches to free agents such as Mark Teixeira, Carl Crawford, CC Sabathia and Adrian Beltre, only to lose out to teams that made higher bids, the frustrated owner railed against teams for their lack of payroll discipline.
“Fans want a competitive team, a winning team, and I’m committed to doing that,” the owner said. “But there comes a point where you just say, the number doesn’t fit. You look at the economic risk and the franchise risk. The reality is, can I write a check for the player? Yes. But is it smart business in the long term? I don’t think so.”
The owner was especially bothered by Boston’s decision to give a seven-year, $142 million deal to Crawford. The owner bemoaned the irresponsible length of contract.
“It’s crazy,” the owner said. “I paid ($183 million) for the team and now we’re talking $142 million for one player? Seven years on a player is a huge risk financially.”
The owner wasn’t finished howling. He added: “When do you get to a point as a business person, you say, ‘Jeez, I’m doing this on emotion, I don’t want to let the fans down, so what I’m going to do is bankrupt the franchise’? ”
It’s hard to argue with any of that. The owner in question was correct, but Moreno didn’t listen before going crazy on Pujols and Wilson.
There’s probably an understandable reason for that. You see, the owner that blasted other franchises for berserk spending was – all together now – Arte Moreno. Moreno’s hypocrisy was quite expensive. At least he won the offseason championship.
As we get ready for the latest round of free-agent lunacy, here’s my question: which owner(s) will lose all self control and wildly overpay?
Led by Hamilton and Greinke, the free-agent class also includes Hunter, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher; Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano.
With franchises signing more of their own players to generous contract extensions to prevent them from entering the open market, the supply of free agents is limited. Accordingly, this is a relatively weak group, and the red-flag warnings are popping up everywhere.
That doesn’t matter. The recent history of embarrassing flops by big payroll teams will be ignored. There’s another Moreno out there, lurking with checkbook in hand, waiting to delight grateful and awestruck free agents by becoming baseball’s Secret Santa.
The industry is changing, and the intelligent teams understand this. These owners and GMs don’t care about winning the offseason. They’re focused on building a more cost-efficient future through the draft and player development and will largely avoid this costly excursion through baseball’s winter wonderland.