What Market Correction?

Almost a week into the free agent signing period, there’s signs that whatever fiscal sanity clubs had been exercising has been thrown to the curb.

“Middle class” free agents, who have in past years been reduced to accepting one-year deals or even NRIs, are getting multiple-year contracts reminiscent of 2000 and 2001. The fascinating thing is that these middle class free agents have signed so quickly, even before the top-tier targets at their position. Some of the signings can be explained. The San Francisco Giants have made it team policy to avoid as many high draft picks as possible; instead they siphon the draft pick bonus money to their free agent fund. With Barry Bonds, this strategy is certainly defensible, even though I don’t think it too prudent. The Detroit Tigers have said that in order to turn around their franchise as quick as possible, they would overpay for free agents. Again, it’s a defensible strategy, but not one I agree with. But I don’t have any clue what Washington had in mind signing Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to bad contracts…was it to boost their ticket sales? One of the arguments I hear often regarding disgruntled fans is that if the owner will spend money, they’ll go to games. What they leave out is a small qualifier; the team must also spend that money wisely. Even the New York Yankees (theoretically) have a spending limit; if you’ve blown your budget on players who aren’t worth the salaries they’re receiving, that may be just as big a hurdle as not spending the money in the first place.

Unfortunately for the Indians, the signing of Troy Percival will probably increase the asking price of the remaining free agent closers, most notably Armando Benitez. Last season, the Boston Red Sox signed Keith Foulke, the best closer on the market, to a four year deal worth $24M. Benitez will probably be asking for at least that much, and probably more after seeing what Percival got. For a team with a projected payroll of around $45M, there comes a point where you can’t justify spending that much of your payroll on one guy, especially for a closer, one of the most volatile positions on the roster. If Benitez is in fact priced out of the Indians’ market, the best thing to do in my opinion is to bring back Bob Wickman for another year, and concentrate on getting a starting pitcher. Maybe there may be some opportunities on the trade market; perhaps Matt Lawton’s $7M salary might not look so bad in a year where there aren’t many good free agent outfielders. If the Indians can sucker persuade a club to take on Lawton’s salary, they can move Blake to the outfield, where his defense scares me less, and bring back Ronnie Belliard for another season.

2B Belliard
LF Crisp
CA Martinez
DH Hafner
RF Blake
1B Broussard/Phelps
3B Boone
SS Peralta
CF Sizemore

Assuming no contract extensions, the above lineup will cost the Indians roughly $10M….that may be the lowest in baseball. Although the Indians may have enough young talent to get away with a cheap lineup, there is no young prospect ready to step into the rotation. Sure, the Indians have guys like Jason Davis, Kyle Denney, Kaz Tadano, Jeremy Guthrie, and Francisco Cruceta that are more or less ready for the majors, but haven’t put up good enough numbers in recent seasons to show they are capable of pitching well at the major-league level yet, or at least well enough to give a rotation spot to. And although there are a number arms in the organization that could potentially close someday, a revolving door at closer is just not acceptable for the third year in a row. This is where the balance of need and prudence is so very difficult; do you go ahead and give Armando Benitez a 3 year, $24M contract knowing that there’s a real good possibillity he won’t be worth that much, or do you nickel-and-dime a bullpen and hope that it works out? Thanks to the opening salvos of the free agent market, this balancing act is becoming more and more difficult.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve placed the Elias free agent rankings under my ‘Links’ heading. By clicking each of the two links, you’ll find the compensation categories players fall into. For example, Omar Vizquel is a Type A free agent, and if the Giants do not sign a free agent with a higher ranking, the Indians will receive both the Giants’ first-round pick but also a “sandwich” pick between the first and second rounds. Likewise, a lot of the free agents the Indians are looking at also rate highly in the rankings. Pay attention closely to whether clubs offer their departing free agents arbitration on December 7; if they don’t then the signing club doesn’t have to give up a draft pick.

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