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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 11, 2009 at 1:16 PM

So far, teams are opening up their wallets, making it tough to find free-agent bargains

Brian Sabean, the Giants’ general manager, went to Indianapolis this week with the thought that his phenom catcher, Buster Posey, needed more seasoning. Most scouts believe Posey is going to be a superstar, but in a seven-game September showcase with the Giants, Posey hit .118 (2-for-17). Before the winter meetings, Sabean said, the front office debated whether Posey was ready to replace Bengie Molina as the Giants’ No. 1 catcher and decided the answer was no.

“We came to the overall conclusion it would be a tall order to ask him to do that. He just hasn’t played a lot,” Sabean told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Giants’ plan was to shop instead for a one-year stop-gap until Posey was ready. Fast forward to Tuesday, when the Washington Nationals announced they had signed Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year, $6-million contract — to be their backup catcher. Sabean blanched.


“The Pudge signing is not going to help our situation,” he said, adding that he’s willing to “revisit Posey.”
The point of this is not to analyze San Francisco’s catching options, an issue that has not concerned me since the days of Kirt Manwaring and Steve Decker (when I was a Giants’ beat writer). It’s to point out that many of the early free-agent signings have caused baseball executives to realize that some of the bargains they hoped would be there in a stagnant market — like last year’s — might not exist this time around. At least not yet.
I got a hint of that before the winter meetings when a couple of GMs complained privately about the Phillies’ signing of third baseman Placido Polonco to a three-year, $18 million deal. They were dismayed that Polonco, who hadn’t played third-base regularly since 2002, got three years.
Then the winter meetings started, producing more deals that were groaners for teams hoping to sneak in a bargain or two. The one that seems to be getting the most grief is Houston’s three-year, $15 million contract for reliever Brandon Lyon. There were eyebrows raised over other deals given to non-closing relievers, who once upon time were a breed that teams could pick up cheaply on the free-agent market. But LaTroy Hawkins (two years, $7.5 million), Billy Wagner ($7 million guaranteed) and Lyon are making teams wonder about that. And when Brad Penny, coming off two lousy years, gets $7.5 million, and Rich Harden, who can never stay healthy, gets $6.5 million plus incentives, and Randy Wolf gets $29.75 million over three, then it’s looking like a definite seller’s market.
In fact, Jon Heyman of SI.com, in his column picking the winners and losers of the winter meetings, has Chone Figgins in the latter category for signing what Heyman calls “the only obvious under-market contract this winter.” I’m not so sure about that — I did heard some complaints from baseball people that Figgins got four years with a fifth-year option — but mostly what I heard was that it was a good, fair deal for both sides.
What will really be interesting is to see how high the bidding goes for the “Big Three” free agents — John Lackey, Jason Bay and Matt Holliday. Bay reportedly got a four-year offer from the Mets yesterday that was for more than $60 million and less than $64 million. If that’s a jumping-off point in negotiations, Bay could land a whopping contract (and if the bidding is in that stratosphere, I highly doubt the Mariners would be involved; they’re looking for a hometown discount). You know Scott Boras is going to try to get Holliday as close to $100 million as possible, while Lackey, the “best pitcher available” by a wide margin (Roy Halladay notwithstanding), will be trying to play in the same ballpark.
That said, there still are likely to be some Bobby Abreu-like steals for teams that have the patience to wait out the market and pounce when desperation sets in. As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick points out, 147 of the game’s 171 free agents remain unsigned. Tomorrow is the deadline for teams to tender contracts to their players. The non-tenders will create a new crop of free agents. There’s no guarantee that the money will continue to be there so generously as time goes on. Remember last year, when Raul Ibanez was rewarded hugely for his decision to sign early. He got a three-year, $30 million contract, money that wasn’t there later for Abreu.
The big stars can afford to wait. The vast middle class, however, might be wise to act more quickly.
Thank you for giving me more than 1,000 Twitter followers in just over four days. Keep ’em coming at stonelarry.

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