Jose Hernandez became the punchline to a joke that was the Milwaukee Brewers over the last two seasons. His strikeout numbers reached record proportions each year before the team sat him out. He ended up with 185 in 2001, four short of the record after missing three of the last four Milwaukee games, and 188, one short, in 2002-due mostly to being sat out nine of the last twelve games. His record pace became the biggest story in Milwaukee baseball at the end of the past season. Manager Jerry Royster asserted that he would not allow Hernandez to become a joke while failing to realize that his organization had long been one.
Strikeouts notwithstanding, Hernandez was the best shortstop in the National League in 2002. His OPS of .838 was just behind the (new) Big Three of A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra, and AL MVP Miguel Tejada. Being in that company, Hernandez should be a hot commodity as a free agent this offseason. Also, consider that only 7 starting shortstops were within 100 OPS points of Hernandez (Chris Woodward would have been, too, but played only 90 games).
In 2002 A-Rod made $21 M and Garciaparra made $8.6 in 2002 (Tejada made just over $3M in his breakout year) and players with inferior stats in 2020 made: Derek Jeter a Yankee-high $14.6 M, Barry Larkin $9 M, Rey Ordonez $6.25 M, Edgar Renteria $6 M, Rich Aurlia $5.25 M, Mike Bordick just under $5M, Royce Clayton, Tony Womack, and Omar Vizquel $4.5 M, Alex Gonzalez $4.25 M, and Neifi Perez $4.1 M. Given these numbers, one would assume that Hernandez should be expecting at least a $2 M upgrade on his 2002 salary of $3.33 M.
However, as Murray Chass reports, Hernandez is having trouble even getting his foot in the GM's door. His list of possible suitors fell to three when the Rockies decided to explore other options.
OK, some would say that his age (33) and defensive limitations (he had a slightly below Range Factor in 2002) may be limiting interest and those interested may be considering shifting him to third, lowering his value. Well, only 5 starting third basemen could match his 2002 OPS.
Others may say that his 2002 was a career year. It was, but not many shortstops had more than his 79 home runs in the last 4 years. Wouldn't an average Hernandez year be a huge improvement over, say, a good Cesar Izturis one?
The most likely destination for Hernandez appears to be third base at Shea, but the Mets have made it clear that they will not be willing to pay dearly for a third sacker. The ever-average Bill Mueller had been in the running but will probably sign with Boston. Chass claims that the Mets are offering a relatively meager sum for they honor of playing third for them:
He [Mets' GM Steve Phillips] signed Rey Sanchez - for a $1.3 million salary and the chance to earn $700,000 in bonuses based on playing time - to keep shortstop warm for Josť Reyes. He would like to get Hernandez for a similar total.
This from a team that was spurred by an untried Japanese free agent and has even considered moving weak-hitting Rey Sanchez to third. The last time something like this happened was during baseball's collusion years. I have been pondering all offseason if some sort of collusion was at work now. Chass though may hit the nail on the head with this quote:
"Years ago we called this collusion; now we call it coincidence," one agent said facetiously yesterday. But he added: "In this environment they have reason to say they have to show restraint. We've been hearing the same story from everyone."
What they have done with revenue sharing and the luxury tax is to institutionalize collusion. Everyone is now on the same page because the business of baseball is set up that way. They no longer need backroom meetings and secret agreements. The mechanisms were all put in place in public with the approval of the players' union.
During the remaining six weeks of the offseason and spring training, it will be an interesting power struggle between the remaining free agents and the GMs who claim that the money is dwindling with the days of the offseason. And remember we are still in the first offseason of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As more big-money contracts expire, what will the coming years have to offer?