The Marlins and Pudge Rodriguez have parted ways. Vlad Guerrero and the dead corpse of the Expos have done likewise. The Braves declined arbitration to their entire 2003 except for 45-year-old Julio Franco (actually, Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield—who's already signed with the Yankees unofficially—, Javy Lopez, Matt Franco, Darren Bragg, Kent Mercker, Darren Holmes, Shane Reynolds, and Roberto Hernandez, just 9 players). And the Brewers re-signed Dave Burba.
I'm surprised the Marlins didn't at least give Pudge his 2003 salary ($10 M). It would seem to make sense given the salaries of comparable catchers in the NL (Kendall, Lieberthal, Lopez, Piazza). It shows you how much the market has changed just since last year: Pudge was coming off three injury-plagued seasons then and still got $10 M, albeit for one year. Now, he's a fan favorite and did a tremendous job in bringing a championship to south Florida, and they offer him a 30% cut?!? I've never been a big Pudge fan, but he showed me a lot last year, especially in the playoffs. I was surprised he was fishing—get it?—for the same salary as last year.
So is Rodriguez worth $10 M a year? Perhaps that is too esoteric a question for the likes of my blog. How about, is the going rate for a veteran catcher of Pudge's quality $10 M? Let's take a look, shall we? Here's a table of a number of veteran starting catchers who have some degree of offensive success in the careers, are at least 30 years old, and have played a significant number of seasons. Their age next season, experience (through 2003), Win Shares and adjusted OPS are listed along with an average and standard deviation:
2003 Win Shares
Sandy Alomar Jr.
So the Marlins basically offered him the average for this group. I would argue that Rodriguez is much better than average even among the better veteran catchers. If you look at the top few in the group, Posada is due for a $1 M raise this year and will make $12 M in 2006 (including $3 M of his signing bonus). Posada is the same age as Rodriguez but has four fewer years of experience. One could argue that Posada the odds are better due to Pudge's history of injury that Posada is a better bet for 2006.
Kendall's deal escalates to $13.5 M in 2007, but the Pirates have been trying hard to unload his contract for some time. Piazza is probably the only catcher that one could say has had a superior career to Rodriguez so far in the careers and makes by far the most money, but the Metsgoes may move him to first this year—at least we know that he won't be playing shortstop at the rate the Mets are collecting those. Lopez is a free agent and would be commanding a big salary increase in most seasons, but given a) the baseball economy today, b) the fact that 2003 was a career year, c) his history of injury and extremely poor play while injured, and d) his age he may not be able to break even. Though Rodriguez has a history of injuries, his play has never suffered. His best season could have been 2000 even though he only played 91 games.
That said, two-thirds of a season of Pudge are not worth $10 M. However, they paid him $10 M last year after three straight injury-prone seasons. Why is he not worth it after playing a full season as well as he ever has. His value had to go up after 2003. It's either the length of the contract or the market that caused the problem. As far as the length of the contract, maybe 4 years is a bit much for a 31-year-old catcher, but other than age (and his history of injury), there's no reason to think he won't be catching in 4 years. Besides, there's no one in the Marlins system that would have been supplanting him anytime soon. I think Florida saw that the market had dropped since last year and don't feel the need to retain Pudge at the same price they paid him in 2003. That was the extent of their analysis and I think it stinks of Jeffrey Loria.
Speaking of Loria's stink, the Guerrero situation is a real shame or sham depending on your spelling. One would think that Vazquez's departure would at least allow the 'Spos to make a decent attempt at Guerrero. Now they have lost their three most expensive players: Guerrero ($11.5 M in 2003), Tatis ($6.5, option not picked up), and Vazquez ($6). Livan Hernandez's option kicked in at $6 M for 2004, a $2+ M increase. But that's still about a $23 M savings. How can MLB not justify spending some of that cash? I guess it helps when the media won't call you on it. Based on Montreal's $43 M 2003 payroll, that's a 53.5% cut.
Well, maybe that's a bit facile. BP's Jonah Keri took a look at Montreal's payroll for 2004 and found that a good deal of the savings had already been spent. Here is a table comparing last year's payroll (from baseball-refernce.com) and this year's (based on Keri's numbers, some of which I am not sure are speculation rather than fact):
Tony Armas Jr.
[Note: The bulk of Orlando Hernandez's $4.1 M contract paid by the Yankees and White Sox in 2003.]
The Expos are saving a cool six mil after all even with steep increasing to some of the younger players, actually paying El Duque's contract in 2004, and assuming another ex-Yankee's salary (Nick Johnson's), they still have cut payroll pretty significantly and there's plenty of fat to cut further if needs be (El Duque, Biddle, Stewart, Macias, Eischen, Armas).
Next, Mark Grudzielanek tried to avoid the topic but eventually gave in and started that collusion is afoot after taking a 50% cut to stay with the Cubs:
"It's the owners and what they're trying to do to the game. Teams are not taking anybody to arbitration and flooding the market. There are going to be a lot of free agents out there trying to find jobs.
"There is definitely a problem out there, and hopefully it gets rectified pretty soon. I'm sure there are things going on out there. I'm not going to be the one talking and saying things like that. As far as the players go, we have to take it and see what happens in the future. You've just got to roll with it and believe in the union and believe in the guys and believe in the game of baseball and play it because you love it.''
"It really comes down to not being about money,'' Grudzielanek said. "With everything that's going on right now in the game, it's crazy. You want to be part of something special. They have something going here in Chicago. I believe we have a great shot at winning. I didn't want to risk that kind of thing for something that might not be out there on the other side. There were a few other teams I was considering. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to wait any longer to decide.''
Say the magic word, Mark, and win one hundred dollars. No mention of collusion but it's there just the same—somehow or other, it's there just the same. Not that Grudzy should complain about the money he'll make, but it did get me to think about collusion. Are the bleak prospects for players today due to collusion or just the economics of the sport?
# per team
So in a decade, the number of free agents has effectively doubled. That does not even include all of the players that will not be tendered contracts for 2004, thereby creating a second wave of free agents. This non-tender practice started last season. Nor does it include shenanigans like those pulled by the Indians in order to retain Dannys Baez at a salary much lower than the CBA-mandated maximum reduction of 20%.
The owners are looking to empty their benches in order to drive down salaries by creating less demand for those players. It goes back to Bill Veeck's proposal to "Make 'em all free agents" every year when free agency was introduced. Both Veeck and Marvin Miller wrote about this in their autobiographies saying that it would drive down salaries.
So does creating a glut of available talent mean that there is collusion? Well, not really. What could be going on is just industry paradigm shifting to create better synergies between the owners wallets and their expense accounts.
There is a concern that not just the fungible flotsam and jetsam are being caught up in this maelstrom, but also the types of established stars that teams would salivate over in the past. Maybe the owners were just overly influenced by John Nash's mad pickup skills in A Brilliant Mind. Perhaps the fact that insurance companies have become reluctant to insure contracts over three years has started to shorten contracts and has made players free agents more often. Maybe the luxury tax in addition to the money the owners bilk out of the locals is so enticing that they are willing to forego even the appearance of trying to put the best product possible on the field. Maybe the players gave up way too much in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement by not demanding a salary floor so that teams would be required to spend the luxury tax money they receive. Maybe they are just raping and pillaging their working like the rest of America. Or it could be, perhaps, that their shoes are too tight—sorry, a little Grinchy holiday humor.
Or maybe the owners sat down and decided what would be down as a corporate entity: Each team would non-tender a certain percentage of arbitration-eligible players. Each team would cast free agent bread upon the waters; for they shalt find it after many days (though who wants soggy, moldy bread?). The post-CBA baseball economy does have a similar feel, or sub-text, to what was felt in the heyday of collusion, but without a smoking gun (read Andre Dawson), the players may as well re-group, stop emulated the Democratic party, and grow some cajones in preparation for the next wave of CBA wranglings after the 2006 season. Is Al Sharpton available to head up the players' union?
If all this leaves you disillusioned and disaffected, my advice is to root for a team like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Phils. At least they are trying to field the best team that they can get their hands on. Are they spending hoards of money? Yes, so? Is it your money? Isn't that preferable to a team like the Brewers that gets handed a new stadium and then so mismanages the team that it must trade any and all veteran players to whittle down the team salary to the lowest for a team since the 2001 Contraction Twins?
If your cynicism runs so deep that you eschew these teams—thinking that the Phils will be in the same boat as the Brewers after their new stadium funds run out in three years, that the Red Sox genius GM, Theo Epstein, needs a boost, or rather a booster seat, from Bud whenever he makes a transaction, and that the Yankees are starting to make The Onion headline from last season, that they were buying every player in baseball, a reality—, well then there's always the unalloyed pleasure of the holiday season. There's no materialism at this time of year. And then enjoy the unselfish statesmanship of next year's presidential election to avoid the tawdry baseball season.