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Teams lock up stars before free agency
Milwaukee made a multiyear pitch to keep Fielder prior to the season, but nothing got done, which underscored the fact there was no way the Brewers were going to keep Fielder.
“When you have a player like Prince, headed to free agency, really the only way you retain him is if he has a bad year,’’ Brewers left-hander Randy Wolf said. "If he has a great year, the market is huge and the bar (for the contract value) gets set out of reach. Nobody's at fault. Both sides did what was best for them.’’
And what clubs know is that what’s best for them is to gamble on the future with a known product and sign a player in advance of him going on the open market, rather than taking the risk of waiting and seeing how the free-agent market will drive salaries.
That’s why big spenders like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and even the Los Angeles Dodgers now that they are getting well-heeled ownership, don’t see much to get excited about on the potential free-agent list for next fall.
Put aside the players who have options for 2013 in their contracts, in light of the fact that if they are elite, it’s likely the current teams will keep them, and there isn’t a very attractive market awaiting the offseason shoppers.
There is not an impact infielder on a potential free-agent list that includes first basemen Carlos Lee and James Loney, oft-injured second baseman Freddy Sanchez, shortstop Erick Aybar and third basemen Miguel Cairo and Geoff Blum.
The potential free-agent starting pitchers include Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Shaun Marcum, Kyle Lohse, Colby Lewis, Jeremy Guthrie and Jonathan Sanchez, but the list fades in a hurry. The best of the potential relievers comes from the likes of Brandon League, Bobby Jenks and Mike Adams. That is, if Mariano Rivera retires like he has given hints he might.
The lack of quality options is believed to be an underlying factor in catcher Miguel Montero rejecting a multiyear offer with Arizona this spring. But after Montero and Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski is about as good as the catching pool gets.
It reflects the new trend in management: getting key players under contract before the bidding drives the price too high for the small-market budget.
This week alone came word that Brandon Phillips agreed to a six-year, $72.5 million deal with Cincinnati; Ian Kinsler, two years removed from free-agent eligibility, agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal to stay in Texas; and Cleveland signed Carlos Santana to a five-year, $21 million deal that covers Santana’s potential arbitration and first year of free-agent eligibility (2016).
Last week, San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain agreed to a six-year, $127.5 million deal, biggest ever for a right-hander. Cincinnati warmed up for the Phillips deal by signing first baseman Joey Votto to a 10-year, $225 million extension that includes a club option for 2024, and also signed left-handed reliever Sean Marshall to a three-year, $16.5 million extension that runs through 2015.
Before last season, Cincinnati gave multiyear, pre-free-agent deals to Jay Bruce (six years, $51 million) and Johnny Cueto (four years, $27 million), and also signed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million deal when he was on the open market.
"When they hit the free-agent market you can't compete financially," Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty acknowledged. "It's why we try to work on it ahead of time."
It’s all about getting a nucleus under control, and then filling in the missing pieces with products from the farm system, either by promoting them or trading them. The Reds did that during the winter, when first baseman Yonder Alonzo was a key part of the package that brought right-hander Mat Latos from San Diego to fill a void in the Reds rotation.
"Baseball used to pay for what you did," Reds manager Dusty Baker said, "but it changed a few years ago, and now it's what you could do."
It is a gamble, but teams feel it is less of a gamble than to trying to battle the big-market teams in bidding for top-flight free agents.