- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. Throughout the 1990s, major league baseball players continually went to the well as salaries skyrocketed to unprecedented levels in American sport.
This offseason, the well didn't yield as much as it did a few years ago.
Free agency stacked up unlike any other in the last 15 years. Many players who expected big-money, multiyear contracts including Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Kent didn't get quite what they expected, and some players signed for significantly less than they made last season.
Rodriguez waited months for a deal, and after negotiating extensively with the Baltimore Orioles, he took a one-year offer from the Florida Marlins for about what he made last season in Texas.
Pitcher Dave Mlicki signed with Milwaukee for $750,000, more than $4million less than he made last season with Houston. Mike Bordick settled for $1million with Toronto after making $5million a season ago.
Established players, including Brian Daubach, Lee Stevens and B.J. Surhoff, had to settle for minor-league contracts and are being forced to make teams, something that would have been unheard of in past years for players of that caliber.
In the first offseason following the collective bargaining agreement signed in August, players have been forced to adjust to a new market. Their services are still valued but not at the same price.
There were a number of factors at work that made for an unusual free agent market. Among them:
Clubs tightening budgets The new collective bargaining agreement calls for a luxury tax threshold of $117million, a number the New York Yankees are more than willing to obliterate. Only a few other teams the Red Sox and Mets for example can afford to surpass that number.
Teams are making decisions as if they're up against a hard salary cap like the NFL's and under tight budget constraints just look at the Atlanta Braves, who dealt All-Star pitcher Kevin Millwood and his approximately $10million salary this season to the Phillies for minor-league catcher Johnny Estrada.
The trade that landed Mike Hampton in Atlanta was a perfect example of how teams are becoming budget conscious; this season, the Marlins will pay him $7million to play for the Braves, more than any player on their roster, and Hampton has never thrown a pitch in a Marlins uniform. Florida rid itself of the contracts of Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson in the three-way deal with the Braves and Rockies and ended up with some of Hampton's contract, all in the name of shedding perceived bad long-term contracts.
It seems owners have wised up and are using fiscal responsibility while adjusting budgets to meet revenue projections.
"It's hard to know what every organization is trying to do," Surhoff said. "You just hope they're doing it independently."
That comment brings up talk of collusion, a topic agents have broached to explain the lack of free agent offers. Owners were last found to have colluded against players in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
It is difficult to prove collusion, and one agent said it is "very doubtful" it could happen right now.
"You're not going to have the paper trail that you did before," the agent said.
Lagging economy, new agreement Players believe they are feeling the effects of the stagnant U.S. economy and the collective bargaining agreement.
"There have been a lot of influences this offseason [on free agency], and one of the biggest ones, potentially, [is] the economy in general," the Mets' Tony Clark said. "I think history shows that after a basic agreement that the offseason following tends to be a little slow."
Orioles spring training invitee John Valentin also believes the September11 terrorist attacks continue to have an effect and are impacting baseball's economy. One agent said baseball is using the world economy as a basis for curbing spending.
"I think a lot of teams are just in financial situations this year, with the economy being the way that it is, that they aren't going to get out in front of themselves with their payroll," said New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips, whose team landed Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd, two of the biggest names among this year's free agents.
cFlooding the market Many teams did not tender contracts to veteran players by the late December deadline, making them free agents and flooding the market. Clubs looking to fill holes with free agents then had a range of choices. The law of supply and demand caused the price of free agents to plummet. Players and agents interviewed said they saw many teams going with younger players, leaving moderately priced veteran free agents few teams with which to sign.
The mid-level veteran free agents are the players who had the most trouble getting good contracts this offseason, and many had to settle for minor-league contacts or deals much below what they made the previous season.
"It's a market that's depressed, and guys not only have a hard time finding good contracts, but some legitimate big-league players aren't even playing right now," said Orioles pitcher Rick Helling, who had to settle for a minor-league deal with the club but is expected to make the team.
Those players include Chuck Knoblauch, Ray Lankford, Jose Offerman and Kenny Rogers, all of whom are past their primes but could contribute to one or more teams.
More than one player and agent said they don't believe salaries will escalate noticeably in the next few years; one agent said he doesn't think Alex Rodriguez's record 10-year, $252million contract will ever be topped. There was not a new market set this season for any one position that is, no player became the highest-paid at his position, though that might go back to the so-so free agent class.
While the middle-of-the-pack players struggled to get good money this offseason, stars like Jim Thome and Tom Glavine didn't. Thome's six-year, $85million contract with Philadelphia was the only signing more than $40million this winter. Two years ago, seven free agents got contracts worth more than $40million.
"[Salaries] will escalate for the superstars the money is always going to be there for the superstars," Valentin said. "That's the way it's heading. A stronger free agent crop is definitely going to demand more money. The good players get their money."
cWhat's next? The next free agent class should be more enticing with Miguel Tejada and Vladimir Guerrero highlighting the available free agents. One agent also said he expects next offseason to have more action because the owners will have money kicked back from the luxury tax which the Yankees will pay heavily and other revenue sharing. Whether that money is put back into the player market next season is another question.
For their part, players said they are unsure about the future, but some said they think it's more likely an indicator of what's to come than a one-year aberration.
"Maybe it will change with the economy," Valentin said. "If the economy gets better, the market gets better, maybe it will have some effect on teams and how they spend their money. It could very well go hand-in-hand."

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