- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

In the lobby of Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort at the baseball winter meetings two weeks ago, word began circulating that Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had signed left-hander Ted Lilly to a four-year, $40 million contract while hooked up to an EKG in an Orlando, Fla., hospital.

Leave it to one rival National League executive to respond by saying: “Gee, I’d have thought it would have been Cubs fans who had heart attacks after finding out they just gave $40 million to Ted Lilly.”

Fans, reporters, GMs and other astute observers around the game know the feeling. There have been so many big free-agent signings over the last month, every cardiologist in America can probably afford to buy a new yacht for Christmas.

Not since the 2000-01 offseason (when the Texas Rangers infamously signed Alex Rodriguez to a $250 million contract) has baseball seen such a market explosion. Three players (Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Carlos Lee) already have signed nine-figure contracts, and another (Barry Zito) is poised to join them. The Boston Red Sox shelled out a total of $103.1 million to acquire Daisuke Matsuzaka, including an astounding $51.1 million just for the right to negotiate with the Japanese right-hander.

Yet those aren’t the contracts driving front-office personnel crazy. It’s one thing to spend $100 million on a true superstar. It’s another to spend $40 million or $50 million on far less accomplished talent, something that has happened routinely over the last month.

The list of mediocre free agents hitting the jackpot is staggering. Gary Matthews Jr., owner of a .263 career batting average with seven different organizations, parlayed one breakout season into a five-year, $50 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

Most of the head-scratchers have involved second- and third-tier pitchers, who have managed to strike it rich despite career numbers that suggest they didn’t deserve anything more than a minimal, one-year contract.

There’s Lilly, who received $40 million for four years from the Cubs despite a 59-58 career record and 4.60 ERA. Adam Eaton, who has never won more than 11 games or posted an ERA of less than 4.00, received $24.5 million for three years from the Philadelphia Phillies. The Rangers gave Vicente Padilla (66-61, 4.06 career ERA) $33.75 million for three seasons.

And in the mother of all questionable deals, Gil Meche, who owns a career 4.65 ERA and has never pitched 200 innings in a single season, signed with the woebegone Kansas City Royals for a stunning $55 million over five years.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen years where money is spent,” Nationals GM Jim Bowden said. “I’ve never seen years where money is spent on utility infielders, or players that have one good year, or pitchers who have one good year. I’ve never seen a year where this many dollars are being spent much differently than they’ve ever been spent before.”

Bowden has stood firmly on the sideline while the rest of the baseball world is shelling out big bucks to free agents. That’s primarily a function of the Nationals’ current place in the game and long-term plan for rebuilding with young players before moving into their new ballpark in 2008.

But that’s not to say Bowden would be diving headfirst into this free-agent pool even if given approval by team president Stan Kasten to go on a spending spree. Fifty million dollars for a mediocre player is still $50 million for a mediocre player.

“Look, the free-agent market is stultified,” Bowden said. “Even if we had dollars from the new stadium right now, we would not be playing in this arena.”

A handful of other teams — the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals — have concurred and to date have not overspent on inferior talent. But far more have thrown caution to the wind and doled out tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to free agents this winter, helping drive up the market to heights never before seen.

The Cubs have been the primary culprit, shelling out a total of $285 million for Soriano, Lilly, Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa and holdover Aramis Ramirez alone, hoping to buy their way out of last place in the NL Central division.

Hendry, who is recovering well from his surprise angioplasty at the winter meetings, has come under fire for his free-spending ways, starting with Soriano (the ex-Nationals left fielder who got $136 million over eight seasons to move to Chicago).

“It’s hard for me to understand how you can justify $136 million for a player of Soriano’s caliber,” San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson told Sports Illustrated last month. “I don’t know what justifies that contract, other than a lousy won-loss record over the last several years.”

The Soriano signing set the tone for this winter’s market, and it didn’t take long for the dominoes to start falling. And no one could stop them.

“Once a market is established like it’s established, agents and players will say, ‘Well, this is the new market. So if this guy gets this, we get that,’ ” Bowden said.

And the scariest part of it all? There still are several prominent players out there, determined to use the precedent set by their fellow free agents to cash in even more.

Jeff Suppan has 106 career wins, a track record of durability and is the reigning NLCS MVP. Yet in many ways, the 31-year-old right-hander is the definition of a journeyman pitcher. He has pitched for five organizations, has posted an ERA lower than 4.00 only once in his career and has never been considered anything more than a No. 2 or No. 3 starter at best.

So why is it that Suppan and his agent are holding out for at least $11 million a year for at least four or five years?

“Gil Meche got $55 million from the Royals, and what has he accomplished in his career?” one baseball agent said. “Jeff Suppan, by any statistical measure, is a far superior pitcher and deserves at least that much.

“Don’t blame him. Blame the market.”

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