- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What was projected by most baseball executives even when CC Sabathia signed for $161 million is now clear after Pat Burrell signed for $16 million - the recession is hitting the free agent market.

And it’s hitting hard.

Overshadowed in the wake of the New York Yankees’ $423.5 million spending spree this offseason, a fear of falling revenues has cooled spending for most teams in a free agent market still stocked with impact players less than six weeks before spring training. The Yankees’ signings of Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira might have represented progress, but as many front offices assumed, second- and third-tier free agents aren’t getting their money - at least not yet.

Take Burrell, for example. The left fielder signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays last week for $16 million - or a little more than a quarter of what Aaron Rowand got over five seasons from the Giants last year. Burrell has averaged 31 homers in the last four years; Rowand hit more than 25 just once, and that was in his season as Burrell’s teammate at homer-happy Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

It’s just one example of a tepid market that has star players like Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn sitting without new teams in January.

“There’s a culture of cautiousness,” Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter said. “Good players are still going to get their money, but sales cycles take a little bit longer. It doesn’t mean deals won’t get done.”

How much the market will heat up in the weeks before the season, however, remains open to question. Teams have been less willing to offer multiyear deals; just 14 players have signed contracts of three years or more (including option years), and the prices for players like Burrell and outfielder Milton Bradley, who signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs, have been markedly lower than what similar players got last year.

“My sense is that free agents just weren’t happy with what they were being offered,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said at the winter meetings last month. “But if that were the explanation, there’d be some guys who see what’s happening, and those guys would be grabbing at the first they could get for fear they could get left out.”

Now teams and players alike are keenly watching what the prices will mean for the arbitration process, which starts later this week when teams and players exchange salary figures.

“The deals [for Burrell and Bradley] are going to set the market. I’ve been hearing from executives that it’s difficult to make moves when they don’t know what kind of revenues going to be dealing with,” said Maury Brown, founder of BizofBaseball.com. “I’ll be very interested to see what it’s like when arbitration figures are exchanged. I think teams and players will be much more amicable to signing deals in advance of arbitration. It is going to impact things, and we’ll be seeing it in that way.”

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