Next up in our Pinch Hitters series is Sean O’Leary, a 25-year-old freelance web designer, developer and interactive consultant in Rochester, N.Y. He’s a co-owner and co-founder of 161st-and-river.com, an online community for Yankees fans that’s currently under construction but should be open for the 2011 season. It began as a Facebook group and was developed into a fully functioning site providing forums, links to Yankees news, and a blog fueled by fan submitted content. Sean has also been blogging at Standing Room Only.
For his guest post,
I’ve been told on occasion that my excitement during the offseason parallels or even exceeds the feelings I experience during the summer. This winter has been different, however, and my excitement has dimmed somewhat.
I remember the days when I could put together a list of desirable players much like a Christmas list, but this winter I’ve found myself struggling to build cases for the “top tier” talent without saying, “Well, he’s not really what we need, but I wouldn’t be too upset if we sign him.” I’m sure we’ve all noticed it, and it’s a trend that seems to be gaining momentum: The free agent market now carries a stigma that causes top-notch players to avoid it like the drunk girl at a holiday party. As a result, the players that do have the guts to hit the market are experiencing one of two extremes — severe overpayment or settling for one-year deals a few days before Spring Training.
How did this happen? When did it happen? And will it continue? Personally, I hoped to blame the entire phenomenon on Scott Boras, and although he (and all agents, for that matter) should shoulder some of the blame, it seems unfair to fault an agent for succeeding in their ultimate task of squeezing dollars out of teams.
The Yankees, in fact, may be one of the largest culprits in this situation as the long-term contracts offered in recent years have not only locked up a number of elite players, but have also instilled fear in other organizations that if they allow their superstars to reach the market, the Yankees or other high payroll teams will steal them away.
Look at the Rockies, for example: The extensions of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are obvious attempts to keep them away from free agency as long as possible. Certainly, there is a distinct possibility that Tulo will continue his somewhat disconcerting injury history and slow starts, and that CarGo will never repeat the numbers he put up in his 2010 breakout campaign. Should either player remain an elite player at their position, however, the Rockies made out like bandits and avoided unmatchable offers by large-market teams during free agency. The idea is to wrap them up while they’re young in order to deny them exposure to what may be a much greener pasture (pun absolutely intended).
And who can blame these young stars for wanting to lock up a long term contract early in their careers? The ever present risk of injury, performance slumps and off-field troubles make the opportunity to sign a high-paying, long-term contract very attractive; in many cases, it’s an offer they can’t refuse.
Then there is the short fuse held by all fans when one of their team’s trademarked players hits the free agent market. Personally, I was shocked to hear some of the things that were said about Derek Jeter this offseason, and I know that I am not alone in that sentiment. At the first muttering of difficulty in the Jeter negotiations — as unfounded as those reports may have been — lifelong Yankees fans and Jeter supporters turned on the Captain. Suddenly, he was greedy, not a team player and one of the worst shortstops in the game. If witnessing this sudden and severe shift didn’t turn potential free agents off to the idea of shopping around for deals, they must not have been paying attention.
Players do not even have to be a member of a team to anger a fan base during free agency. No one knows that better than Cliff Lee, whose image may have taken a serious hit this offseason as a result of him not signing with the Yankees. We (and most of the baseball world) were positive that Lee would be in Pinstripes in 2011, and that led to some very negative feelings when he went to Philadelphia. Interestingly enough, a strong resume playing for the Yankees, and a strong resume of dominance over the Yankees, produces similar feelings when a player decides to take his talents elsewhere. Not to mention, the impact that angering a fan base during free agency can have on a player’s pocket. Especially if that fan base is located in as a powerful city as New York. New York is the center of the world, and the Yankees are the center of baseball — whether the collective baseball faithful loves or hates us, companies want to align themselves with Bronx Bombers.
If this trend continues — which seems likely — then what do we have to look forward to? Well, after 2011, we will be witnesses to a free agent class that, at the moment, is headlined by the best player in the game, Albert Pujols. Adrian Gonzalez is also scheduled to become a free agent, but you can almost certainly assume that he and Pujols will sign extensions before the end of the season. Pujols may be the exception, however, as he seems to have the health and consistent play that makes him the perfect candidate for free agency. He is, however, a very loyal player that has developed deep roots in the St. Louis area; it would be a complete shock to me if he’s not wearing Cardinal red in 2012. Should he and Gonzalez sign extensions (and clubs exercise options on players like Robinson Cano and Roy Oswalt), then the highlights of next years class include Jose Reyes and Wandy Rodriguez.
Scratch that, Rodriguez just signed an extension of his own.
The availability of young talent in the midst of or just entering their prime is dwindling, and that seems to be what the future holds. Teams will need to get creative with their gambles on young players and hope to fill out their rosters with veterans that may have a few good years left in the tank or may end up on the 60-day DL before the end of Spring Training. Speculation of performance enhancement means the days of locking up aging players (cough, Gary Sheffield in 2004, cough) with huge contracts are over, so players and teams are justified in trying to create strong ties between one another. More and more, aging players are experiencing free agency every offseason, and unless a young player creates long-term loyalty between themselves and a specific club, that may be his destiny as well. One thing is for sure: Players are learning that if they spend too much time on the hot stove, they can get burned, and even a child knows that if you get burned once, you should stay away from the heat.
Associated Press photos