Winter binge

Special to The Times

The milestone has gone unnoticed, but this is baseball's 30th winter of free agency.

Has it been a traditional anniversary of pearls? Or perils?

"The clubs have more money from more sources than ever before, but there has been no basis, no justification, for many of this winter's signings," said Dennis Gilbert, a former player agent and now special assistant to the Chicago White Sox chairman.

Awash in revenue, assured of continuing labor peace and stopping only to order new checkbooks, the clubs have managed to underscore baseball's economic health by richly endowing a free-agent class basically bereft of season-turning talent beyond pitcher Barry Zito and outfielder Alfonso Soriano.

Never has so much been spent so broadly -- or, perhaps, badly.

It has been enough to make the record splurge during the 2000-2001 winter -- $252 million for Alex Rodriguez, $160 million for Manny Ramirez and $121 million for Mike Hampton (before the Colorado Rockies realized that investing in a humidor made more pitching sense) -- seem like economic restraint.

"So, what's new," said a high-ranking baseball official. "Every time the clubs get a little extra money in their pockets it ends up going to the players."

At this point, 24 of the 30 major league teams have spent more than $1.2 billion spanning 166 years on 76 free agents.

That stunning outlay does not include the still unsigned Zito or the $103 million that the Boston Red Sox have invested in Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, yet to appear in a big league game, or Tampa Bay's $12-million purchase of Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura.

What has contributed to all of this?

* Competitive parity that has led to seven different World Series winners in the last seven years, spawning widespread visions of the same one-season turnaround that the Detroit Tigers engineered in 2006.

* A third consecutive season of record attendance, 76 million, helping produce record revenue, $5.2 billion, enhanced by expanding Internet, satellite and global opportunities, or as the high-ranking official said, "We're still just scratching the surface in those areas."

* The guarantee of nearly $5 billion in national TV revenue through 2013 and labor peace through 2011 -- meaning there will have been 16 years since the eighth and last work stoppage.

* A $326-million net revenue-sharing distribution from large revenue teams to smaller in 2006, with that total becoming larger and marginal tax rates smaller under the new bargaining agreement.

Since 1995 and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, "baseball has had an average annual growth rate of more than 11% in revenue, and that's an impressive percentage for an impressive number of years in an established industry," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who has written extensively on the financial aspect of sports.

"Some of that is a reflection of the national economy, but some of it also reflects better guidance from the commissioner's office and better management by the clubs. That's not to say they don't get carried away by the animal spirit at times, and there is evidence of that this off-season. It's not always easy being an owner in an industry where there's enormous pressure from media and local culture to produce a winner."

Perhaps the 2006 Animal Spirit of the Winter Award should go to Jim Hendry, the Chicago Cubs general manager, who was waiting for an angioplasty procedure in Florida after being hospitalized during the recent winter meetings when he used his cellphone to close a four-year, $40-million agreement with free-agent pitcher Ted Lilly, who has a seven-season record of 59-58 and has never pitched 200 innings in a season.

"Clubs are paying for performances from players who have never performed at the level at which they're being signed," Gilbert said. "What I'm saying is that I don't believe any team ever has to overpay. That's a weak excuse. These teams are operated by smart people. They know what should be spent, and sometimes you have to say no. I mean, there were times when I was still representing players that I had to refrain from laughing, watching teams bid against themselves."

The market has been so skewed from signing to signing this off-season that it's tough to know "what should be spent," as Gilbert put it.

Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, said, "What is unreasonable one week may be reasonable the next. A year ago, trying to gain some immediate credibility and sign a very good leadoff man and shortstop in Rafael Furcal, we stepped out at $13 million a year for three years. People thought we overpaid. How does it look today?"

He implied that Furcal represents a bargain in the current market.

"Teams need to compete," Colletti said. "The risks and expectations, the costs and contracts, are all higher. To this point, we've been able to improve without giving up our best young players, but it's a rare team today, under the pressure of competing, that has a five-year plan anymore.

"Now, you might have a five-month plan, and if you've got X in your budget to spend on players and that's what you spend, you're probably going to be a player or two shy of where you might have been a few years ago, maybe even last year."

In addition, although revenue sharing has worked, helping mid- and small-market teams retain their best players under multiyear contracts, Colletti said, that aspect of it has diluted the free-agent market, stripping top talent.

Thus, he said, what's been at work in an off-season only half over is "economics 101 -- supply and demand. There's far more demand than supply."

So, when fatter wallets encounter a thinner market and that animal spirit emerges, here are some of the things that can happen:

* The Baltimore Orioles spend $42.4 million on four mid- to late-inning relief pitchers, including $19 million for three years to Danys Baez, remembered in L.A. as a failed closer. All this after the Angels have blown up the relief market with their four-year, $18-million signing of Justin Speier, a setup man for their setup man.

* The price for a middle-of-the-rotation starter soars to an almost automatic $10 million a year, with Lilly just one nomadic example among many. There also are Jason Marquis, three years, $21 million from the Cubs; Vicente Padilla, three years, $33.8 million from Texas; oft-injured Adam Eaton, three years, $24.5 million from Philadelphia; and Gil Meche, five years, $55 million from Kansas City.

* J.D. Drew jilts the Dodgers, giving up the final three years and $33 million on his contract, and is rewarded with a five-year, $70-million contract from the Red Sox in what seems to be an orchestrated move that plays into the hot pursuit of the few seemingly reliable outfielders.

And that outfield scenario looks like this:

* The multitalented Soriano chooses the Cubs over the Dodgers and Angels, stirring up the financial market at eight years and $136 million. The Dodgers then beat the San Francisco Giants to powerless Juan Pierre at five years and $44 million. The Angels also beat the Giants to sleek Gary Matthews Jr., coming off his first big year at 32, by offering a numbing five years and $50 million.

The Giants then also lose out on bulky Carlos Lee, who takes a six-year, $100-million offer from Houston.

The Red Sox further deplete the outfield market by deciding they can live with Manny being Manny, and Vernon Wells agrees to a seven-year, $126-million contract with his Toronto Blue Jays, potentially thwarting the Dodgers and other clubs that had hoped to trade for him or sign him next winter as a free agent.

* The Giants are left to bid against themselves in retaining Barry Bonds, 42, for a year at $16 million while underscoring their senior image with the $61.6-million signing of five other players 31 or older: Rich Aurilia, 35; Ray Durham, 35; Bengie Molina, 32; Dave Roberts, 34; and Pedro Feliz, 31.

* Hendry and the Cubs jolt baseball's electrocardiograph by plunging $305.5 million into the hiring of Manager Lou Piniella and the signing of nine free agents, and the Dodgers set the stage for ticket increases ranging from 14% to 40% in some categories by investing more than $116 million into the retention of Nomar Garciaparra and the signing of Pierre, Luis Gonzalez, Randy Wolf, Mike Lieberthal and Jason Schmidt, whose $47-million contract proves you don't have to win 20 games to become one of baseball's highest-salaried pitchers.

Does it all represent a onetime fling?

"I can only answer that from the angle of potential revenue growth," economist Zimbalist said. "I suppose there could be some retraction from 11%, but it's been a long time since any owner has played the poverty card, and I think baseball is well positioned to maintain a revenue growth rate of 7% to 9% a year."

Plus, there has been only occasional deceleration in the growth of the average annual salary to the $2.8 million of 2006. That figure alone is more than the total amount in any of the three multiyear contracts that then-Angels owner Gene Autry gave to Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich in 1976, the first winter of free agency. It's also a lot more than the $800,000 that Larry Bowa received as the highest-salaried Cub in 1982, when Colletti got his first major league job in Chicago.

And next year, the free-agent class could include Andruw Jones, Carlos Zambrano, Jason Jennings, Ichiro Suzuki and Rodriguez.

In other words, more potential pearls than peril.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Cost of doing business

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Some of the notable free agents who have signed contracts or agreed to terms this off-season:

*--* NATIONAL LEAGUE

*--*

* DODGERS: Re-signed Nomar Garciaparra, 1B, to an $18.5-million, two-year contract; signed Juan Pierre, OF, Chicago Cubs, to a $44-million, five-year contract; signed Randy Wolf, LHP, Philadelphia, to an $8-million, one-year contract; signed Jason Schmidt, RHP, San Francisco, to a $47-million, three-year contract; signed Luis Gonzalez, OF, Arizona, to a $7.35-million, one-year contract.

* CHICAGO: Re-signed Aramis Ramirez, 3B, to a $75-million, five-year contract; signed Alfonso Soriano, OF, Washington, to a $136-million, eight-year contract; signed Ted Lilly, LHP, Toronto, to a $40-million, four-year contract.

* HOUSTON: Signed Carlos Lee, OF, Texas, to a $100-million, six-year contract.

* NEW YORK: Re-signed Orlando Hernandez, RHP, to a $12-million, two-year contract; re-signed Tom Glavine, LHP, to a $10.5-million, one-year contract.

* PHILADELPHIA: Signed Adam Eaton, RHP, Texas, to a $24.5-million, three-year contract.

* ST. LOUIS: Signed Adam Kennedy, 2B, Angels, to a $10-million, three-year contract.

* SAN DIEGO: Signed Greg Maddux, RHP, Dodgers, to a $16-million, two-year deal.

* SAN FRANCISCO: Signed Dave Roberts, OF, San Diego, to an $18-million, three-year contract; signed Bengie Molina, C, Toronto, to a $16-million, three-year contract; re-signed Barry Bonds, OF, to a $16-million, one-year contract.

*--* AMERICAN LEAGUE

*--*

* ANGELS: Signed Gary Matthews Jr., OF, Texas, to a $50-million, five-year contract.

* BOSTON: Agreed to terms with J.D. Drew, OF, Dodgers, on a $70-million, five-year contract; agreed to terms with Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, to a $52-million, six-year contract.

* KANSAS CITY: Signed Gil Meche, RHP, Seattle, to a $55-million, five-year contract.

* NEW YORK: Re-signed Mike Mussina, RHP, to a $23-million, two-year contract.

* OAKLAND: Signed Mike Piazza, C, San Diego, to an $8.5-million, one-year contract.

* SEATTLE: Signed Miguel Batista, RHP, to a $25-million, three-year contract.

* TEXAS: Re-signed Vicente Padilla, RHP, to a $33.75-million, three-year contract; agreed to terms with Eric Gagne, RHP, Dodgers, on an estimated $6-million, one-year deal.

* TORONTO: Signed Frank Thomas, 1B, Oakland, to an $18.12-million, two-year contract.

Associated Press

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