Top talent will always have a market
Even in a tough economy, baseball's elite will rake in the dough
Somebody forgot to tell the Yankees that the economy isn't so robust these days. The contract for first baseman Mark Teixeira -- for eight years and $180 million dollars -- is, as Cecil Fielder once described a smaller sum, "a lot of iron."
Then again, that same somebody forgot to tell the Yankees a couple of times earlier this winter, as well. Not to mention the other clubs that bid and fell short on Teixeira and CC Sabathia. Some segments of the baseball free-agent market saw a slowdown this winter, but the top end most assuredly did not.
But perhaps that's instructive. Top-shelf talent never goes out of style. When a player with a truly elite skill set, who is in his prime, hits the market, the market responds. Regardless of how the stock market looks.
So while second-level starting pitchers, relievers and hitters may take a bath this winter -- and perhaps next winter, too -- the big dogs are likely to keep getting theirs. Some may speculate that the era of the $20 million-per-year contract will come to an end once Manny Ramirez inks his new deal. But a few big names in the coming years may prove that speculation wrong. Even if ordinary players make less in the next few years, the superstars who hit free agency may not feel the pinch.
"That's a fair assessment," said a National League executive, before cautioning that even so, "there's going to be less money to go around" in the coming years.
However, it takes more than just talent. It takes teams that are positioned to pay for that talent. New York is in a unique situation -- moving into a new ballpark that will bolster its bottom line drastically, while also seeing some huge deals come off the books. The Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers and perhaps the Mets and Angels look relatively recession-proof for various reasons, as well.
One, or several, of the following players could follow in the steps of Teixeira and Sabathia.
2009-10: Matt Holliday
Next year's group will certainly contain some interesting names in the outfield. A return to form from Vladimir Guerrero could net him a deal somewhat akin to what Ramirez is seeking, a high-dollar, but shorter-term pact. Rick Ankiel could play himself into being considered an elite center fielder, plus he's represented by Scott Boras. Another year in Boston might shift the perceptions of Jason Bay, in either direction. Plus, the Red Sox will be looking either to retain Bay or to replace him.
But the prize is Holliday, who inspired quite a bit of bidding when the Rockies put him on the trade block at the beginning of the offseason. Holliday doesn't turn 30 until next winter, and he's an athletic player who can do more than just hit. His skills should hold up well as he enters his 30s, even if a year away from Coors Field knocks down his raw numbers a bit.
2010-11: Brandon Webb and Josh Beckett
It seems like it's the pitching contracts that turn out to be duds, but that doesn't mean people will stop giving them out. Beckett and Webb, one a World Series Most Valuable Player and one a Cy Young Award winner, are the next fellows likely to benefit from that generosity.
Pitching contracts are strange things, though. They don't always go based on performance. They're often handed out based on stuff or perception or presence. Is there any reason to believe A.J. Burnett is a better pitcher than Derek Lowe? Not really, but Burnett keeps getting bigger deals.
Still, Webb and Beckett have what it takes to garner megadeals. Webb has the hardware -- a Cy Young Award. He also has tremendous durability, with four straight seasons over 220 innings. He'll be 32 in the first year of what would be a new deal in 2011, which isn't young, but is far from over the hill.
Beckett, meanwhile, is like Burnett squared. He has the golden arm that keeps getting Burnett paid. He also has a history of being a better pitcher, not to mention World Series moments and a reputation as an October terror. Teams will think he's the kind of pitcher who puts butts in seats -- and they may be right.
2011-12: Albert Pujols
Hoo boy. Care to speculate on this one?
Pujols' comparable players aren't his contemporaries. They're Hall of Famers. If the Cardinals don't lock him up before the winter of 2011-12 (they hold a club option for '11), he'll turn 32 in the winter that he enters free agency. That's six months younger than Alex Rodriguez was when he re-signed with the Yankees last offseason.
What's to be said about Pujols? He's the best hitter and player in the NL, maybe in the game. He's complete, in the way Teixeira is but more so. He's an upstanding citizen who can easily be sold to an adoring market.
Even if the Cardinals secure Pujols' services with a new deal before he hits the market, there's little doubt his new deal will be an earth-shaker. Players like this come along once or twice in a generation.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.