MLB: Some free agents are finding it hard to cash in
By Sam Mellinger
By Sam Mellinger
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jeremy Affeldt answers the phone with his baby boy in his lap, and he will not lie to you. He is not an economist, and had no idea where the market was headed when he became the first significant free agent to sign this offseason — the day before the Big Three automakers asked for $25 billion from Congress.
Affeldt signed with the Giants for two years and $8 million, and the 75 days since have produced an environment in which one general manager said Affeldt would be lucky to sign for one year and $2 million today.
"It sure looks smart now," Affeldt says. "But it had nothing to do with the economy. I didn't think it would affect baseball."
But it has — more than most predicted — and it's left a list of unsigned players you could win a division with: Ben Sheets, Ken Griffey Jr., Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and, of course, Manny Ramirez, among many others.
And that doesn't include players such as Pat Burrell, Andy Pettitte and Francisco Rodriguez, who signed for far less money than they expected or had previously turned down.
Some are even talking about an open tryout of sorts for the unsigned masses, like they did after the strike in 1995. Others think players should remain unsigned into the season, when their value may spike for a desperate team on the brink of contention.
Outside of a Yankee spending binge fueled by a new stadium and $70 million of 2008 salary going off the books — this is what the recession looks like in baseball.
Nobody should feel sorry for them, and nobody will, not with ballplayers "settling" for $5 million while millions across the country are laid off. Maybe hearing about this creates more of a divide between millionaire athletes and fans making $50,000. Or maybe we're past all that by now.
Affeldt knows ballplayers will get no sympathy, one reason he thinks some of his peers should stop posturing for every last dollar — and just sign, like, now.
"There comes a time you have to make a decision and be realistic with yourself about what the deal is right now," he says. "Two months ago, that was the market. Now, it's not so much the market right now. You can't sit there and try to get what you might have gotten or felt you should've gotten three months ago."
There is another side of this, too. Players and agents across the game will tell you privately that they don't believe the owners are really in trouble.
Major League Baseball raked in $6.5 billion last season, setting another record and closing the gap on the NFL even as attendance fell fewer than 1 percent from the record set in 2007.
And get this: If you take players' salaries as a share of the game's revenue, they've held steady around 41 percent the last two seasons. That's the lowest point in nearly two decades, and a smaller share than what NFL players take.
Maybe the players actually do have a gripe. Confused? Join the crowd.
"It's very difficult to understand what's happening in this market," says J.C. Bradbury, an economist, professor and author of The Baseball Economist. "It's very hard to know because the books don't get opened to us."
Even if attendance stays even, corporate sponsorships are shrinking, so the game figures to generate less money in 2009 — the question is how much less.
Barry Axelrod is an agent with a client list that includes San Diego Padres pitcher Jake Peavy. Axelrod says he used to think baseball was "recession-proof," but not now.
Ramirez clowned his way out of Boston to avoid a club option that would've paid him $20 million in 2009, turned down two years and $45 million from the Dodgers, and — depending on how much you believe agent Scott Boras — is still waiting.
Rodriguez wanted five years and $75 million, then signed with the Mets for three years and $37 million.
Burrell turned down a two-year extension worth more than $20 million with the Phillies last year, then signed with the Rays for two years and $16 million.
"(Players) have to adjust, at least some of them do," Axelrod says. "If the money's either not available, or the teams aren't willing to make it available, then, yeah, you have to adjust your sights a little bit."
The raw thoughts of many fans hearing about the financial struggles of millionaire ballplayers include some words that can't be printed here, so maybe it's best to turn to a woman of God.
Sister Berta Sailer is the co-founder of Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City and one of the city's leading voices for the poor. Sister Berta keeps up with her sports, especially the local teams, and isn't quite yet numb to reading about athletes signing for $40 million.
"That's almost obscene," she says. "Nobody wants to hear about that while they're going through their own struggles. I put it in the perspective of families living in abandoned houses because they can't afford housing."
Affeldt understands this, and also knows the ballplayers' side, of trying to get market value for a rare skill our society has deemed incredibly valuable.
He's glad he signed when he did, of course. Last year, he waited until the end of January to agree with the Reds. Doing that this year would've cost him a generation or two's worth of wealth.
He's interested like everyone else to see how this multimillion-dollar game of chicken between players and owners shakes out. He thinks guys should sign, take their money and be happy.
Then again . . .
"There are some really marketable guys out there, and some owner's going to end up coughing up the money," he says. "If a team wants to win bad enough, they're going to end up buying it. The Yankees are doing it.
"But you know, you're still getting good money, man. Regardless of what it is, that's true, no one's starving."
(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star.
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