David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
DETROIT - The free-agent hammer, once coveted by players, for now has been replaced by a handshake.
In the past few weeks alone, the Tigers' Justin Verlander, the Giants' Buster Posey, the Rangers' Elvis Andrus, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt signed long-term extensions with their current clubs, passing on any chance of hitting the open market, whether it awaited them at the end of this season or later during their peak earning years.
So what in the name of Curt Flood is going on here?
"I know more of it has happened, but I can't really give you one reason why it's happened,'' said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, who just handed Verlander a contract extension that could make him the game's first $200-million pitcher by 2020. "And it doesn't mean the trend will continue.''
Teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox, who over the years have lived on the elite player's willingness to test the open market, had better hope not. But this sudden desire to stay home appears to be the byproduct of a number of factors, not the least of which is clubs being flush with cash from new network TV deals and web-based, advanced-media profits. In the next eight years, MLB teams will be pulling in more than $53 million annually from that TV package.
"I think money appears to be available right now,'' Mets GM Sandy Alderson said. "I think that some players are re-thinking the desirability of free agency versus staying with a team they know for a longer period of time. They're looking at how free agency works in the new collective-bargaining agreement and how the compensation affects them adversely.''
The need to fork over a first-round pick as compensation for signing a free agent does make teams think twice about writing a big check to improve the roster. It's no longer just about money. There can be a ripple effect throughout the organization and a club's ability to develop younger talent in a more cost-efficient way.
That's how a GM surveys the market these days, and although it might not hurt the value of a player such as Verlander or Posey, it can trickle down to other A-listers. Look at Michael Bourn. The Mets said they were prepared to sign Bourn until they learned their No. 11 pick would not be protected. He went to the Indians instead.
So the best strategy, for now, seems to be to sign your potential free agents before they ever get close to free agency. The ones whom you eventually might feel like keeping around, anyway. And there is no more effective negotiating strategy than cash in hand. Show the player a large sum of money -- sooner than they might have expected to see it -- and the ego trip of someday watching teams fight for your services isn't so important.
Posey, who had two more arbitration years left before free agency, gladly accepted an eight-year, $159-million extension from the Giants, with a $22-million option for 2022. Wainwright was headed for free agency after this season but chose to take a five-year, $97.5-million extension from the Cardinals. These players, like Verlander, decided to stay with the only organization they've known.
"When somebody offers you that type of money, it's tough to turn it down,'' said David Wright, who gave up his only shot at free agency by taking an eight-year, $138-million extension from the Mets in the offseason. "At the same time, it just depends on what makes you tick. Is it making the most money? Is it feeling comfortable?
"Some guys want to see what their value is, they want to make every last dollar they can in this game, and you can't blame them for that,'' Wright said. "In Buster's case, or in my case, you don't want to necessarily have to go out there and think about playing for a contract each year through arbitration. So I think there's something to be said, as far as I'm concerned, of being comfortable having to go out there and just play your game. Not have to worry about the business side of it.''
From a player's standpoint, there is risk involved in holding out for what could be an even bigger payday. Having a bad season in a walk year tends to bring down the price. And, of course, a significant injury might not only delay a contract drive but put a career in jeopardy.
As for the team, importing a star from another city can bring with it any number of difficult-to-predict variables. Look at A.J. Burnett and Carl Pavano with the Yankees and Carl Crawford in Boston, just to name a recent few. The benefit to signing your own player is not having to worry about how his performance might translate in a new environment. Teams have a more accurate read on future performance.
"You know your own guys better than anybody else's,'' Dombrowski said. "No matter how much homework you do -- and I think we're better at doing homework than we were years ago -- you're still not in a position where you can find out as much information as you have with your own guy.''
At the moment, an increasing number of teams and players are feeling more comfortable with long-term commitments to each other. The grass doesn't seem to be any greener on the other side of the outfield fence.
"It's probably too early to say if this will continue,'' Alderson said. "Clubs are amenable to it, and the players seem to be amenable to it at this point. But it doesn't mean every player or every club will be.''