Brewers on budget plan
Team avoids bidding wars
Posted: Nov. 25, 2006
Major-league baseball's free-agent market is still in its early stages, but one sobering fact already is quite clear to Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
Though the Brewers showed Saturday they aren't afraid to make trades, they probably won't be making any big splashes in the free-agent waters this winter.
With insane spending the order of the day, Melvin basically has torn up his Christmas shopping list. The prices simply are too high.
"The free-agent market is getting a bit out of line," said Melvin, who has authority from owner Mark Attanasio to boost the club's payroll within reason.
"It's beyond our means and beyond a lot of teams' means. The money is kind of scary."
The Chicago Cubs raised the bar sky-high by doling out $136 million over eight years for outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Most baseball folks believe that money was out of line, but the Cubs are desperate to get better and desperate teams do such things.
Even more alarming is that role players such as Mark DeRosa and Frank Catalanotto were given three-year, $13 million deals by Chicago and Texas, respectively. Those signings set the market for fringe players at a rather steep price, understandably making Commissioner Bud Selig more than a bit nervous about market trends.
Melvin gulped hard when he heard the deal the Dodgers put together for centerfielder Juan Pierre, a free agent in whom the Brewers had interest. Pierre is a speedy singles hitter who batted .292 last season with a mediocre .330 on-base percentage, yet Los Angeles felt compelled to offer him $44 million over five years.
Nearly 9 million dollars a year for a one-tool player? Only the game's big boppers used to get that kind of money.
"He's a nice player but he didn't score 100 runs (87)," Melvin said. "We placed a number of calls to his agent but we really never got a response."
Now you see why Carlos Lee turned down a four-year, $48 million offer from the Brewers in July, prompting them to trade the free agent-to-be to Texas. Lee agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract Friday with the Astros..
It takes only one good year to strike it rich, as previous journeyman Gary Matthews Jr. discovered by cashing in on a strong 2006 season with $50 million over five years from the Los Angeles Angels.
The Brewers are supposed to compete with the Cubs, who are owned by the well-to-do Tribune Co. and have a payroll headed toward $120 million. The Brewers probably will begin the 2007 season with a payroll half that size, up from about $54 million at the start of 2006.
Some of the increase will be swallowed up in raises to arbitration-eligible players such as Bill Hall and Chris Capuano. Should Melvin find a player he likes that would push the payroll beyond $60 million, Attanasio would give the OK.
But Attanasio did not become successful as a money manager / investor by flushing cash down the toilet. The Milwaukee market will never generate enough revenue to sustain a top-half payroll, even with revenue sharing and nice years at the gate.
But teams such as Oakland and Minnesota have fielded long-running playoff clubs with payrolls in the $50 million to $65 million range, and the Brewers believe they can do so as well.
In town a few days ago for a tribute to Selig, Attanasio told Journal Sentinel reporter Don Walker he has no intention of overpaying for players just because other clubs have done so.
"It doesn't change our mind as to how we are going to set out payroll, because we have the money to spend," Attanasio said. "The free-agent market is just insane right now."
Attanasio said the Brewers have a standing offer to one free agent and are considering another. But he indicated he would not overpay a player to make a headline.
"We are trying to do that within means that makes sense for our franchise," he said. "I'm a portfolio manager and investor by trade. Typically, you like to buy low and sell high. Buying low is generally difficult, but you want to pay fair value. You are not seeing fair value. You are seeing value that's way overheated.
"The agents go scrambling around to get premium prices for a mediocre player. And they get it. We can't participate in that. Markets get overheated, and sometimes you need to stand on the sidelines.
"We need to build a franchise for the long term. We can't completely hamstring ourselves by paying a lot of money for very average or above-average players. I hope our fans don't get frustrated with that. I hope they look at some of these prices."
Brewers fans no doubt will get frustrated as they see free agents the Brewers covet go elsewhere. But Melvin believes the wild spending will calm down after the remaining big names get their zillions, leaving worthwhile players to pursue.
"I think there could be a market correction in the middle of this thing," Melvin said. "In the end, there might be some players short-changed. There could be some free agents that may fall to us.
"We'll continue to pursue the players we like. We just have to regroup and make an adjustment in our plans."
One positive aspect of the wild spending is that Geoff Jenkins' $7 million salary for 2007 no longer looks out of line. At some point, some team might bite on a trade, allowing Melvin to thin his outfield herd and free money to make other moves.
"Teams are more focused on free agents right now," Melvin said. "But I think at the winter meetings you'll see some trades made. Teams that can't afford these prices will be willing to deal."
In the meantime, Melvin and Attanasio ask Brewers fans to be patient and see how things shake out by spring training. Other teams will spend wildly in the interim, but the Brewers don't want to jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver.
"I'm convinced we will be able to deploy our capital intelligently and efficiently, and give the fans a shot to win," Attanasio said. "Eighty-three wins (by St. Louis) won the division last year.
"We will put a team together that we think can win. You may not see that on Nov. 21, you may not see that on Dec. 21. But the money is there and our commitment is there."