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Cold reality check for remaining free agents, plus more notes
Tom Verducci > INSIDE BASEBALL Posted: Tuesday January 20, 2009 12:09PM; Updated: Tuesday January 20, 2009 2:39PM

Each passing day brings us closer to spring training and the remaining free agents to a cold reality check, if not forced retirement for a few.

The big money, except for what the Dodgers have socked away for Manny Ramirez, is gone. Teams such as the Mets, Angels, Nationals, Brewers, Athletics, Yankees and Cardinals still have money to spend, but not the kind for bidding wars. This is how one general manager described the remnants of the market: about 70 major league free agents competing for about 50 remaining roster spots, who are seeking about $100 million in contracts, but with only $60 million available. Talk about your squeeze plays.

Free agents have been smacked down by a double whammy: the chilling effects of the economic recession and the industry-wide trend of placing more and more value on young players under control. Draft pick compensation, for instance, has become a real hurdle in the way of signing free agents.

Another GM separated what's left of the free-agent field into two sections: those that made a mistake by not accepting arbitration and everybody else. "The agents who should have taken arbitration will be less willing to admit a mistake," the GM said, "so they may stay out longer."

The most head-scratching cases of arbitration rejections include Jason Varitek of the Red Sox, Orlando Cabrera of the White Sox, Jon Garland of the Angels and Ben Sheets of the Brewers. All of them were likely to be guaranteed between $9 million and $12 million in arbitration. Instead they might see a fraction of that guaranteed money, their value further diminished by costing a new employer draft picks.

"A guy like Juan Cruz went out looking for three years, $15 million," one executive said. "Now he might see two years and half of that."

Players soon will be under pressure to find some way into somebody's camp, as evidenced by Omar Vizquel on the verge of taking a minor league deal with Texas. Others don't seem fazed by the new reality. One journeyman reliever, for instance, turned down a $2 million offer, saying he would retire before taking that kind of money. Andy Pettitte did not bite on a one-year, $10 million offer from the Yankees, though a baseball source said he has been weighing a lesser offer to return to the Astros.

And what about older players such as Ken Griffey Jr., Garret Anderson, Nomar Garciaparra, Moises Alou, Luis Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Cliff Floyd, Jim Edmonds and the like? This kind of market could be career-ending for some, as it was last year for Kenny Lofton, Shawn Green, Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa. Unlike Vizquel, some former stars will not be interested in going to camp on a minor league deal.

The second-tier pitching market (Oliver Perez, Randy Wolf, Braden Looper, Sheets) will do OK, though not to the level those players expected. Whatever else is left on the market will depend on how soon such players want to acknowledge that this is one lousy time to still expect the big money. The pileup of available catchers alone is ominous (Rodriguez, Varitek, Brad Ausmus, Gary Bennett, Henry Blanco, Paul Lo Duca, Sal Fasano, Javier Valentin). Last year Kyle Lohse did not sign a contract until March 14. How many Kyle Lohses will be sitting at home this March?

Hamels vs. Shields
On May 12, 2006, the Phillies called up Cole Hamels to make his major league debut. Nineteen days later the Rays called up James Shields to make his major league debut. They have been similar pitchers ever since, even meeting in the 2008 World Series:

Hamels 84 38-23 3.43 543
Shields 85 32-24 3.96 554

Similar, right? Not when it comes to how they're paid. (Shields signed a multi-year contract in January 2008; Hamels did so one year later.) Take a look at their annual salaries from 2007 through 2011:

Year Shields Hamels
2007 $394,900 $400,000
2008 $1,000,000 $500,000
2009 $1,500,000 $4,350,000
2010 $2,500,000 $6,650,000
2011 $4,250,000 $9,500,000
Total $9,644,900 $21,400,000

Why is Hamels worth $11,755,100 more than Shields? It all goes back to when they were called up the big leagues. By starting his service time just 19 days earlier, the Phillies allowed Hamels to qualify for arbitration a year earlier -- as a "Super Two" this year. Shields, like most players, would not have been eligible for arbitration until three full service years, or in his case, 2010. Hamels benefited greatly from the leverage of a slightly earlier callup.

By the way, Hamels pitched two games in those 19 days in question. The Phillies were 1-1 in those games; Hamels threw 11 1/3 innings. Those 11 1/3 innings cost the Phillies $11.755 million, or almost exactly $1 million per inning. That was one very expensive callup.

To be on the safe side, clubs with an eye on the compounding cost of early callups have figured out that they're better off waiting until late May to call up a top prospect. (Super Twos are based on a percentage of qualifying two-plus players, not a specific date). Maybe it was just coincidence, but Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (May 25), Jay Bruce of the Reds (May 27) and Mike Aviles of the Royals (May 29) all came up late enough last year to most likely avoid being Super Twos.