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Friday, December 29, 2006

The Arms Race

And we're not talking adjustable-rate mortgages here, either.

We're talking about this.

Barry Zito signs a 7-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for $18 million per year.


The linked article in USA Today talks about the arms build-up that's taking place in the NL West. I'm sure that articles in New York papers are talking about how deep the Mets' problems are since they failed to sign Zito. My guess is that few are touting GM Omar Minaya's grasping onto the last buoy before drowning in the Sea of Insanity that has been free-agent signings this year. The Mets do deserve some praise for not taking the plunge that the Giants did. After all, this is Barry Zito we're talking about, a good hurler but not someone who has "Future Hall of Famer" written all over him.

Roy Oswalt must be scratching his head in Houston; the Astros got him for a relative bargain-basement price this past season. And I'd take him over Zito in a heartbeat.

Will Zito pan out? Will the Mets suffer because they didn't sign him? Is the money in baseball so good that owners will now toss it around with reckless abandon? How much money will Vernon Wells sign for after next season? $20 million per year? $22 million?

That's the thing about auctions. If only one team's interested, you're not going to fare so well. But if more than one is interested and they have a sense that they have to have you in their uniform, the sky could well be the limit. There's just no explaining why anyone would give Gary Matthews, Jr. $50 million over five years -- except for the frenzy of an auction process.

Is the Zito signing good for baseball? The Alfonso Soriano signing good? Are the best players going to get the most money, or are those fortunate enough to have their contracts come up at the right time -- when there's a perceived dearth of players who do what these available ones have shown, to a degree, that they can -- the ones who will make the most? My guess is that in the short-term it's the latter, and, if that's the case, the players' union and the players who get these lucrative contracts had better be careful what they wish for.

Because for signing for the most money -- regardless of whether the team has a chance to make the post-season -- these players have outed themselves as being out, first and foremost, for the bucks. Look, most pundits -- certain former players excepted -- can't put ourselves in the position of guys like Zito and Soriano. To us, all of this is Monopoly money, and we think that we'd take $3-$5 million a year less to play with a potential World Series contender like the Mets than an aging Giants team or a Cubs team that hasn't won anything since before the late Gerald Ford was born. Getting a World Series ring, playing on a champion and being remembered for making a contribution means a lot to people like us (it's hard to say how many would prefer being, say, David Eckstein -- with 2 World Series rings in tow -- to David Winfield).

But most players do not do this. They sign with this highest bidder, and it's hard to see them happy with perennial also-rans. Why would you sign with a team like the Cubs, which seldom has a chance?

If these men perform well, then it's money well spent. If they don't, they'll hear the boos, loudly and clearly, even from fans in cities without reputations for having the toughest fans. The front offices of the teams inking players to these huge contracts are putting their reputations on the line too. If Zito or Soriano fail to pan out, the guys who advocated their signings might be looking for work, sooner than later.

Action is usually viewed to be better than inaction, and the management writers offer that companies do make mistakes, that's part of their evolution and part of how managers learn, and that the alternative -- to do nothing -- usually isn't acceptable. You have to do something -- anything -- because that is the credo of the successful. Take a stand, make a move, and move forward.

Right now the Giants' pitching staff looks a lot better with Zito than the Mets' pitching staff looks without him. Right now the Mets' pitching staff has many question marks -- a recovering Pedro Martinez, an ancient Tommy Glavine, an aging (if not ancient) Orlando Hernandez, and a bunch of prospects (Maine, Pelphrey, Perez). Absent a stopper like Zito, and this team could struggle, no matter how good it's bullpen is.

But are the risks to which the Mets are now exposed worth a commitment of $136 million over 7 years to Zito? The Mets made a long commitment to Glavine which turned out okay (four years at $40 million, but Glavine was not spectacular) and are in the midst of one to an aging Billy Wagner (in the second year of a four-year deal) that looks a little wobbly (Wagner was beatable last season). Perhaps, in the end, they knew that they weren't as desperate as the Giants. They didn't have to have Zito, and there's usually a team that really has to have a guy if it's willing to pay him that much.

I'm not sure how much better Zito will make the Giants, and I am far from counting the Mets out. They still have some prospects to trade, and I imagine that they pull the trigger on a deal before spring training that brings a front-line pitcher to Shea Stadium come April.

It's just that this deal will cost the Mets a lot more than it might have once all the top free-agent pitchers signed their deals.

Meanwhile, guys like Zito and Soriano have helped paint the targets that are on their backs, and they'll be watched across the baseball nation. If they succeed, look for crazier contracts come next off-season. If they fail, look for a temporary market pull-back.

It will last, perhaps, one off-season.

If that.


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