Spending on free agents exceeds US$1 billion


Players got rich. Owners got angry.

Baseball’s winter meetings smashed standards for big bucks and declarations of doom. In four days, baseball teams committed US$738.95 million to just 24 free agents, including US$412 million Monday to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, whose preliminary deal with Boston was set to announced Wednesday. That raised the total for this year’s free-agent class to US$1.043 billion for 49 players with major league contracts. “This has to end sometime,” Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. “The well’s got to run dry. It seems it does for a little bit, but then it starts back up.” On the field, Boston improved its offense with Ramirez and Texas did the same with Rodriguez. But unless they develop splitters and cutters by April, the Rangers don’t appear to have enough pitching to win a pennant. And while Boston is in much better shape, the Red Sox will be chasing the Yankees. In the National League, Colorado added Mike Hampton for dlrs 121 million over eight years to join Denny Neagle, who got a dlrs 51 million, five-year deal last week, giving the Rockies their best pitching staff ever. It remains to be seen whether any pitcher can be successful making half his starts at Coors Field. The loss of Hampton by the Mets, Ramirez by the Indians and Rodriguez by the Mariners weakened those franchises. At this early stage, the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves still appear to be the favorites to meet in the World Series. “A-Rod was in our division last year,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. “We had the lowest payroll in the division last year and we’ll have it again this year. We found a way to win the division. That’s something we relish.” At the bank window, the owners lost and the players won _ as usual. In the December 1992 meeting at Louisville, Kentucky, teams agreed to dlrs 250 million in contracts. Owners blamed agents, the sport went through a 232-day strike two years later and teams blocked their general managers from the winter meetings until 1998. This year, by the time teams left Monday night and Tuesday morning, they had produced their record spree — up from dlrs 52 million for two free agents during last year’s meeting at Anaheim, California. And just 13 of the 30 clubs did all the spending. “We all had looks of shock 10 years ago,” Baltimore Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. “But now you hear it and it is just one of those things. What’s next? Nothing really surprises me anymore.” There were just five trades, down from 13 last year, and just one deal could be considered significant, a six-player swap that sent Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz from Detroit to Houston for Roger Cedeno, Chris Holt and Mitch Meluskey. In recent months, small market teams have repeatedly said they can’t compete with big spenders such as the New York Yankees, whose US$113 million payroll this year was US$18 million higher than any other club. Coming in, the top baseball deal had been Ken Griffey Jr.’s US$116.5 million, nine-year contract with Cincinnati. Hampton topped that Saturday and Rodriguez more than doubled the record Monday by getting US$252 million over 10 years from Texas. Hours later, Boston gave Ramirez US$160 million over eight seasons. “In two days, we’ve doubled a new highest salary,” said Sandy Alderson, an executive vice president in the commissioner’s office. “I don’t like the exponentiality of that. “It’s incredible,” Alderson said. “It’s a straight upward trend that doesn’t look like it will augur at all. Every club will be affected by this.” Players say they’ve heard it before. “Same thing, different year,” Rodriguez said. Baseball’s labor contract expires next Oct. 31 and since many owners are demanding change, the sport is bracing for a possible ninth work stoppage since 1972. “I’m not going to respond to that stuff,” union head Donald Fehr said. “They’ll say what they say. I’m not going to play that game.” Yankees president Randy Levine, whose team has won three straight World Series titles and four of the last five, criticized Boston, Colorado and Texas as among the teams “whining about out-of-control payrolls.” He said it would be “the height of hypocrisy” for them to “ever complain about anything again.” “The argument put forward has always been that there has to be more revenue sharing as well as more payroll restraint,” Levine said Tuesday. “We expect to no longer hear any criticism from any quarter of the Yankees, since our record is absolutely consistent in that we have not broken any barriers. The lion’s share of our spending is on retaining our own players.”