There seems to be a common trend developing in these off-day posts. I seem to take something from the media, discuss it, then spin it to make it relevant to the Houston Astros. This week I point you in the direction of a Boston Globe piece, written two weeks ago, which laments the fact that players do not seem to be taking discounts to stay with 'their' team. Who knows what will happen when Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, two Yankees, face the prospect of free agency during the winter. New York, already put in an impossible situation by Alex Rodriguez in 2008, may not want to shell out $20m+ per annum again for a player they well know wants to stay put. Is the distinction between being rich and filthy rich more important to players than where they play their baseball?
And when the Yankees turn down the opportunity to get financially mugged, you know that's when the game has changed. As a wise man once said, "fool me once, shame on you." The Yankees bent over backwards for Alex Rodriguez and Scott Boras, but I would love them to turn around and say, "you know, screw this, we're not getting done over again like last time. We'll offer you what we think you deserve, not what you want."
When agents start saying things like "You have a shortstop who scores 100 runs and makes all the steady plays," you raise your eyebrow and look at Scott Boras and think to yourself, "Do you really believe that, or are you just hoping I'll believe that?" Jeter may have been one of the most over-rated players in the game, and that was before his 2010 nosedive. Sure 100 runs is great. Is it influenced by who hits behind him, absolutely. Add in the fact that he has the range of a bar stool (my favourite analogy of Jeter's defensive deficiencies), you can bet that no-one will start a bidding war with the Yankees for the shortstop's services, even if he is 83 hits away from 3,000.
In short, agents ability to manipulate the market is shrinking. Gone are the heady days when even pitchers such as Gil Meche (five years $55m) and Carlos Silva (four years $48m) can demand large contracts. That goes for the likes of Gary Matthews Jr. and Juan Pierre as well.
The Astros may have made their bed and are lying in it, having traded away franchise stalwarts in Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, but the decision over the future of Albert Pujols should prove to be a terrible quandry for St. Louis. Letting Pujols go would cause mutiny within the fanbase, but they could only realistically secure his services by offering him an identical contract to the one he signed five years ago, seven years $100m, with as much of it deferred as possible. If he asks for what he's worth, which is much more, then the Redbirds will get stuck in the sort of mess the Astros had on their hands earlier this season. If this was any other player, you could cut your losses and try and pull off a mega-trade, but this is Albert Pujols.
And eventually, I've arrived at the point I was striving to make, which is that for middle market teams to be able to compete, they have to rely on players who will take less money to stay with their franchises'. You need to get value everywhere, and avoid signing players who have their value driven artificially high. This means avoiding Scott Boras clients, something the Cardinals (sticking with them as an example) should have avoided, when giving Kyle Lohse an ill-advised contract after 2008. Faced with a $94m payroll this year, Ryan Ludwick's departure looks very financially motivated, considering he would have seen the $5.5m he made this year rise considerably.
And now we come to the Astros. Bourn and Lindstrom are both tied up till 2012, and Hunter Pence until 2013, so they rank pretty low on Ed Wade's priority list, but he has already acknowledged that he will try and sit down with Wandy and his representatives over the winter to discuss options. The problem with Wandy is that you are never quite sure what he is thinking. He does not give a lot of interviews, and does not talk a lot. One of life's un-written rules is that you do not take the Astros to a salary arbitration hearing. You will lose. They have not lost a hearing since 1996, and usually judge their offers very precisely. How Rodriguez felt about getting $5m instead of $7m in 2010 is anybody's guess.
If not exactly a parabolic career, Rodriguez's progression has been textbook, both in results and his skill-set. He has steadily improved year-on-year, But I do not see any scenario where he will be given, say four years $40m, the amount that I see Ted Lilly trying to sign for, when even the optimists are saying he and Carl Pavano should sign this winter for three years and $30m.
In this scenario, Wandy's best option is to ask for roughly what Brett Myers got last month.
For now, the Troy Tulowitzki or Ryan Braun route seems to be the safest way to play it. If future youngsters pull a Ryan Howard line of negotiation, then it is Adios Amigos. Players may feel that if they merit that sort of money, they should get it. But those sorts of contracts hamper the front office's ability to spend resources on other parts of the team. Howard may enjoy his $25m cheques when his team is winning, but it may not be so cheery in two or three years when Philadelphia decides to drastically cut its inflated $138m budget, and the team suffers as a consequence.
Whether the fanbase likes it or not (and I'm thinking not the TCBers but those that post sycophantic comments on Richard Justice's blog), signing the Carl Crawford's of this world would be living beyond our means. Quick fixes would just cause the same sorts of headaches that have been plaguing the Astros for years (I avoid referencing a certain left fielder and a certain former-GM). If Wade wants to build a successful team in the next few years, he will have to rely on the selfless qualities of the ballplayers he brings through the Astros' system. Without mega-bucks, he has no other choice.