Another Free Agent Swallows Hefty Paycut
Right-hander Jon Garland, certainly one of the top half-dozen or so starting pitchers on this free agent market (off the top of my head, he's below CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Ben Sheets and Oliver Perez), has reportedly agreed to a one-year $6 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even a math-challenged hack like myself can figure out that's a 50 percent paycut from his $12 million salary in 2008, when all he did was go 14-8 (albeit with an unsightly 4.90 ERA) and throw 196 2/3 innings. Is this what baseball's free agent system was set up to do?
You can blame it on the recession or the rising value of draft-pick compensation, or chalk it up to a simple "market correction," or haul out the "C" word (that would be "collusion") -- whatever it is, something is out of whack. In Garland's case, he clearly made a mistake in declining the Los Angeles Angels' offer of arbitration, which, had he accepted, likely would have resulted in a salary of $14 million or so in 2009. Call it an $8 million mistake.
But free agency is supposed to be a player's reward after six years of being under a single club's control, and Garland, 29, would be justified in wondering where his reward disappeared to. And he's not alone. Thirty-two-year-old left fielder Pat Burrell, coming off four straight seasons of at least 29 homers and a .500 slugging percentage, already accepted a 43 percent paycut (from $14 million in 2008 to $8 million in 2009, as part of a two-year $16 million deal) to sign with Tampa Bay.
And in the coming days, a whole wave of players is going to be staring at similar scenarios. Adam Dunn, 29, is going to go from $13 million in 2008 to perhaps half that much in 2009, despite five straight seasons of at least 40 homers. Bobby Abreu ($16 million in 2008) will be forced to take a similarly hefty paycut. And other players, such as Orlando Hudson ($6.25 million in 2008), will have to come to grips with the fact they won't be getting the huge, multi-year deals they might have once envisioned.
Though it goes against the very essence of baseball's talent-compensation structure, the arbitration system -- by which younger players with between three and five years of service time have their salaries set -- in some ways has become a more lucrative path than free agency.
Ryan Howard's case with the Phillies -- if he wins, he will get an 80 percent pay increase over his 2008 salary of $10 million; if he loses, he will get a 40 percent pay increase -- is only the most visible example. Last year, according to the website www.bizofbaseball.com, the average pay increase of the 110 arbitration-eligible players was 106 percent.
Increasingly, the way to make the big money in baseball is not through free agency, but through arbitration.
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