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Never have so many excellent players been left standing when the offseason music stopped. OK, a couple of times before, but the owners were found guilty and punished. This time, it's not illegal -- has anyone noticed Donald Fehr taking any bows for negotiating the new CBA? -- but we are seeing a wholesale change in the business of baseball.

The Twins can't afford David Ortiz, the Angels prefer a roster spot and cash to Brad Fullmer, the Jays wave goodbye to Jose Cruz, and so on. And if six or seven other teams let similar players walk, instead of going to arbitration, they will all hire each other's castoffs to fill the same roles as they guys they let go. The result? No change in talent (some teams will guess right, some wrong, on who they sign to replace the departed, but no net change) and a huge reduction in the collective payroll.

I'm not saying this is a terrible thing. I wasn't pro-union before the 2002 strike threat, nor pro-owner. I was vehemently against the "hawk" faction among the owners, who wanted the players to save them from their own greed and inept management practices. I was thrilled when the strike was averted, and credited the saner players (Glavine, Surhoff and others) for urging their leaders to compromise. I did not anticipate that the deal would have such a dramatic impact, expecting business as usual and a fantastic AL West stretch drive. I was half right; it was a great pennant race.

But in conjunction with the clearly-defined "tax" threshold, those same owners who used to defy common sense and battle for talent with duelling chequebooks -- Tom Hicks of Texas is the poster boy -- simultaneously (and coincidentally, if you're not a cynic) woke up. The teams who were already ahead of the curve, like our Blue Jays since J.P. Ricciardi came to the rescue, are very, very fortunate. They used to be in the minority, but all of a sudden, almost everybody caught on. Others are left holding what used to be assets, except their value has disappeared.

Imagine trying to trade Raul Mondesi into this market. Let's try the Mets. Oh, they foolishly signed Cliff Floyd before divesting themselves of last year's calamities, Burnitz and Cedeno. So they're also trying desperately to unload an overpaid, underachieving OF. Or two. Perhaps the Cardinals. Nope, they can't find anyone to take J.D. Drew off their hands. The Cubs, they're always easy to fool. Too bad, still paying through the nose for Moises Alou, who I remind you all, wannabe-GM Richard Griffin thought was the best possible free agent for Toronto at this time last winter.

J.P.'s feat of legerdemain -- getting the Yankees to eat Raul, or most of his contract -- seemed brilliant at the time, but would be an impossibility now. The Jays are familiar with these new realities; they've been leading the way for over a year. If nobody wants Jose Cruz Jr. at the salary an arbitrator might award, Ricciardi doesn't make a panic offer; he just shrugs. There will be lots of more practical solutions, as too many free agents and not enough buyers continue to drive down salaries and make one-year desperation contracts the best alternative for players. (I admit to a certain pleasure at watching the agents squirm.)

In this brave new world, getting a warm body for Kevin Millwood suddenly, perversely, makes sense. Possibly the greatest catcher in the history of the game -- certainly a guy who warrants comparison to Bench, Campanella and Josh Gibson -- is pondering a move to Japan, and his MLB alternatives are the (shudder) Brewers and the (giggle) Orioles, for about a third of what he was worth not so long ago, and with no job security. The mighty New York Yankees are going to be devastated by the luxury tax, and with the majority of other teams in frantic "sell" mode, won't find any takers to bail them out of their self-inflicted financial nightmare.

Again, I'm not complaining, merely expressing my astonishment. In fact, when I stop looking at the big picture and put on my Jays cap, I become optimistic. The local team is smart, decisive and has already done the impossible -- improving its talent while cutting the budget. When the previous regime's over-commitment to Carlos Delgado expires, there is a possibility he'll accept reasonable market value for his services and stay, because a) Toronto will be a serious AL contender and b) most other teams will still be handcuffed and unable to pay him more. Ricciardi knows flexibility is more valuable than any one player, and he'll approach the Delgado negotiations with the same practical vision that guides every other move. His rivals, still adjusting to the situation, and with guys at the helm who weren't particularly adept before, are not going to keep up.

Tearing down and rebuilding, which J.P. did in record time and the Indians have done, but with less immediate or obvious results, was never easy, and it's harder than ever now. It doesn't take just fiscal responsibility to compete in this upside-down scenario; you have to get the right talent. That's where Toronto and Oakland shine; it's too soon to tell whether all the Cleveland youngsters will reach their considerable potential. The Phillies, with a new stadium expected to boost revenues in 2004, are the only team to buck the trend and shift into "win-now" mode, and the bill for that decision won't be payable for a couple of years. Unless Thome stubs his toe; they should pack that guy in ice.

Not every move the Jays have made will work out. Things happen. (See Prokopec, Luke, medical report.) So they might get a great year from Greg Myers, or not. Cory Lidle might win 15 games, or he might suffer a wrist injury giving an A's high-five to one of his new teammates. Mike Bordick could save the season if Woody gets hurt, or could be an expensive cheerleader. Nobody's crystal ball is that precise, but the common denominator is that none of these changes will "haunt" Toronto. The market is going to be even better next winter for sharp front offices to make inexpensive adjustments -- assuming they have a few dollars to spend and available roster spots. So don't judge J.P. from the short-term perspective; his real genius is yet to be displayed.
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_jason - Saturday, December 21 2002 @ 04:15 PM EST (#100655) #
Well written article Coach. I enjoyed it. I guess the only thing else I would add is that the clubs might also be motivated to make these moves because the FA market next year promises to be one of the richest ever in terms of talent. Freeing up salary now, or not commiting salary now, may mean they will have more with which to go after these FAs next year.
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