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A slow burn to the Hot Stove

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 2, 2008 08:07 AM

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The World Series ended 35 days ago. November has vanished. And yet a potentially explosive baseball offseason has yet to truly begin, in Boston or anywhere else.

What gives?

Six days before the official start of the annual winter meetings in Las Vegas -- in this case, what happens in Vegas is announced to the world -- the 2008-09 offseason continues to move at a crawl. While the Red Sox have traded Coco Crisp and reached an agreement with Junichi Tazawa, major issues in and beyond Boston have yet to be resolved, leading to an array of explanations and theories.

In all probability, the stagnation in baseball is likely a combination of several factors, including:

1. The economy

Now that we are officially in a recession, the question is obvious: How does that affect baseball? The game has been booming in recent years, attendance records being set annually. Roughly a year ago at this time, Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million per season) and Johan Santana ($22.9 million per) signed the biggest deals ever awarded a positional player and pitcher.

Given the state of the economy, teams need to start planning now. Beyond ticket sales -- likely to decrease? -- teams must consider whether corporate deals (such as naming rights, a la Citi Field) will lose value (or worse) in coming years. That means teams might not have the same revenue streams in, say, 2011 as they do now, which means that a $15 million annual salary paid today could hurt a lot more in two or three years.

As such, teams are undoubtedly reluctant to enter into long contracts, especially given the disasters known as Barry Zito (7 years, $126 million) and Jason Schmidt (3 years, $47 million), among others. Last month, commissioner Bud Selig summoned former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to address teams during the winter meetings. Presumably, Volcker did not instruct the clubs to recklessly throw around money like a bunch of drunken sailors.

2. CC Sabathia

During the season, at least one Red Sox official expressed concern about Sabathia's ability to hold up over the long term, but let's try to see how the rest of the baseball world sees him. Sabathia is 28 and listed at roughly 6 foot 7 and 275 pounds. Over the last two seasons, he is a combined 36-17 with a 2.95 ERA in 494 innings pitched. In 2007, he was the American League Cy Young Award winner.

No matter how much baseball has changed over the years, pitching still wins. That means that Sabathia is affecting the market on all levels because is probably the No. 1 commodity. Already, the New York Yankees have made Sabathia a reported six-year, $140 million offer -- that's a whopping $23.3 million per season -- though the pitcher clearly has reservations about pitching for New York. (Otherwise, wouldn't he have accepted by now?)

Just because Sabathia is a pitcher, do not fall into the trap of thinking that he affects only other pitchers on the market. For example: The Los Angeles Angels, like the Yankees, are also suitors for Sabathia; like the Yankees, the Angels have interest in Mark Teixeira, too. Los Angeles probably doesn't have the money to sign both Sabathia and Teixeira, so Sabathia is holding up an array signings, from Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett to Teixeira and Pat Burrell.

3. Compensation

Big name free agents are one thing, but what about the lesser guys? A team like the Cleveland Indians isn't necessarily chasing the biggest fish, after all, so logic suggests that some lesser signings and maneuvers should have taken place. Yet, barring, say, Jeremy Affeldt, the market has been relatively slow there, too.

Why? As much as people like to argue that players like Sabathia and Teixeira "set the market" for lesser players, that is only partly true. At this stage, most everyone knows a player's approximate value. With less expensive free agents, the greater issue becomes compensation in the form of draft picks, which most teams are reluctant to sacrifice.

In that regard, last night was a big step. By midnight, teams had to offer (or not) arbitration to their own free agents. (For example, the Red Sox had to decide whether to offer arbitration to, among others, Jason Varitek. They did so.) Once arbitration is offered, depending on the "rating" of the player, some players require forfeiture of a draft pick by any team that signs them.

In short, here's what that means: If you're a small- or middle-market team, you are not likely to sign a player before Dec. 1 because you don't want to give up a draft pick. So while the big-market clubs are waiting for the big players to sign, the small- and middle-market teams are waiting for compensation to be determined. Talk about a bottleneck.

4. Scott Boras

All agents would be wise to preach patience at this time of year, but the California-based Boras takes negotiations to a different level. Nobody can drag out discussions like the man who might as well be the Merchant of Venice Beach. Boras waits even when there is nothing to wait for, preying on the insecurities and anxieties of team officials. In that way, he is a master.

The closer we get to spring training, the more desperate teams become.

With regard to someone like Lowe, Boras's job is easy. Once Sabathia signs, the teams who lose out on Sabathia immediately could become more aggressive suitors for someone like Lowe. In the case of someone like Varitek, for whom the market is decidedly less active -- true discussions with the Sox have yet to even begin -- Boras is waiting to see how the market develops (if at all) and how teams respond.

Earlier this week, an executive from one major league team said Boras likes to wait until the winter meetings to conduct much of his business because he can more effectively play one team off the other. Like it or not, Boras is a central figure every offseason because of his stable of talent, from Lowe and Rodriguez to J.D. Drew, Varitek, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Just as the road to any World Series almost always goes through New York or Boston, the road to any signing travels past the Merchant of Venice Beach.

5. Collusion?

Agents rarely make this claim on the record, of course, but they always wonder: Are the owners conspiring? In most cases, accusations of the like are nothing more than paranoia. But given the past behavior of major league owners and the measures to which some will go to manage costs, there is always the possibility that something sinister is taking place.

Especially when the former chairman of the Fed speaks to them as a group.

For as much venom as is frequently directed at players for being selfish, egocentric and out of touch, the owners can be richer and more spoiled. ("Millionaires against billionaires," is how one agent puts it.) Owners are just as capable of greed and self-indulgence, though most of them don't lead nearly the public lives of their employees.

The ones that do -- like Mark Cuban, for instance -- draw our ire as easily as Manny Ramirez does.

The point? Let's not rule out the possibility that owners are being difficult and unreasonable, too. As always, it takes two to tango.

What do you think is the main reason for the sluggish start to the Hot Stove season? Let us know by voting in our survey or posting a note in the comments section.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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