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The rules of free agency

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 20, 2009 10:36 AM

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The free agent season now commences in earnest, so let the games begin. Last year, on the first day of bidding, the Red Sox presented Mark Teixeira with a six-year, $120-million offer. Several weeks later, Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million deal with the New York Yankees to conclude a shopping spree like no other in baseball history.

As much as the 2009 baseball season was settled on the field last summer, one could just as easily argue that the World Series was decided in November and December.

For the Red Sox, the work this offseason obviously begins with Jason Bay, whose free agent status leaves a sizable hole in the Boston lineup and outfield. For all of the attention placed on reports yesterday that Bay had rejected a four-year, $60 million contract from the team, representatives for the Sox and Bay long ago decided that the player was going to test the market. According to a reliable baseball source, the truth is that the Sox offered Bay a four-year contract as far back as the All-Star break, and there was simply no way that Bay was going to sign with the Sox before opening himself up to bids from other teams.

Given that fact, here are some things you should keep in mind over the next several weeks.

  • Believe half of what you read and less of what you hear. Yesterday’s report about Bay is a good example. The fact that he ``rejected’’ a four-year proposal worth something close to $60 million is no news at all. Not really. Immediately after the Red Sox season ended, both Bay and Sox general manager Theo Epstein have been stating with some certainty that Bay was going to file and take bids. That hasn’t changed.

    Bay and the Red Sox have had some discussion in recent weeks, but no free agent was able to discuss financial terms or take with any new team until midnight last night/this morning. Free agency moves according to a schedule. Much of what is written and said in the media at this time of year is either a dramatization or inaccurate -- and we’re not excluding any outlets -- particularly in a media age where fewer and fewer are held accountable for what they say or write.

    The point? Teams lie and manipulate. So do agents. The pressure to get the scoop leads to shoddy and sometimes reckless reporting. Last year, one Red Sox official privately admitted that the team felt no need to correct misinformation because the murkier the picture, the better for the organization. Next month’s winter meetings might as well have Pinocchio as a mascot.

  • Be patient. As much as we would all like to know who will be playing left field and shortstop, the process can be quite deliberate, especially when agent Scott Boras is involved. Last year, according to one Sox official, part of the reason the club opened with a six-year, $120 million offer for Teixeira is because the Sox know Boras all too well. Nobody can string out a negotiation like Boras, who represents outfielder Matt Holliday, among others.

    By the end of the Teixeira talks, the Sox were at eight years and $170 million.

    Regardless of whether Holliday is on the Red Sox’ radar -- and rest assured that he is -- there are so many moving parts during every postseason that it takes for them to fall into place. Don’t be surprised, for example, if Holliday signs after Bay, despite the fact that many deem Holliday the better all-around player. And don’t be surprised if the Red Sox are willing to give Holliday a longer contract than they are willing to give Bay, if it ever comes to that.

    Remember: The Sox’ primary objective last winter, as with this one, was offense. They ended up signing mostly pitchers on incentive-laden contracts. Free agency can take teams in lots of different directions.

  • Suspect collusion. Along with death and taxes, here is another certainty of life: agents will always accuse owners of collusion. You can pretty much set your clock by it. Once the agents start grumbling at a certain decibel level, it usually means we’ve reached early- to mid-December, when another crop of players is about to flood the market and drive down the market.

    Generally speaking, the high-profile players always will get their money. But in recent years, owners have backed off considerably once the elite players have signed. Every December, a new crop of "non-tender’’ free agents hits the market in December. Usually, these are players headed for arbitration -- like Colorado corner infielder Garrett Atkins, for example -- whose salaries might far outweigh their performance.

    In the case of someone like Atkins, he made a shade more than $7 million last year and batted .226. Thanks to arbitration, he will still be due a raise. (Nice country, eh?) Because Atkins is due for free agency at the end of the 2010 season, the Rockies would love to trade him. Teams interested in Atkins -- the Red Sox? -- would rather wait for Atkins to hit the market as a non-tender free agent in December. Thus begins the game of chicken.

    Trade for Atkins and pay a bigger salary along with sacrificing prospects? Or wait to see if the Rockies non-tender him, effectively giving him his release? And what if, in the end, Colorado just keeps Atkins?

    Ultimately, here’s the point: if you’re someone like current free agent Adrian Beltre, you’re probably not going to get big money. Even wealthy teams like the Red Sox would rather wait for Atkins than pay for Beltre. By doing so, the price comes down for both. Most every team is now taking the same philosophy, be it by design or consequence. Regardless, agents are getting irked -- and maybe rightfully so. Teams are either colluding or using the market against the players.

  • Prepare for the unexpected. At the risk of triggering bad memories, let’s look at the case of Julio Lugo. During the winter of 2006-07, the Sox signed Lugo to a disastrous four-year, $36 million contract. Quite literally, the Sox are still paying for that one. But ask Sox officials if they feel signing Lugo was a mistake and they will shake their heads no.

    Stubbornness, you say? Hardly. The real mistake, the Red Sox will tell you, is that the team put itself in a position organizationally where it had few other options. Because the Sox didn’t have a major league-ready shortstop in their system, they had to sign Lugo. That was part of the reason the Sox went out this year and spent $8.25 million on Cuban youngster Jose Iglesias, who could be with the big club in 2011.

    So what will the Sox do in 2010? Good question. The presence of Iglesias gives them many options. The Sox could try to re-sign Alex Gonzalez on a one-year deal. They could get more aggressive and pursue Marco Scutaro. In a worst-case, the Sox could even move former college shortstop Dustin Pedroia to shortstop for a season -- don’t entirely rule this out -- and try to find an offensive-minded second baseman that would improve the depth of the lineup.

  • Don’t forget the international market, especially as it pertains to pitching. In 2006-07, while the San Francisco Giants were spending $126 million on Barry Zito, the Red Sox invested more than $103 million in Daisuke Matsuzaka. At that time, most American fans had no real idea of who Matsuzaka was. The Sox, especially, are quite covert with regard to international operations, and we should all remember that talented young lefthander Aroldis Chapman is still on the market after defecting from Cuba.

    On the whole, the Red Sox’ pitching staff is in pretty good shape. Still, the Sox could use some depth in the rotation and in their minor-league system. Chapman is a great fit for them. Beyond that, the Sox will likely dabble in low-risk, high-reward starters -- don’t take the cheese on John Lackey -- and bullpen depth. That will be especially true if they fail to secure Bay or Holliday for the middle of their lineup.

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    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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