Delgado is overpaid in new, soft market

Dec. 20, 2001  

Richard Griffin

Toronto Star

IN THE WAKE of a hard-line stance taken by baseball ownership against free agency, there seems to be a new counter-strategy brewing for the sport's most powerful agents.

Yesterday, both free-agent home run champion Barry Bonds and AL MVP candidate Bret Boone accepted arbitration offers from their previous teams, the Giants and M's, effectively taking them off the market and locking them into one-year deals, unless long-terms are otherwise negotiated.

Timing is everything and with major-league baseball owners using threats of contraction to prove their point of being an industry in trouble, last year's free agents should be counting their lucky stars.

Under last year's conditions, Carlos Delgado was worth it. This year he isn't. That's the view of many when it comes to the slugging Blue Jay first baseman's four-year, $68 million (all figures U.S.) contract signed back in November, 2000.

In fact, new GM J.P. Ricciardi's assurance to Delgado that he would not be traded seems as much a concession to the soft market as to any real loyalty to a man who may single-handedly earn 25 per cent of team payroll.  

In the wake of Bonds' and Boone's surrender and A's free agent Jason Giambi's seven-year contract for Delgado-type money with the Yankees, David Sloane, who had wisely included a clause which allowed Delgado's contract to be reopened last winter, could easily be voted agent of the year.

Of the remaining 29 free agents who earned $3 million or more in 2001, 22 are expected to be forced to take cuts, including names familiar to Jays fans, like Devon White, David Wells, Dante Bichette, Matt Stairs and Brian Bohanon.

Every day there are more free-agent defectors stepping up to sign for less than expected. Yesterday it was Bonds and Boone, Moises Alou with the Cubs (three years, $27 million), Dave Burba with the Rangers and John Burkett with the Red Sox (two years, $11 million).

Baseball is undeniably doing something concerted to keep salaries under control. The teams call it fiscal responsibility. The union smells collusion. It's a tough call. It's certainly not collusion, in as blatant a form as the late '80s under then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth, when the Expos, for example, offered Tim Raines and Andre Dawson the same deal as the year before, with no other club showing interest. Nevertheless, the lack of interest in some of this year's premier talent is stunning.

Of the top 21 salaries in baseball —all averaging at least $12.5 million per season — Giambi's is the only one agreed to since the end of the 2001 season. Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Jeff Bagwell of the Astros both signed Top 21 extensions during the season.

Compare his $119 million for seven years to last year's orgy of spending led by Tom Hicks and the Texas Rangers heaping $252 million for 10 years on shortstop Alex Rodriguez. In addition, a year ago, Manny Ramirez, Mike Hampton, Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Chipper Jones and Delgado all entered the Fortune 21.

Collusion? Perhaps. Certainly there is no smoking gun this time around under commissioner Bud Selig. But more importantly, do fans really care?

Apparently the biggest concern of fans, as teams and players hammer out a new basic agreement with contraction lurking, is not how much money the home team loses, but how many games the home team wins. In a poll of fans conducted by Major League Baseball, the biggest concern was competitive balance and the fact that no team outside the top 50 per cent of payroll has managed to win a post-season series in the last 10 years.

It's likely the Jays won't qualify among the top half of spenders in 2002.

In fact, when Delgado looks around the clubhouse this spring, minus all friends and veterans, he may be the one approaching the Jays looking for a parade route out of town.