As Larry Stone writes, all those free-agent bargains that everyone was expecting might not actually be there:
I got a hint of that before the winter meetings when a couple of GMs complained privately about the Phillies' signing of third baseman Placido Polanco to a three-year, $18 million deal. They were dismayed that Polanco, who hadn't played third-base regularly since 2002, got three years.
Then the winter meetings started, producing more deals that were groaners for teams hoping to sneak in a bargain or two. The one that seems to be getting the most grief is Houston's three-year, $15 million contract for reliever Brandon Lyon. There were eyebrows raised over other deals given to non-closing relievers, who once upon time were a breed that teams could pick up cheaply on the free-agent market. But LaTroy Hawkins (two years, $7.5 million), Billy Wagner ($7 million guaranteed) and Lyon are making teams wonder about that. And when Brad Penny, coming off two lousy years, gets $7.5 million, and Rich Harden, who can never stay healthy, gets $6.5 million plus incentives, and Randy Wolf gets $29.75 over three, then it's looking like a definite seller's market.
I'm not so sure about that. There was some crazy stuff last year. Especially Bobby Abreu signing for $5 million guaranteed.
I mean, sure: the relievers have been getting too much. If there's one thing that GMs still haven't figured out well enough, it's that relief pitchers are highly fungible. That said, only the Lyon contract is patently ridiculous. Hawkins is solid, and Wagner isn't far removed from being one of the game's better relievers. Penny was hurt in 2008 and terribly unlucky in 2009 (until he joined the Giants, for whom he was incredibly lucky), but he's been a good pitcher for a long time.
Polanco? He's been worth about $40 million over the last three years; does $18 million over the next three years really seem out of line? No, he hasn't played third base lately. But he has played third base, and played it well.
Wolf? He's been worth $22 million over the last two years; does $30 million over the next three seem out of line? Yeah, a little bit. It's not crazy, though.
I'm not ready to draw any conclusions yet, except that baseball guys still overvalue relievers who throw hard. And we're not talking gigantic amounts of money here. There hasn't been a single contract given out this winter that ranks among the 20 worst free-agent deals of the last five years. Maybe we'll see one, still. But we haven't, yet. In the old days -- I mean, like two or three years ago -- the baseball teams wildly overspent. Last year, maybe they overcompensated a bit because of the economy. Now, everyone seems to discovered a natural balance. It's strange, all this sanity.