Far from a buyer's market this winter

The frenzy of the free-agent signing period hasn't yet begun, but already there's across-the-board agreement about one thing: This year's class is one of the weakest in recent memory.

That's not to suggest that money won't be spent, and liberally. Indeed, some executives believe teams -- flush with money from TV contracts, revenue sharing and satellite-radio deals -- will spend, with little regard for quality.

"For some teams," one industry source said, "it's still the most obvious quick fix. If you want to prove to your fans that you're serious about improving, signing a free agent is the easiest way to demonstrate that you mean business."

But there's little denying that this is a decidedly down year. There's no franchise player -- like Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada two years ago or even Carlos Beltran last year.

The best everyday position players may be All-Star-caliber -- Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Brian Giles -- and you could put a pretty good outfield together with that trio, but this is far from a buyer's market.

"There just isn't a lot out there this year, for whatever reason," agreed one major-league executive. "But I don't know why that is."

It's an inexact science, this business of sifting through patterns and trends. Why is one year plentiful but not the next? Here are a few theories:

1. It's cyclical, stupid.
Quality players are finite. There are a limited number of superstars in the game, and when a number pop up on the market several years in succession, they are, by definition, taken out of circulation for the next several years.

Also, the better the player -- Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Beltran -- the longer his deal is likely to be, and the longer he remains off the market. When they were last eligible, Ramirez signed for eight years, A-Rod for 10 and Beltran for seven.

2. Teams are locking up their best players sooner.
"When you have a known commodity," said one general manager, "it's just smart business to get them signed [to an extension]. If you can afford it, that is."

Look around at the players who have signed long-term deals in the last year, in effect selling off some of their (potential) free-agent years: Johan Santana and Ben Sheets, to name just two.

It's especially true with starting pitching, since it's nearly impossible to obtain via trade and overpriced to sign on the free-agent market.

This year's starting-pitching class is a prime example. The best available starter (A.J. Burnett) is a career .500 pitcher who didn't win a game after Aug. 19 and has a history of injuries.

If you go through the trouble of signing, scouting and developing a quality arm, you have one of two choices: sign or trade.

The Milwaukee Brewers kept Sheets and the Minnesota Twins retained Santana, and each made a statement to its fan base by doing so. The Oakland A's, meanwhile, dealt off Tim Hudson (to Atlanta) and Mark Mulder (to St. Louis) and got something in return.

Even the Marlins flirted with the notion of swapping Burnett at the trading deadline, though they were very much in the playoff hunt at the time. Given how poorly Burnett pitched and how the Marlins finished out of the postseason running, they may regret their decision.

One thing you seldom do, however, is allow a quality starting pitcher to reach the open market while gaining only a draft pick (or two) in return.

3. The most movement these days is among mid-level players.
Superstars are more likely to settle down -- either with their original franchises (Derek Jeter) or after one big payday (Rodriguez).

Teams are apt to build around the best players, even in small markets like Kansas City, where the Royals thought it was imperative to keep Mike Sweeney.

It's the average players who are naturally viewed as interchangeable. You might want to hold on to your core group and fill in around them. Hence, the availability of (mostly) mid-level players, for whom long-term deals and job security are a thing of the past.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.