LAS VEGAS -- As Major League Baseball digests the news of CC Sabathia's seven-year, $161 million windfall from the New York Yankees, the focus now shifts to the 150-something free agents left on the market.
Does a rising tide lift all boats, or just the ocean liners?
Now that Sabathia has settled on New York, the stage is set for Boston, Washington and the Angels to compete for Mark Teixeira. Has his price just spiraled to $200 million? The Yankees and Braves are courting A.J. Burnett's agents, Darek Braunecker and Mark Rodgers, at the Bellagio hotel, and Derek Lowe has received varying degrees of interest from Boston, the Phillies and the two New York teams.
The big boys, ostensibly, are fine. But will Sabathia's record deal resonate throughout the overall market -- to the dozens of Adam Dunns, Orlando Hudsons, Jon Garlands and Joe Beimels still looking for gainful employment in 2009?
A snapshot of lobby opinions largely confirmed the pre-meetings speculation: Most baseball people still subscribe to the notion that the elite players can generally sign their own tickets, and dozens of others will have to scrap for what they can get in a battered economy.
"I would like to see the compelling evidence that the economy isn't going to affect baseball,'' an American League executive said. "How is that a reasonable conclusion when so many people who contribute to the revenue of baseball have had their disposable income greatly reduced?
"There's a finite number of dollars available, and this may be a case of the first guys who start to grab those dollars [are] doing well and the guys who don't [are] overplaying their hand. They may reach the point where teams say, 'We don't have the money to do it.'"
This isn't simply an alarmist management viewpoint. One player agent spoke of a increasing "polarization of wealth'' in the game, with teams lavishing huge money on stars and filling out the lowest rungs on the roster with young players and veterans in the $800,000 to $2 million range.
"It's going to be more like the NBA,'' the agent said. "Can you even name the seventh to 11th player on an NBA team?''
Another agent observed that the Sabathia signing will clearly have a "domino effect'' by removing one key player in the game of musical chairs. But that doesn't necessarily translate to more money for everyone below.
"I think Tex and CC are aberrations,'' the agent said. "They're at the top of the market. Even in an economic depression, those guys are still getting paid. But they're the aberrations.''
In a typical year, a signing of the Sabathia magnitude might prompt the game's most prominent agent, Scott Boras, to emerge from his suite and pronounce the game healthy and financially sound. But Boras assumed a more conservative tone while picking his spots Wednesday.
He took a poke at small-market teams, such as the Pirates, who receive tens of millions in revenue-sharing and central-market funds and decline to spend it on players. Yet he conceded that some clubs are in a better position to spend than others.
"Thirty teams, 30 economies,'' Boras said. "We had one club [the Cubs] that filed for bankruptcy and is pursuing Jake Peavy, who makes $17 million a year. I've said that this industry is myopic, and that's the greatest example I could give you.''
While Braunecker narrows down Burnett's choice between the Braves and Yankees, Boras gears up to monopolize the Hot Stove blogosphere between now and New Year's Day -- or beyond. He has Teixeira, Lowe and Manny Ramirez in the fold, not to mention Oliver Perez, Garret Anderson and Jason Varitek, and history has shown that Boras is content to wait and let the tension build before he strikes.
Just as Sabathia had hoped to play on the West Coast, Torii Hunter said Tuesday that Teixeira's preference is to play on the East Coast. While Boras declined to confirm reports that Teixeira's heart is set on a 10-year deal, he did reveal that his discussions involving Teixeira are taking place above the general manager level.
"A lot of it in Tex's case is narrowing the apples here so we can get him to understand [the choices],'' Boras said. "He's somebody owners really like to hear from. I think they reconsider things after they hear from him, to be honest with you.''
For what it's worth, there was little outrage in Las Vegas over the Yankees' massive expenditure on Sabathia. The Yankees had to spend big to rouse CC from California dreamin' mode. And with millions of dollars in salary coming off the books and a new ballpark ready to open, they've been indicating for weeks that they're going to open the vault to rebuild the starting rotation.
Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin was philosophical after his best offer failed to get the job done. The Brewers offered Sabathia $100 million, but they don't necessarily plan to spend it on other free agents. Rather than invest in a Perez or a Jon Garland, they seem more inclined to dip into their well of minor league talent and try to swing a deal for a Zack Greinke or Jonathan Sanchez type.
Melvin was a gracious loser in the Sabathia sweepstakes -- observing that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman "did what he had to do'' in landing the big fish. Melvin recalls a press conference in Dallas eight years ago in which a certain Texas Rangers GM announced that the club had spent $252 million on a certain franchise shortstop, so he's familiar with how these things work.
"Hey, I signed Alex Rodriguez in Texas, and I remember the abuse I took,'' Melvin said. "That was the biggest positional player contract, and this was the biggest pitcher contract. I had one coming, and one going.''