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Baseball is healthy, but free agency is dying

As free agency celebrates its 30th birthday, it's not aging very gracefully.

Call it the onset of a midlife crisis. The concept, for most, is a lot less fetching, not nearly as dependable and, generally speaking, not what it used to be.

A look at this winter's class of available free agents illustrates the point, like a vanity mirror revealing every blemish and flaw. Among everyday position players, only two -- Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee -- can be viewed as true All-Stars in their prime, with a third, Aramis Ramirez, a step below.

The rest run the gamut from injury-plagued veterans (Nomar Garciaparra, Darin Erstad) to able warhorses (Mike Piazza, Moises Alou) to useful parts (Frank Catalanotto, Scott Spiezio).

But it's in the pitching department where the talent drop-off is most evident.

Beyond Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, there isn't another starter who could be classified as better than a middle-of-the-rotation arm. And even Zito and Schmidt have dipped.

After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2002 with a 23-5 record and a 2.75 ERA, Zito is just 55-46 with a 3.85 ERA in the last four seasons. As for Schmidt, he won 35 games in the 2003 and '04 seasons combined, but just 23 the last two years.

Remember, these two are, by far, the class of the free-agent pitchers.

Just an off year, perhaps? A cyclical aberration? Not likely. The era of superstar players flooding the market, providing quick fixes for those with deep pockets, is likely over for good. Gone are the classes like 2000, which featured both Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, inarguably two of the game's best hitters in the post-expansion era.

"It's tough to make forecasts in this game," said one executive, "but I don't think next year is going to be any better."

More and more, clubs are locking up their own players -- again, pitchers in particular -- before they reach free agency. That practice, once the exclusive privilege of big-market teams, is now available to virtually every franchise.

"With revenue sharing and the money that's in the game and the overall financial health of the game, there are fewer and fewer quality players getting to free agency," said one American League general manager. "It's especially true of pitching. If you're a small-market team and you have a third baseman [approaching free agency], you might have a third base prospect ready to take over, so you let [the veteran] go. But with pitching, there's always a need and teams are much less likely to let it get away."

Revenue sharing, which began in earnest with the collective bargaining agreement reached in 2002, has reached fruition. Additionally, new revenue streams, led by online media, now flow freely and deeply to all 30 franchises, and more than half of baseball's teams now play in ballparks less than a dozen years old, producing still more avenues of income.

"Revenue sharing has worked the way it's supposed to," said commissioner Bud Selig. "There's no question the sport is wonderfully healthy."

Small-market Milwaukee secured Ben Sheets to an extension. Arizona has done the same with Brandon Webb. Toronto, felled more than any other club by the 1994 strike, has regained its financial health and locked up Roy Halladay. Minnesota, threatened with contraction only four years ago, has put Johan Santana under contractual lock and key.

So, there: four pitchers, all in their 20s, all taken off the market by their own small- and medium-market teams, at least temporarily.

"You have to assume a little more risk to retain [younger pitchers]," acknowledged a National League general manager, "but sometimes, it's worth it."

"If you can buy out free-agent years," agreed another general manager, "you do it, because of the limited supply."

It's little surprise, of course, that pitchers have been the biggest beneficiaries of such largesse. Pitching remains both the game's rarest commodity and its most essential ingredient. Stockpile it and you're guaranteed to be competitive; fail to have enough and you're guaranteed to struggle.

Pitching isn't inexpensive, but thanks to baseball's spread-the-wealth approach, it's never been more within reach for so many teams.

Take the deal that Boston made with Arizona for Curt Schilling after the 2003 season. Once the teams agreed upon the handful of (mostly) young players to be sent to the Diamondbacks, the Sox had the financial wherewithal to give Schilling a three-year $38.5 million contract extension to waive his no-trade clause.

It was a classic case of the rich getting richer.

"Back then," mused a baseball source, "only a handful of teams could have afforded that kind of deal. Now, only a handful couldn't."

Unlike other investments, quality pitching never depreciates, so teams do their best to hoard it when they get it.

"Unless you grow [pitching] yourself," said one major league executive, "or hit a home run in trading for a minor league pitcher, getting pitchers who are really accomplished, either through a trade or free agency, is very, very difficult. When you have it, you better not let it go."

Conversely, there's a real danger in overbidding for pitchers in an auction setting. The free-agent class of 2004, which featured Carl Pavano, Russ Ortiz, Matt Clement, Eric Milton and other relative busts, serves as a cautionary tale for general managers eager to sign those pitchers who reach free agency.

Still, the notion that player movement will become nonexistent in the years to come can't be fully supported. If small-market teams hope to convince players to stay and eschew free agency, they'll eventually need to achieve a level of respectability.

"Look at Kansas City," said one longtime executive, noting that the Royals have had one winning season in their last 13 while finishing last in the AL Central four times in the last six years. "If they continue to struggle, I don't think franchise players will want to stay. Let's face it, young players want to make as much money as they can in their first five or six years. Once they make the money, it's all about winning. And if they've never won, they'll want to go somewhere where they think they can."

What happens next will be fascinating, and if teams aren't smart, terribly inflationary. One prominent agent this week predicted that both Soriano and Lee will land deals with higher AAVs (average annual value) than the deal signed by Carlos Beltran ($17 million per season) two winters ago.

Boras, meanwhile, has reportedly told some that Zito can expect a five-year, $75 million package -- minimally.

"We could be looking at some regrettable deals in a couple of years," said one fearful GM.

"Clubs are going to have to do what they have to do," said Selig. "I just hope when teams are doing things, they do them sensibly."

The general unavailability of quick-fix answers makes it imperative that teams plan better and budget more carefully.

Most executives surveyed predict an upswing in trade activity this winter. There, too, a more level economic playing field will make deals more tenable.

"There are so many teams on equal footing," projected one GM, "you'll see more old-fashioned deals, rather than the ones with a defined buyer and seller. But free agency will always have its appeal, under the right circumstances."

What's clear, however, is that free agency is evolving and isn't the fallback it was not long ago.

"It changes the whole way you look at payroll flexibility," asserted another club executive. "A few years ago, if you walked away from, say, a guy like Cliff Floyd, you could spread that money around. Now, payroll flexibility is much less valuable because there's no one to spend it on. You have to plan for the ability to afford talent, but also for the access to that talent. I keep hearing that Houston and San Francisco are going to have a lot of money to spend this offseason. Well, who are they going to spend it on?"

So many dollars to spend, and now, so few choices.

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