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Baseball...s Offseason: Who...ll Overpay Whom

By Wang Lei

It’s November, deep in pigskin season — Ohio State-Michigan is tomorrow for chrissake — so why am I writing about baseball?

Well, as a Miami native, I can tell you my football season started to sour right around the time the Dolphins chose to sign Culpepper over Brees in the free agency market and the Canes decided to not fire Coker for his embarrassing choke job against LSU in last year’s Peach Bowl. Without getting into a self-pitying, woe-is-me soliloquy like a 2003 Red Sox fan, I’ll just say that I no longer have reasons to wake up on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and April couldn’t seem further away.

Besides, being the only one of the four major sports without a salary cap, baseball off-season is like watching a NASCAR race for four-and-a-half months. But instead of watching for that 10-car pile-up, you’re watching for that equally crippling three-team deal involving promising prospects, aging has-beens, the Yankees, and eight-digit multi-year contract extensions. You watch, and you pray to God your team/car isn’t involved.

Like any good crash in NASCAR, where one car in the pack usually goes haywire to set off the pile-up, a good baseball off-season is set off by a team going crazy and signing Ridiculously Overpaid Free Agent (ROFA). Of course, if you even remotely follow baseball, you’ll know that the ROFA signings are most prevalent with the Yankees (e.g. their entire staff not named Mussina, Wang, and Rivera).

I’m going to take this moment for an aside:

Most people laugh at the Yankees’ current business model of overpaying free agents, but I think they have something to their method of madness. Since the Yankees make ROFA signings in nearly every position, they become the price-setters of each position in the free agency market. This allows for mediocre FA’s with similar statistical achievements to use the ROFA signing to pump up their own price, leading to similar ROFA signings by desperate clubs looking to make a move late in the off-season with dwindling options. But these desperate clubs aren’t working with a carte blanche like the Yankees, so their moves in subsequent off-seasons, or even mid-season, are naturally limited by their own ROFA signing.

Wait, did I just legitimize the way the Yankees operate? Forget I said anything ….

So who will be this year’s ROFAs? It’s hard to really know until the middle of the season. But here are my three leading candidates:

1. Daisuke Matsuzaka (Japan) — When was the last time someone paid $51 million just to talk to you? Let me give you an idea of how absurd this is: there were five teams in the league with a payroll smaller than $51 million. If the Red Sox gives this guy $30 million for three years, a very conservative estimate, he’d still be most expensive pitcher any team has ever paid for by a mile. If there’s ever a no-win situation, Boston’s got one.

2. Joe Borowski (Florida) — This will be the third straight year the Marlins have done the following: sign a retread closer with his best days behind him to a one-year deal, where the guy ends up having a career year, then someone overpays for him as he falls back to earth the next season. With their respective bullpens in shambles, look for the Yankees or Red Sox to make Borowski their overpriced set-up man in ’07.

3. Alfonso Soriano (Washington) — C’mon, do you really expect the top FA of this off-season to be left off this list? Soriano is entering the prime of his career, and is a perennial 50 homer/40 steal threat — read: he’s going to get paid. Other teams are going to drive up the price for the Mets, who are ogling him like he’s Scarlett Johansson and may end up overpaying.

Some other potential ROFA candidates: Jim Edmonds (does he have enough left in his tank to provide two years and $19 million worth of protection for Pujols?), Jeff Suppan (read: Kris Benson), Jason Schmidt, Barry Bonds (just kidding).

So enjoy the Ohio State-Michigan game — I’ll probably be drowning in sorrow, trying to sleep, and counting the days until baseball season starts again.