- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
When the New York Yankees really go for it, when they unleash their financial might in an effort to protect their brand and win a championship, that means firing almost a half-billion dollars at the best and most expensive players.
Two other teams have unleashed the full fury of their resources this winter, although you might've missed it. The Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres have pulled out all stops, and if you're trying to imagine what that looks like, well, just think of drag-racing Mini Coopers.
That is not said to demean either franchise. Actually, it's noted with great admiration. This is a baseball version of "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and the Padres and Rays should be respected for it, for doing all that they can to compete against the moneyed monsters within their respective divisions.
The Rays agreed to terms with Grant Balfour on Thursday, in a winter in which they spent dollars to sign James Loney and David DeJesus, their own free agents. To put the numbers in context: Masahiro Tanaka will make $22 million-plus per season in his seven-year deal with the Yankees, and Loney's $21 million, three-year deal represents the Rays' largest investment in a free agent ... ever. Balfour represents the third-largest investment. Unless some great offer suddenly emerges for David Price, it appears the Rays will keep the Cy Young left-hander, in spite of his $14 million salary, and go into the 2014 season with a franchise-record $74 million payroll, or about 18-20 percent higher than their 2013 budget.
The Padres have quietly made a similar move, a push that really began a couple of years ago when the team's new ownership approved deals for Carlos Quentin and Huston Street, and then took on Ian Kennedy last summer in the midst of his arbitration years. This winter, the Padres committed $8 million to Josh Johnson, signed Joaquin Benoit to a two-year, $15.5 million deal, traded for Seth Smith to address a specific roster need, and traded for left-hander Alex Torres in a seven-player deal with the Rays on Wednesday.
And just as the Rays seem to be leaning toward keeping Price, rather than flipping him for prospects, the Padres have chosen to carry third baseman Chase Headley into the last season before he becomes eligible for free agency, instead of trading him.
It appears that the Padres will take a payroll of about $85 million into the 2014 season, or about $30 million more than the team spent in 2012.
Padres GM Josh Byrnes noted the improvement of Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, and the expected return of Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly, in addition to Kennedy and Johnson. San Diego could have one of the best pitching staffs in the National League. To contend with the powers of the NL West, Byrnes said, "We're going to have to have really, really good pitching, and we'll at least have a chance."
Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, in the Dominican Republic, wrote in an e-mail: "We want to give our organization the best chance to compete and to win. We know that it's going to cost us more than we can practically afford. In some respects it's the price of our success. If we didn't have these types of players, if we didn't have the opportunity for a great season we'd be looking at a significantly different payroll."
Around the league
How much could that mean, given Lester's age and pitching history?
One comparable salary might be what Matt Cain got with the Giants before the 2012 season -- a six-year, $127.5 million deal. The Red Sox might prefer something closer to the $80 million, five-year deal that Anibal Sanchez got from the Tigers.
For years, there had always been some question about how good Lester could be, because he wasn't as consistently excellent as the game's very best pitchers. But in his work in the last months of the 2013 season, and through the postseason, he seemed to climb from the lofty second tier of starting pitchers into the top tier. He seemed to fully realize his potential, pitching to both sides of the plate.
In the second half of 2013, Lester allowed just four homers in 87 2/3 innings, with a 2.57 ERA, and in five October starts he surrendered only six earned runs in 34 2/3 innings, with 29 strikeouts. He would seem to be worthy of a solid five-year investment, at least, with perhaps some haggling over a sixth year.
• Grady Sizemore, now 31, hasn't played in a major league game since 2011, and he's had a total of 435 plate appearances since 2009. The Red Sox did extensive work leading up to their signing of Sizemore, to get a sense of where he is.
"We spent quite a bit of time with him over the last couple weeks, mostly in Arizona," said GM Ben Cherington. "Our scouts and medical staff went out there to see him. He's doing everything possible to put himself in a position to play and of course we know how good he is when he can do that. We think we can help him, but we'll know a lot more by the end of March."
John Farrell has a long history with Sizemore.
Sizemore changed his mind at the last minute, says Reds GM Walt Jocketty.
Club officials with other teams indicated they were leery of giving him more than a three-year contract because of his history of elbow trouble, but Garza has some extra appeal as the best available free-agent pitcher who is not tied to draft-pick compensation. The fact that Garza is prepared to take a four-year deal with a team not viewed as a classic landing spot for pitchers is a clue that the Brewers separated themselves by being willing to consider a fourth year.
The Cardinals should be prohibitive favorites to win the NL Central, based on statistical models and the potency of their young pitching, but the Brewers could be interesting; they usually hit, and with the addition of Kyle Lohse and Garza in the last year, their rotation will be improved, undoubtedly. Just as the Yankees had to extend themselves in the Tanaka bidding because of the failure of their player development system to produce good young pitching, the Brewers have had to fill in the gaps of what they are not generating from within.
"He does steroids or whatever, it sucks. He does this or that, it sucks. He's always in the news, it sucks," the Red Sox left fielder told the Herald yesterday before the 75th annual Boston Baseball Writers' dinner. "But this is the players' union he's going against. It's all of us. Not a real good idea."
Rodriguez recently filed a lawsuit against the MLBPA and Major League Baseball in an attempt to overturn a 162-game suspension for his violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. It was expected that the embattled New York Yankees third baseman would take action against MLB, but turning against the union has irritated many players in the rank and file, including Gomes.
The union represented A-Rod in his arbitration hearing last fall, but Rodriguez' suit claims the MLBPA "abdicated its responsibility" to defend a player and even takes issue with former union chief Michael Weiner, who died of brain cancer in November.
"I think what he had going on is pretty individual," Gomes said. "He did it. It was his decision, his suspension. But I don't think it's really a good idea to go after our union. Down to my (expletive) kids, down to the benefits we have, down to our retirement fund, the union makes our lives better.
"We pay dues to the union for our rights ... Him and the Yankees were butting heads last year. Whatever, don't care. But he's truly going against every single major league player, and every single major league player that's played this game before. It brings a whole different light on things."