Stage set for stupefying spending

Baseball free-agent list not spectacular but will produce big contracts and trades.

People in the commissioner’s office already are nervous, knowing that free-agent silliness is imminent. You thought last offseason was nuts, with Albert Pujols getting $240 million and Prince Fielder $214 million?

The top free agents this offseason are not as appealing. But a perfect storm exists for a winter of irrationality, and not just from the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose three-year, $22.5 million signing of “closer” Brandon League kicked off the proceedings quite nicely. Consider:

  • Labor peace is assured through 2016.

  • Baseball’s new, eight-year national television contracts will spin off $50 million per team starting in 2014.

  • The new restrictions on amateur spending, both domestically and internationally, create more flexibility for major league payrolls.

  • The breakthroughs of teams such as the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles this year increase the pressure on struggling franchises.

  • And, based on prior history, the mediocre quality of the free-agent class is unlikely to deter clubs from spending lavishly.

So, $100 million for center fielder Angel Pagan? Maybe not. But right-hander Zack Greinke, for one, could hit a massive jackpot.

The Los Angeles Angels desperately need to retain Greinke, who is by far the best of the free-agent starters. But their biggest division rival, the Texas Rangers, and biggest local rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, also want the pitcher, setting up the likelihood of a three-way bidding war; the Dodgers’ new local television deal, once it is complete, is expected to be even bigger than the Angels’ and Rangers’.

Rest assured, crazy things will happen even below Greinke — and they may happen fast, thanks to the new labor deal.

Under the previous agreement, teams were not required to offer arbitration to their free agents, and establish their rights to draft-pick compensation, until early December. The calendar effectively stalled the market; teams often were unwilling to commit to free agents until they knew which ones would cost them draft picks.

Well, that system is now gone. And the entire free-agent landscape will be clear shortly after the end of next week’s general managers’ meetings in Indian Wells, Calif.

Under the new agreement, teams must make qualifying offers to their free agents by 5 p.m. Friday. The amount of the qualifying offer is the average of the top 125 salaries, which this year was $13.3 million. The free agents who receive such offers must decide whether to accept them by next Friday at midnight. From there, it’s simple. A player who accepts the offer would return to his team on a one-year, $13.3 million contract. A player who rejects and signs with another club would cost his new team its highest available draft choice outside of the top 10; those picks are protected.

Bet on almost every free agent who receives such an offer to reject it. We’ve already seen a sizable number of opt-outs (Rafael Soriano) and players declining their ends of mutual options (Adam LaRoche, Ryan Ludwick, Stephen Drew). These players want a piece of the free-agent action, figuring that the market will be robust.

Some free agents undoubtedly will be disappointed; every year, a handful of players and their representatives misread the market. But when in doubt, go with the “over” on free-agent spending, especially when the sport is swimming in money, as it is now.

Smart teams, though, will avoid getting caught up in spending sprees. Even the top two free agents, Greinke and center fielder Josh Hamilton, come with questions: Hamilton is a recovering drug and alcohol addict, while Greinke has a history of depression and social anxiety disorder.

Some clubs, rather than overspend on modest talents, will become aggressive traders. Indeed, the recent three-team deal between the Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins is unlikely to be the last deal of its type. Baseball officials expect the trade market to remain hot throughout the winter.

Then again, certain teams are reluctant (afraid?) to trade prospects, and likely will prefer free agents to trades. The Kansas City Royals typically are one of those clubs, but they made a relatively bold move Wednesday, acquiring right-hander Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels for left-hander Brandon Sisk, a reliever who is 27 but has yet to appear in the majors.

Frankly, the Royals shouldn’t stop there. They should re-sign free-agent right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, then trade one of their young hitters for a young pitcher who would further supplement their rotation. Think first baseman Eric Hosmer for Tampa Bays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson or lefty Matt Moore, something like that.

Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc. — they’re out of excuses. The game’s payroll disparity is still an enormous problem for such teams, no question. But a shortage of money need not translate into a shortage of creativity. If Oakland and Tampa Bay can do it, any team can.

Which gets back to the original point: This offseason is likely to progress at a fast and furious pace. Teams, perhaps more than ever, will need an actual plan, whether they intend to join the initial frenzy or not. In fact, avoiding the initial frenzy might be the best strategy.

Consider the free-agent center fielders after Hamilton: Michael Bourn is the best of the group, but depending upon price, how much better is he than Pagan? Than Shane Victorino? Than B.J. Upton? The same goes for the top corner outfielders: Ludwick, Cody Ross, Nick Swisher. And it sure goes for the top starting pitchers after Greinke: Kyle Lohse, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda.

Some of those players are better than others. Some you would want more than others. The trick for GMs is to be both aggressive and smart, which isn’t always easy to do. Just know this: The Giants’ Brian Sabean and Tigers’ Dave Dombrowski didn’t reach the World Series by over-thinking every decision and refusing to trade every prospect. Both were unafraid. Both were rewarded.

We’re about to find out which teams learned from the mistakes of the past, and which teams will repeat them.

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