WORLD SERIES ratings hit an alltime low this season—down 9% from the previous bottom, achieved in 2005—but no one in baseball was fretting about the health of the game, not in the wake of last week's announcement of a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that ensures labor peace until 2011. With record regular-season attendance (76 million) and soaring revenues ($5.2 billion this year, versus $3.6 million in '01), baseball is awash in cash, which is why the new agreement was the first in more than three decades reached without a work stoppage or the imminent threat of one.
While there were no significant changes to any part of the existing deal—most notably with respect to drug testing—the agreement continues to put generous sums of revenue-sharing proceeds into the pockets of small- and mid market teams, which now have more resources than ever to compete for free agents. (Even the lowly Royals, who reportedly received $55 million in revenue sharing last year, can speak about entering the bidding for Japanese pitching phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka.) Moreover, all clubs have the wherewithal to lock up their best young players to long-term deals. "The value of premier first- and second-year players goes up a lot," says one National League G.M. "A player like [rookie Cardinals closer] Adam Wainwright [top] is absolutely untouchable now."
One notable change in the new agreement is the elimination of the deadline for teams to re-sign arbitration-eligible free agents, which means that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds can drag negotiations with the Astros and the Giants, respectively, well into the new year. That should drive up their prices, and premium free agents like pitchers Matsuzaka and A's lefthander Barry Zito can also expect huge paydays (page 43). Ditto for second- and third-tier mound talents such as St. Louis postseason hero Jeff Suppan and the Rangers' Adam Eaton, who could command prices that the sport hasn't seen since the boom free-agent market of 2001. (Is that $9 million per we hear? $10 million?) Suddenly, the recent moves by the Twins and the Yankees to pick up $12 million and $13 million options on outfielders Torii Hunter and Gary Sheffield look like steals. "Get set for some crazy contracts," says the NL G.M. "It's going to be a seller's market because everyone's got money to spend."