Value Judgment

A crowded market may mean less cash for sluggers next winter
May 09, 2010

The Rays' upcoming decision on free-agent-to-be Carl Crawford is easy. With the leftfielder in line for Matt Holliday money ($17 million per season), there's no chance a team with Tampa Bay's finances can hold on to a player who would eat more than 20% of their payroll. With Carlos Peña, however, things are more complicated. Peña, who has given the team three big years, comes to the end of a three-year, $24.1 million contract this fall. He'll turn 32 this month, and is off to a good start (.224 batting average, but a .350 on-base and .435 slugging percentage) as the Rays' primary lefthanded power source.

In the wake of the gargantuan five-year $125-million contract extension that Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies, the easy thing to do is write off Peña's chances of returning to the Rays. After all, he's never made crazy money, this is probably his last chance to do so, and his agent is the uncompromising Scott Boras. If Howard, who's 30, can get $25 million a year without becoming a free agent, Peña, who isn't quite Howard's equal as a hitter but is better defensively, would seem justified in asking for well into eight figures annually on the open market.

On the other hand Peña is hitting free agency at an inopportune time. Early-season attendance figures are a sign that next winter's market for free agents may once again be uninviting, and most teams willing to spend money are doing so with a greater understanding of positional value and aging curves that lead them to shy away from older first basemen. Offense-only players have had trouble finding high-paying jobs the past few off-seasons, from the surprisingly small two-year deals signed by Pat Burrell ($16 million from Tampa Bay) and Adam Dunn ($20 million from the Nationals) after 2008 to the minimal interest in Russell Branyan last winter to Jermaine Dye's ongoing unemployment. Finally, Peña won't be alone on the market; comparable players such as the Cubs' Derrek Lee and the White Sox' Paul Konerko will be competing for new contracts as free agents.

Given that the Rays' otherwise strong farm system doesn't feature an obvious replacement for Pe√±a, and that Pe√±a's free agency might not be as lucrative as it once could have been, both sides should be motivated to reach a deal. The Rays can use some of the money coming off the books as Burrell's contract expires to give Pe√±a a raise to the $11 million range; a three-year deal at that annual figure is the high end of what Pe√±a can probably expect if he hits the market. Pe√±a's dexterity at first base—he won a Gold Glove in 2008—is a hidden asset here. Unlike Dunn, Burrell, Branyan, Dye or Jim Thome, Pe√±a adds value defensively, making an eight-figure deal a reasonable investment for Tampa Bay.

PHOTOSTEVEN KING/ICON SMI (KONERKO)FIRST THING Konerko (left) and Lee (right) hope Howard's deal upped their worth. PHOTORICK SCUTERI/US PRESSWIRE (HOWARD)[See caption above] PHOTODENNIS WIERZBICKI/US PRESSWIRE (LEE)[See caption above]