Advice to Future Free Agents


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About six years ago, I was teaching a summer school Government class for students who wanted to get ahead in credits. It was a welcome change for me – an English teacher – and it was a class of highly motivated students who were a pleasure to teach. So it made for a really fun three weeks of extra income.

In our studies, we came across the Flood v. Kuhn Supreme Court case, which opened the door for free agency in baseball specifically, but also in all of professional sports. It was a rather serendipitous discovery in our textbook as Roger Clemens had recently signed his one-year, $28MM deal with the New York Yankees. We spent the better part of half an hour discussing the pros and cons of such a lucrative deal. As part of that conversation, we decided to figure out what a $28MM contract meant exactly.

For the sake of keeping the math easy, we assumed that Clemens would pitch 25 games during the season (he started 18 games, and his salary was prorated based on number of starts, which conveniently worked out to about $18MM for the season or $1MM per game). If he pitched 100 pitches per game, that would break down to $10,000 per pitch. Mr. Clemens would make more in three seconds than I make in two months.

Now, I don’t bring this up to decry the outrageous salaries of professional athletes or to bring up the debate of whether a pitcher like Clemens deserves to make $1MM for approximately two hours of work on a Sunday afternoon. Instead, I simply bring this up to put into perspective how much these athletes are paid, and because it is a nice anecdotal introduction to the point I am going to make later in this essay.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Winter Meetings begin next week, ushering in a weeklong spending spree by owners and GM’s in which some lucky ballplayers will cash in as the big winners. Over the past two years, the Angels have been the big spenders, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have been the big winners, and the disappointed Angels fans ended up the losers.

And now all of baseball anxiously waits to see who will be this year’s big catch. Will Robinson Cano become the 300-Million-Dollar-Man? Are there others out there who will bring home big cash? Jacoby Ellsbury? Shin-Soo Choo? Kevin Youkilis?

As I have grown bitter and jealous in watching these young men sign ridiculously lucrative contracts, I began to notice something. The size of a contract is not based simply on the quality of a player relative to the rest of the league, or even, specifically, relative to the rest of players at their position. Those contracts are based on the quality of a player relative to the other free agents of that particular year. It’s like there is one big prize of a $25-30MM contract out there, and the biggest name free agent will get it.

So I’m going to offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to this year’s free agents, and to those approaching free agency in the next few years:

When offered a contract, pay attention to who else will be up for free agency when your contract expires. Size up your competition. If you want that big contract, make sure you’re at the top of the heap. If necessary, try to negotiate an extra year on your current deal, or go for a shorter contract if it means putting yourself in a weaker pool. Whatever it takes to land the big bucks.

After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?