Mark Buehrle is in the middle of negotiating an extension with the White Sox, and the media are all over how the deal includes a "hometown discount" at four years/$56 million, and the Sox should be happy to take it. The MLB Trade Rumors blog even went so far as to say:
"The fact remains that the team rejected a heavily discounted contract to retain their 28 year-old ace. It's damn near inexcusable to me, and I'm not even a Sox fan."
After last year's free agent spending spree, it's easy to lose sight of the value of a dollar in baseball. Looking back, how many of last offseason's marquee contracts have pleased the teams that signed them?
Alfonso Soriano? He's been fine, but no sane general manager today would cough up $136 million for a corner outfielder with a .900 OPS. Hell, Pat Burrell has been at .890 and .892 the past two years and he's not even starting. Soriano and his agent should thank their lucky stars that the Cubs had an epic 2006 collapse and wanted a quick fix.
Barry Zito? Hell, no.
Vernon Wells? Get real.
Dice-K? The Red Sox would probably sign him with 20/20 hindsight, but I doubt they'd be ecstatic about the deal they're getting.
Carlos Lee? See the Soriano entry, except that Lee has never had a season with a .900 OPS and in the field, he makes a good DH.
I won't even get into megabusts Kei Igawa, Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre, or Vicente Padilla. The point here is that the typical big free agent contract returns poor value on the dollar. This has been true basically every year except maybe 2003, when the market deflated for one season and stars like Miguel Tejada and Vladimir Guerrero signed for below-market prices.
What about Buehrle, specifically? He resembles Zito in many ways: He's been one of the very best pitchers in baseball over the past seven years, but he's a finesse pitcher whose strikeout and groundball rates have both declined substantially over the past few years. In other words, there are a lot of indications he won't age well.
Whatever team signs Buehrle's next contract needs to realize that they're paying for what he will become, not what he has been. Brian Sabean flunked the test with $126 million at stake. Will Kenny Williams pass?
In my next entry, we'll go into the economics of hometown discounts, and why they aren't as good a deal for the team as you may think.