MLB’s free agent race: let the madness begin

If Jack McKeon is right — and Trader Jack didn’t win two pennants and a World Series by being wrong very often — this could be the winter when baseball finally stops scratching its free-agent itch.

McKeon, who lives in Elon after retiring as the Florida Marlins manager in 2005, believes the notion is finally starting to sink into baseball’s collective consciousness that the free-agent market is largely a sucker’s game.

“Nothing’s guaranteed with free agents except the money,” said McKeon. “There’s always going to be a few teams who chase one or two players they think are going to put them over the top. Then when they fall short they scratch their heads and wonder what happened.”

Here’s what happened: teams spent years grooming their minor-league prospects and building an internal chemistry only to disrupt it by bringing in a high-priced mediocre ballplayer who temporarily delights the fans but permanently infuriates the loyal veterans.

If baseball’s recent history is any indication, free agency is good for the player, but suspect for the team.

Throw out the 2009 Yankees, who spent an obscene $200 million on free agents to win the World Series, and we can see that, in recent years, the only guarantee to loading up on free agents is that there is no guarantee.

Somehow it has been wrongly written into our national pastime’s psyche that to snag a World Series in the fall you must first sign a free agent or three in the winter.

Somehow the San Francisco Giants, fresh off their first World Series title in 54 years, failed to heed that message. Sure the Giants signed free agents Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell before the season, but they were low-level stars whom many other teams ignored.

In 2008, Philadelphia signed just two free agents: outfielders Geoff Jenkins and So Taguchi. Not exactly Ruth and Mantle. Then again, the Phillies didn’t need high-priced stars to breeze through the playoffs and knock off Tampa Bay in the World Series. They spent the previous four years building within their farm system and making astute trades.

McKeon, whose Trader Jack nickname comes from his penchant for wheeling and dealing (and often stealing) with other clubs. He believes too many teams have no business dipping their toes into the free-agent market.

“If Pittsburgh were to sign Cliff Lee this winter he wouldn’t do a thing for them,” said McKeon. “They’d still finish with 90 losses. You need to build a team around him. Work your way up, bring a young team together and then when you think you have a shot go after one or two players.”

Unfortunately, baseball’s cognoscenti have neither the insight nor discipline to refrain. Just the opposite: They seem constitutionally incapable of restraint – both fiscal and otherwise. You think the Dodgers, Padres and the rest of the National League West are going to sit tight after what the Giants did this season?

“There’s a sense that teams have to keep pace with successful teams,” said McKeon. “What they have to do is worry about themselves.”

Last winter, nine free agents signed contracts worth more than $5 million a year each over the contract’s duration. As they say on Wall Street, past performance is not indicative of future results. Look what “bargains” those clubs got:

· The Red Sox signed pitcher John Lackey to a 5-year, $82.5 million deal. Lackey proceeded to post some very average numbers: 14-11 with a 4.40 earned run average.

· The Red Sox doled out $12.5 million over two years for Mike Cameron. Here is what they got in return: 15 RBI in 162 at bats before losing him to an injury.

· Minnesota was hoping for a breakout year when they signed Orlando Hudson to a one-year deal worth $5 million. Instead they got a breakdown season. Hudson’s .268 average was 15 points lower than his 2009 season with the Dodgers. His 37 RBI was far less than his 2009 output of 62.

Sure, you can always cherry pick the duds from the studs. But for every Cliff Lee and Mark Texeiera who hits the jackpot and delivers, there are dozens of others who leave their clubs holding the bag.

After adding Lackey’s monstrous salary to the payroll for four more years, don’t expect Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to show up with a shopping cart of cash when the free agent bidding begins in earnest next month. The Red Sox spent the past two years chasing after free agents like Lackey and now find themselves saddled with too much money in long-term contracts.

Of course, where the Red Sox fear to tread, there are plenty of foolish teams ready to rush in and make their own mega-million-dollar mistakes.

No one doubts the immediate impact Cliff Lee, easily the top player in this year’s free agent class, will have with whoever he signs with (no one doubts that will be the Yankees either). But Lee is looking for a long-term deal. Not many teams outside Gotham are willing to kick up the kind of money it will take to secure Lee, who will turn 33 next season.

Only 11 pitchers 32 and older last season threw 200 innings. Of that group only three of them — Roy Halliday, Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson — posted an adjusted ERA better than 125.

“(Lee’s) got a few good years left in him, but are those years worth that kind of money,” asks McKeon. “That’s the real question. “If you sign him to the long contract he wants, you’re taking a risk.”

That’s a risk more and more teams are starting to pass on. After all those years of foolish largesse, maybe baseball is finally starting to recognize a sucker’s bet when it sees one.