Signing Elite Free Agents

Some free agents are franchise changers — players who alter the look of the team immediately and, more often than not, expensively. While identifying these players is easy, pursuing and signing them is not. General managers interested in top players must be prepared for an involved process that expands beyond the reach of the baseball operations department.

Take it from Dave Dombrowski, the president and GM of the Tigers. Dombrowski said he needed considerable involvement from owner Mike Ilitch to sign Prince Fielder for $214MM last offseason

“I think realistically when you start talking about those type of guys and the dollars that are invested, owners have to be involved,” Dombrowski told MLBTR. “I don’t know of a general manager or a president that has the authority to make a $200MM deal on their own … You don’t pick up the phone as a general manager and sign someone at eight years and $25MM per year and say ‘surprise.’ You don’t do those types of things.”

Last offseason Fielder and Albert Pujols obtained long-term deals worth in excess of $200MM. Ilitch and Angels owner Arte Moreno ended up with the star players, but other clubs were interested in both instances. The Cardinals, for one, had interest in re-signing their longtime first baseman. For St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, full engagement from the front office is a prerequisite for teams intent on signing elite players.

“One of those things that you’re trying to capture is that it’s a very global decision,” Mozeliak said. “So when you think about baseball decisions, you have the ownership side of it. You also have the business side of how they would market it, so you have a lot more people at the table when you’re starting to engage in this.”

This year, Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke are the elite free agents with strong cases for contracts worth $100MM-plus. Whichever team signs those players will be sending a significant message about the direction of the franchise.

“Not only are you looking at how it’s going to affect your team and how it’s going to play next year and in future year,” Mozeliak said. “But also what’s it going to do to your fan base? What kind of messaging are you sending to it? And I just think all of those things thrown together make it far more complicated than just your traditional negotiation.”

Major signings mean a great deal to fans in Dombrowski’s view. Once the Tigers signed Fielder fan interest picked up significantly and the public perception of the club changed.

“Because they look at him as a difference maker compared to somebody else who just may be another guy in people’s minds,” Dombrowski said.

There’s also the question of a team’s overall composition. Two offseasons ago, the Nationals signed Jayson Werth before they were regarded as one of the league’s top teams. Four years ago, the Yankees were already regarded as a playoff caliber team when they spent in excess of $340MM to obtain C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. It’s part of the balancing act for any team wondering whether to spend big.

“Is he the one guy you have, are you building around him?,” Dombrowski asked. “Or is he with some other people? With us I think the difference is we already had a couple of real quality guys and premium type guys and [Fielder] was being added to that group. I think the difference is when you reach that point and it’s not just the one guy, on the field your players look at it as you’re taking a step forward to win.”

These players can create shifts in perception single-handedly, not only for fans and onlookers, but for the team itself. Of course, much has to go right for a team to complete a deal of this magnitude. Signing top free agents takes coordination and timing, not just historic amounts of cash.

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