ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
SIEGEL: Major league baseball players have had much to celebrate this off season. After a few years of what seemed like more sensible spending, teams have busted out the checkbook.
Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis, who joins us most Fridays, busted out the calculator and he's here to report that baseball's 30 teams have spent - Stefan, how much have they spent?
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): They have spent $1,554,800,000. That's how much they've committed to 105 free agent players so far this winter. It's all guaranteed and it's the biggest free agent bonanza in about five years.
SIEGEL: That's an incredible amount of money. What permits baseball teams to spend so much money on free agents?
Mr. FATSIS: The sport's financial health has never been better. It recently signed $3 billion worth of new television contracts. Its revenue from new media, including the Internet and satellite radio is far exceeding expectations. Attendance is at record levels. Licensing and international business is growing at greater levels than they expected. The sharing of revenue among teams has never been higher, and that's empowered less rich teams to spend more. And baseball has sustained stability for the first time the 30 years since the start of free agency. Players and owners last month signed their second straight labor agreement without a work stoppage.
SIEGEL: Well, the latest and biggest deal involved the San Francisco Giants, who yesterday signed pitcher Barry Zito, who formerly played across the Bay for the Oakland As, and this, I gather, is the biggest contract ever for a pitcher. $126 million over seven years.
Mr. FATSIS: He's a solid left-handed pitcher. He's only 28 years old. He's pitched more than 200 innings a year since 2001 and he moves to another very pitcher friendly ballpark in San Francisco.
But he's also four years removed from his best season, Barry Zito is. He's walking more batters. He's striking out fewer of them. And he's not likely to keep racking up the innings the way he has. A seven year contract is just long for a pitcher. I was on the terrific Web site Baseball Prospectus today. They crunched Zito's statistics and forecast that based on his performance trends over the next seven seasons, he would be a bit better than an average starter in baseball.
SIEGEL: Baseball's general managers can go to the same Web site that you've gone to and see what Barry Zito is likely to do so how does he fetch $126 million?
Mr. FATSIS: Well, he was the best pitcher in a relatively thin free agent market and the teams, again, have this money. The most instructive deal this winter I think was the signing by the Kansas City Royals of a pitcher named Gil Mesh. Middle of the road guy. Five years, $55 million. Now Kansas City was in the bottom five in spending in baseball last year and now it feels comfortable joining the spending spree. It shows the health of the sport but also that the players' union was very smart in forcing baseball to force its teams to spend the money they get from revenue sharing on players.
SIEGEL: Well, the Barry Zito deal, $126 million over seven years, is less money than the $136 million, albeit over eight years, that Alfonso Soriano got for moving from the Washington Nationals to the Chicago Cubs.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah and I think in 2011 or 2012, both of these teams are going to be wondering what they did. In the Cubs' case, though, there might be an ulterior motive. The Tribune Company, which owns the team, is thinking about selling the Cubs. The team has added about $300 million in new talent in the off season, including a new manager, Lou Pinella. The Cubs traditionally have been in the sort of second tier of spenders in baseball. This looks like a push to end the longest dry spell without a championship, and to make the team even more attractive if it's successful to a buyer than it would have been otherwise.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan. Have a happy New Year.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert. You, too.
SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.
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