January typically is a good month to schedule some R&R for Major League Baseball front-office types.

Spring training rosters generally have been set, and there's little to do but count down the days until camp opens.

But thanks in large part to the national recession and its impact on teams' spending habits, it's hardly been business as usual. As of Friday, 110 of the 214 players who filed for free agency (51.4 percent) still were unsigned, according to mlb.com.

Compare that with 2007, when just 31.4 percent of free agents remained unemployed at the same point in time.

And it's not just the anonymous players. Marquee free agents still unsigned include outfielders Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn, and pitchers Ben Sheets and Tom Glavine.

"When you get to January and you still have the majority of the free agent class out there, there's anxiety. No question," player agent Paul Cohen said. "Anybody who says otherwise is a liar."

Central to this issue: the fear among team executives over what financial hit they might take should the staggering economy keep fans away from the ballpark in 2009.

That may sound ridiculous for a sport that generated a record $6.5 billion in revenue last season. But commissioner Bud Selig thinks there's reason for concern, and he's spent the winter drilling home that point.

At the annual general managers' meetings in November, Selig cautioned the GMs to spend wisely this offseason. Earlier this week he spoke to team owners with a not-so-subtle hint, addressing them while he stood next to an ATM that read "OUT OF SERVICE."


Advertisement

It appears to have sunk in.

Although A-list free agents CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira each landed nine-figure contracts from the New York Yankees, superstar Ramirez is waiting for serious interest to develop for his services.

The fortunes of the so-called "second-tier" free agents have varied. First baseman Kevin Youkilis received a four-year, $41.25 million deal from Boston last week.

But outfielder Pat Burrell settled for two years and $16 million from Tampa Bay. Burrell has averaged 31 homers and 99 RBI over the past four seasons and, at age 32, surely would have fetched more in previous years.

A's GM Billy Beane said the concern among teams isn't paranoia.

The A's find themselves with more financial flexibility this winter than many clubs. Even so, Beane said the team has had to reassess things since the start of the offseason.

"We've had to revise our revenue projections as the winter has gone along," he said. "People who are losing their jobs are also people who come to baseball games. Any thought that it wouldn't have an impact is probably misguided."

Added San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers: "Baseball is an entertainment business, a luxury for families. Things that get cut out sometimes are entertainment. I think (all teams are) going to feel it, certainly some more than others."

One theory is that the economy merely provides a smoke screen for owners to put a pinch on salaries.

Agents contacted for this story were hesitant to criticize management on the record. But there's a sentiment that there's enough locked-in revenue — from corporate sponsorships, TV and radio deals and money generated from the new MLB network — to keep teams on solid financial ground.

But the big unknown, club officials say, is trying to project season ticket renewals for the upcoming season, which is influencing decisions on how much money to spend in free agency.

The A's saw a considerable spike in season ticket sales two weeks ago with the signing of Jason Giambi.

"I can tell you we're tracking on pace with last year," said Jim Leahey, A's vice president of sales and marketing. "I think that's pretty good given the circumstances. I think there's a good chance that as optimism grows for the team, we have a chance to hopefully get ahead."

Tom McDonald, the Giants' vice president of consumer marketing, said it's too early to get a read on renewals compared with last season's numbers.

"It's probably the most difficult year we've had in quite some time to forecast what business will look like," McDonald said. "The early indications are surprisingly good, but we don't know what the next month will hold."

Cohen, representing a small number of free agents this winter, thinks it's too early to tell whether the recession will have any lasting impact in future seasons.

"How do season-ticket sales end up for the '09 season?" he asked rhetorically. "How does the economy bounce back? Which of (President-elect) Obama's programs go through? I think there are so many moving pieces right now."

Contact Joe Stiglich at jstiglic@bayareanewsgroup.com.