As the Yankees watched an excellent regular season turn into a difficult American League Division Series and a massively disappointing AL Championship Series, one player found himself in the center of the spotlight again and again. Fairly or not (largely not), Alex Rodriguez drew the bulk of the attention, and the criticism, for New York's October offensive fade.
It's natural for Rodriguez to fade. These things happen. Rodriguez is 37, and 37-year-old ballplayers don't tend to perform at the same level as 27-year-olds, or even 30- or 32-year-olds.
The problem for the Yanks is that their third baseman, while still a productive player, is signed for five more years. He's owed $118 million more in that time, even as he's almost sure to continue declining. Just the remaining value on Rodriguez's deal would be the 32nd-largest deal in the history of the Major Leagues.
So it raises a question, as Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke hit the market this winter. If the best possible bet isn't panning out, what are the odds for players with longer odds?
Hamilton will be 32 at the start of his new deal, but he's coming off a season that is only good, not great, by his own standards. He has played 150 games once in his career -- back in 2008, his first year with the Rangers. It's an open question how good and how durable Hamilton will be in 2013, never mind five or six or seven years down the road.
Greinke has at least been quite durable in recent years, having topped 200 innings in four out of five seasons. He just turned 29, another point in his favor. But he hasn't had a truly elite season since 2009, when he won the AL Cy Young Award.
Neither one of these guys looks anything like Rodriguez did in 2007, an absolute superstar at his peak of both performance and durability. And so it's perfectly fair to wonder whether those mega-contracts will exist this winter. Hamilton and Greinke will surely get paid, but it's an open question as to whether they get the kind of deals befitting the top hitter and pitcher on the market, respectively.
That is of course not because of Rodriguez. He simply provides an interesting measuring stick when top free agents come into the picture. Last year, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder both got huge deals, and it only takes one highly motivated team to compensate Hamilton or Greinke to a historic degree.
Still, as clubs look at where to apportion their money, it won't be shocking if somewhere in the thought process, Rodriguez serves as a lesson. If his deal can look bad when it's only halfway over, nearly any deal can.
And there's another factor at play: it's hard to see what teams will be ponying up megabucks this winter. The Yanks are looking as much to trim payroll as to add, and of course they still have Rodriguez on the roster. Boston, looks likely to take it a little easier this winter after getting burned on a series of huge deals in recent years.
"When we've been at our best, we've made good decisions, disciplined decisions," GM Ben Cherington said recently. "Found value, whether it's in the free-agent market or trade market. And that's our job to do that."
The Angels could well get involved to keep Greinke, but it's unclear how high they would go. The Rangers won't break the bank to keep Hamilton. The Braves are frequently mentioned in concert with Hamilton's name, but they're consistently a picture of financial restraint.
The big dollars may be out there for the winter's two biggest free agents. But even at a time when many teams have money to spend, there's no guarantee that the market goes crazy for them.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.