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Free agents benefiting from game's growth

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The current free-agent class often has been described as thin. But there has been nothing slender about the money the members of this class are receiving.

As the Winter Meetings closed at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, the biggest names of the 2012-13 offseason, including Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, were still unsigned.

But some presumably mid-range free agents already have cashed in and made considerably more than might have been expected in the process.

Why? This is an extraordinarily prosperous time for baseball. Years of record and near-record attendance figures have been accompanied by record-shattering media rights deals, at both the local and national level. Franchise values have soared. Despite a national economy that is in a prolonged recovery mode, baseball has been something like recession-proof.

Revenue sharing and the luxury tax have made more money available to more clubs, thus creating more potential buyers for free agents. Combine these positive economic factors with the relatively slight level of available talent -- particularly available pitching talent -- and you get a recipe for salary escalation.

Agent Scott Boras happily discussed these developments with reporters on Wednesday.

"We've got vastly new revenues in the game," Boras said. "We're probably going to be a $9 [billion] industry and rising beyond that. Because of that, every team in baseball can afford quality mid-level players and even franchise players.

"And so one thing that is very different than what we've seen -- I've been through about four or five revenue-changing periods, each six or seven years -- the value of a performance seven years before is now worth 40-50 percent more than it was then."

Examining some of the intermediate-sized free agents on the current market, it was a good time to be available. And it still is. For instance:

Torii Hunter signed with the Tigers for two years, $26 million. It is now believed that, in terms of maximizing his return, he may have signed too early, before the market reached its actual higher level. Hunter is 37, but he still has impressive skills and he is a terrific clubhouse presence. He could help Detroit take that final step.

One of the reasons that Hunter's deal looks modest was the contract signed by another outfielder, Shane Victorino, for three years and $39 million from the Boston Red Sox. Victorino was an admirable player on some very good Phillies teams, but he is coming off the least-productive season of his career.

Since the Red Sox were fortunate enough to have the Dodgers take roughly $260 million in unlikable contracts off their hands, Boston has no shortage of funds. The Red Sox are spreading those around.

Designated hitter David Ortiz got a two-year deal for $26 million, but he wants to finish his career in Boston, and this contract generates nary a blink. Catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli will receive a three-year, $39 million deal, pending a physical. Napoli has right-handed power and is an ideal Fenway Park match in that sense. But he is coming off an unimpressive season and he won't provide world-class defense no matter where he plays.

Outfielder Johnny Gomes got $10 million over two years from the Red Sox. These are not big numbers, and Gomes is widely regarded as a positive clubhouse presence. But he has been a platoon player against left-handed pitching.

Outfielder B.J. Upton had the biggest haul to date, receiving a five-year, $75 million contract from the Atlanta Braves. Nobody disputes Upton's talent, but his previous career with the Rays was not one of unbroken achievement.

The Giants didn't waste any time or skimp on the cash in re-signing center fielder Angel Pagan. The price always goes up when you contribute to a World Series championship, and Pagan went all the way to $40 million over four years. It's a nice, round number, but Napoli and Victorino have higher annual average salaries. This is favored terminology among baseball people now, although mere mortals might want $40 million rather than $39 million.

Postseason hero Marco Scutaro received a three-year, $20 million contract from the Giants. Scutaro is 37, but given his absolutely essential contributions after being traded from Colorado, retaining him seems eminently logical.

The real salary escalation may occur on the pitching side, where the demand easily exceeds the supply. As Boras put it:

"I think we've met with I don't know how many teams the last three days, but every team is telling you [they] need a starter."

Hiroki Kuroda had a fine 2012, and he got a one-year deal for $15 million, plus incentives, to stay with the Yankees. Jake Peavy, talented but oft-injured, received $29 million over two years, plus a vesting option for 2015, to remain with the White Sox. Jeremy Guthrie salvaged his situation with a strong second half in '12, and he was rewarded with a three-year, $25 million contract from the Royals.

Relievers were also beneficiaries of the flourishing baseball economy. Closer Brandon League got $22.5 million over three years from the Dodgers. Jonathan Broxton received a similar deal from the Reds -- three years, $21 million. He will close if Aroldis Chapman moves to the rotation. If Chapman stays as closer, Broxton will be an extremely well-paid setup man.

The Giants kept Jeremy Affeldt with a three-year, $18 million contract, setting a standard for accomplished left-handed setup men.

There are more, but a clear picture emerges. The healthy baseball economy has translated into a very lucrative market for free agents, even without the Yankees being major players.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Broxton, Jonny Gomes, Zack Greinke, Jeremy Guthrie, Josh Hamilton, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon League, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Jake Peavy, Marco Scutaro, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino