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Senior Baseball Columnist

Attention, shoppers: Perils of free agency vs. joys of winning deals

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The fallout of a free-agency bust: Theo Epstein and Carl Crawford are both gone from Boston. (Getty Images)  
The fallout of a free-agency bust: Theo Epstein and Carl Crawford are both gone from Boston. (Getty Images)  

True story: When the Braves made history by signing the game's first-ever free agent in 1976, forking over a whopping $1 million over three years to pitcher Andy Messersmith, owner Ted Turner hatched a brilliant idea.

Well, depends on your definition of "brilliant."

Messersmith was to wear No. 17.

Turner wanted the name on the back of Messersmith's jersey to read "Channel."

Which thus would produce a jersey reading "Channel 17" on Messersmith's back. And what better way to promote the television station that at the time carried Braves baseball?

Major League Baseball said, uh, no, Ted, you can't do that.

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And 36 years later, the only thing we know for sure about free agency is that a new generation of owners is STILL trying to figure the darn thing out.

As Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Kyle Lohse and others come down the pike this winter and owners line up with ATM PIN numbers, blank checks and their best romancing techniques, they don't even need to look back to Turner to be forewarned of potential pratfalls.

All they have to do is look to the past couple of winters to see how the potential for free-agent dreams can swiftly turn into the scariest of Halloween costumes.

Look, those aren't zombies ... they're the Angels, wearing raggedy red tops: "We Paid $240 Million for Albert Pujols and All We Got Was Third Place in the AL West and This Lousy T-Shirt."

Those aren't ghouls ... they're the Red Sox, still trying to recover from giving Carl Crawford $142 million over seven years two winters ago ... and from awarding John Lackey $82.5 million over five years in December 2009.

Clubs can begin negotiating with free agents at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, and we can't wait to see who lines up outside Nick Swisher's door. Prediction: First team that includes a few hugs along with a multiyear offer gets him. If you don't get it, go ask a Yankees fan to explain.

It's a very fine line at this time of year, romance and self-restraint. Jeffrey Loria could map that out for you, if he wasn't cowering in a closet with a free-agent hangover, head still ringing like a (Heath) Bell.

It was the Marlins who took the 12:01 a.m. opening bell so seriously last winter, embarking upon a quixotic charge up the free-agent mountain, with results not dissimilar to those of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn.

Loria and a contingent of Marlins executives arranged a meeting with Jose Reyes in New York last winter at exactly 12:01 a.m., the first moment rival clubs could speak with free agents.

Club president David Samson later told the tale of an elaborate midnight meeting on a freezing night when Loria stepped into a New York tavern and dramatically opened a long, heavy coat in front of intrigued socialites ... to reveal he was wearing a new Marlins jersey with Reyes' name and number on the back.

The Marlins got their man, Reyes signing for $106 million over six years.

But things probably would have been better for Loria, given the Marlins' 69-93 record in 2012, had he simply been arrested for indecent exposure on the spot, the minute he opened that coat, instead of signing Reyes and Bell, acquiring manager Ozzie Guillen, etc.

Marlins folks that night considered ordering drinks, Samson said, before deciding "we definitely should have caffeine, because it was going to be a late night."

So based on anecdotal evidence, we know that even when negotiating hopped up on Coke, coffee or Mountain Dew, clubs can still spend themselves into oblivion like drunken sailors.

Not that all free-agent contracts depreciate the moment you drive them off the lot. Just the stupid ones.

Play intelligently over the winter, and you can cash in.

The Cardinals just missed a second consecutive World Series appearance this month thanks in no small part to their decision to let Pujols walk and look to a combination of players to replace him. One was Carlos Beltran, a free agent they signed last winter for the very modest sum of $26 million over two years after Pujols fell into the Angels' arms.

The Nationals have become a powerhouse in no small part because Jayson Werth, whom they signed for $126 million two years ago over murmurs of incredulity, fits as a piece of a well-designed puzzle rather than as an oxygen-sucking star who occupies an inordinate amount of the payroll.

The Yankees won a World Series in 2009 immediately after signing CC Sabathia ($161 million over seven years) and Mark Teixeira ($180 million over eight years) the preceding winter.

The jury is still out on the Tigers, who hastily gave Prince Fielder $214 million over nine years last winter as a reaction (overreaction?) to Victor Martinez's devastating offseason knee injury. Fielder helped the Tigers advance to this year's World Series ... and then stunk up the joint (.071, four strikeouts in 14 at-bats) while Detroit was getting swept.

So ... money well spent because the Tigers reached the World Series? Or must they win a Fall Classic (or two) at some point to make Fielder's contract worth it?

This is not a great free-agent market this winter. The starting pitching pool was diluted way back in the spring, when the Giants awarded Matt Cain an extension (six years, $127.5 million), and in July, when the Phillies re-signed Cole Hamels (six years, $144 million). After Greinke and Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy rank as the next-best starters.

Certainly, for smart shoppers, there are bargains to be found and players who by next fall will qualify as the "final piece" to winning teams.

For others, sticker shock will only bring diminishing returns and more frustration.

Nineteen years after signing Messersmith, Turner was squiring his then-squeeze Jane Fonda to the 1995 World Series when there was a classic moment following one of the games in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium.

As Turner navigated his way through the tunnel, at the wheel of whatever luxury car he was driving then, he inched the vehicle along past the door of the Braves' clubhouse as a horde of media covering the World Series squeezed toward a cement wall to make room.

From the passenger side, window rolled down, Fonda quipped, "Suck it in, boys."

That's advice worth heeding in the free-agent market Turner once trail blazed, too.

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