Friday November 14th, 2008

A few realities emerge after a thorough perusal of this fall's top-50 (non-Japanese) MLB free agents, who early Friday morning finally became eligible to be signed by a team other than their current one. One is that any club in need of a quality catcher won't find him on the free-agent market, despite Scott Boras' savvy marketing of Jason Varitek. This year's crop of second basemen is similarly weak, outside of the Diamondbacks' Orlando Hudson, who should be handsomely rewarded despite finishing each of the past two seasons on the disabled list. There aren't many third basemen, either (a just average Casey Blake, an injury prone Joe Crede), nor any outfielders who rank as true superstars, with one notable and notably mercurial exception.

The 12 elite players in this year's class appear to fall into five distinct categories: closers, shortstops, first basemen, starting pitchers and, of course, that mercurial outfielder, who represents a category unto himself. Even then, there might be only two sure things (of which, of course, there's no such thing). Several general managers appear poised to stake their careers on the signing on one of more of those 12 players, which means that several GM's might find themselves out of a job a year from now. Here's a look at how the market is shaping up for that divine dozen. (Top 50 rank in parentheses).

CC Sabathia, Brewers (1) A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays (5) Derek Lowe, Dodgers (6) Oliver Perez, Mets (9)

The Yankees, who have cast aside their "build from within" philosophy after one disappointing season, would love to sign half of this quartet, but some signs suggest that it won't happen. Their offer to Sabathia will certainly exceed the six years and $137.5 million that the Mets lavished on Johan Santana last winter. However, while a few extra tens of millions can buy plenty of private cross-country flights and private batting practice sessions, Sabathia seems to be the type who really would turn them down to hit regularly and to live in California as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (The Dodgers, for their part, would be more likely to sign him should they save by letting Manny Ramirez go). Burnett's career path -- injury-prone until putting together a standout season in his walk-year -- is scarily reminiscent of that of Carl Pavano, the mention of whose name will still get your mouth washed out with soap in the Steinbrenner household, but the Yankees might overspend for him should Sabathia shun them. The steady Lowe has a caravan of suitors, but a return to the Red Sox makes the most sense. The left-handed Perez's destination will be dictated by the pitchers ahead of him on this list, as well as by Jake Peavy, reportedly soon to be dealt. If Sabathia becomes a Dodger, Burnett a Yankee, Lowe a Red Sox and Peavy a Brave, Perez could remain a Met.

Francisco Rodriguez, Angels (4) Brian Fuentes, Rockies (11) Kerry Wood, Cubs (12)

The Cubs' acquisition of Kevin Gregg from the Marlins on Thursday brought a somewhat melancholy end to Wood's 11-year career in Chicago, a tenure that included four seasons of double-digit wins and two All-Star appearances but will always be remembered for its unrealized potential. Wood's fate, though, rests largely on those of K-Rod and Fuentes, the consensus Nos. 1 and 2 closers available. K-Rod now seems very unlikely to return to the Angels ("We're turning the page on this one," owner Arte Moreno said on Wednesday), and he seems more likely than ever to become a Met. The Angels might pursue Fuentes or Wood, but they'd be wise to entrust their closing duties to young Jose Arredondo (10-2 1.62 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in '08), meaning that Fuentes could still end up a Brewer and Wood a Cardinal.

Mark Teixeira, Angels (2) Adam Dunn, Diamondbacks (10)

The Angels' parting of ways with K-Rod only makes it more likely that the switch-hitting, slick-fielding Teixeira will end up in one of two places: Anaheim or the Bronx. Scott Boras will be content to sit back and watch a bidding war unfold, and the Yankees, as enriched as they will be by the fat cats stuffing themselves on the all-you-can-eat delicacies that will be offered in the premium seats at their new stadium, don't generally lose bidding wars (although they might lose at least one this offseason -- more on that below). Whether New York's deal for Nick Swisher means that it's out of the running on Teixeira remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Dunn, Mr. 40-homer, is technically both an outfielder and a first baseman, but he doesn't play either well and is at this point less of a liability at first. The Angels could bring him aboard as a pricey consolation prize, although we shouldn't count out a wild card like the Nationals, whose GM, Jim Bowden, ran the Reds when Dunn was there and is thought to have long coveted him.

Rafael Furcal, Dodgers (7) Orlando Cabrera, White Sox (8)

This is poised to be an unexpectedly profitable off-season for both Furcal and Cabrera, and for a simple economic reason: The demand for shortstops far exceeds the supply. (The only other attractive shortstop on the market is Edgar Renteria, whom I rank at No. 27 in the Top 50 and who is, at age 33, coming off a disappointing season in Detroit). Among the 10 or so teams that could use an upgrade at the position are the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Orioles, Giants and A's -- and the Dodgers, should they lose Furcal. While the Bay Area rumor mill has Oakland's Billy Beane making a run at Furcal, his asking price could quickly put an end to those conversations. One scenario that makes a lot of sense has the Braves dealing young shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Padres for Peavy, and then bringing back Furcal, who spent his first six seasons in Atlanta. The fiery Cabrera could find a new home in the AL East, with the Blue Jays or Orioles.

Manny Ramirez, Dodgers (3)

This won't end well for anyone. The Dodgers simply had to make an offer to Manny to stave off a fan revolt in light of how he carried them this summer, but their two years and $45 million (with an additional option year at $15 million) didn't even elicit a response from Boras, who announced that he'd begin accepting "serious offers" on Friday. Boras wants a six-year, $150 million offer for his 36-year-old client, and interested teams include the Yankees, Mets, Angels, Orioles and even the Nationals, as the darkest of horses. As talented as Manny is, though, is any club really going to devote that much dough to a player who has proven that he'll quit on you if he's unhappy, and who will be 42 six years from now? All it takes, though, is one team -- and it's virtually impossible at this point to predict which it might be. I can predict, however, that that club will be playing Russian Roulette with three bullets in the gun. Di di mau!

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