Friday December 5th, 2008

Perhaps the most affecting scene of Steven Soderbergh's star-packed 2001 heist flick Ocean's Eleven comes near the very end. The camera slowly pans from right to left to capture the faces of 10 members of the film's titular gang of thieves as they silently observe the dancing fountains of Las Vegas's Bellagio casino. We understand that each man is reflecting on the unlikely caper in which he's just successfully participated, and on what the future might hold in store.

Major League Baseball's movers and shakers will on Monday converge on the Bellagio for the start of their annual winter meetings, and while the destinations of most of this off-season's crop of free agents won't be determined by the time the meetings end on Thursday, we should by then have a much better idea as to which group will by spring be figuratively amassed before the Bellagio's fountains, wryly smiling at the heist it has collectively pulled off.

Will it be the players' agents, with Scott Boras in the Brad Pitt role (now there's a quotation for Boras's personal collection), glowing with the knowledge that they've again pulled down unprecedented contract after unprecedented contract for their clients? Or will it be the game's general managers (with Pitt's role going to the Yankees' Brian Cashman, making the Nationals' Jim Bowden, I suppose, Scott Caan), quietly celebrating after an unusual display of financial restraint in this winter of economic discontent?

I suspect that it's going to be the latter group. The free-agent market has been open for three full weeks now, and yet we can cross off just four players from my list of the market's top 50 available players. The Yankees' Mike Mussina (No. 25) announced his retirement; starter Ryan Dempster (No. 15) was re-signed by the Cubs, for $52 million over four years; and the Giants signed shortstop Edgar Renteria (No. 27) to a two-year, $18.5 million contract, and reliever Jeremy Affeldt (No. 35) to a two-year, $8 million deal. So far, that's it.

That the other 46 members of the list (as well as more than 100 of their less-talented colleagues) remain in limbo suggests that baseball's GM's will be more reluctant than usual to shovel coal into the hot stove. CC Sabathia, whether he accepts the Yankees' $140 million or takes perhaps the price of a Gulfstream jet less to play in his beloved California, will be handsomely and deservedly rewarded, and his signing should initiate a domino effect that will quickly enrich A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe. First baseman Mark Teixeira will have no trouble getting what he desires, based upon his talent, and neither will shortstop Rafael Furcal (who might be headed to the Oakland A's), based upon the thin market at his crucial position.

Other than that, though, we might witness the difficult-to-pity sight of a bunch of disappointed multi-millionaires come spring. Few teams seem willing to commit the dollars that proven producers like Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell would have garnered in prior years. Closer Francisco Rodriguez's agent recently said that he doesn't expect his client to sign a deal until after the meetings, but that timetable seems dictated more by clubs' reluctance to meet his reported five-year, $75 million price tag than anything else. And then there's the curious case of Manny Ramirez, whose best option might prove to be whatever one-year deal he would be awarded should he accept the Dodgers' offer of arbitration (he has until Sunday to decide) -- a deal that wouldn't even equal the two years and $40 million he would have earned had he just kept his hands to himself and kept running out ground balls in Boston, and would be a far cry from the four-plus years he and Boras are said to be seeking.

While things can rapidly change as the dominoes start to fall, the sense of desperation felt by GM's might this year be tempered by baseball's new economic and competitive realities. In fact, starting on Monday at the Bellagio, Boras and his fellow agents could well face that which they most dread: a buyer's market.

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