Inside the no-frills Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport for Major League Baseball's General Manager meeting, there were signs of tough times ahead for ballplayers. While agent Scott Boras -- who represents Matt Holliday, JohnnyDamon and about a dozen other free agents -- went on the other night about how revenues spiked by nearly 600 percent from 1990 to 2009, he was standing in a lobby that was decorated sometime in the '80s, a sharp contrast to the opulence of past GM events.
Could this be a sign of a budget-friendly offseason? Or are baseball's power brokers simply acting poor -- or at least a lot poorer than they are? The wealth that's usually evident at the annual meetings was nowhere to be seen, and perhaps it was appropriate that the lone free agent to sign here was all-time great Ken Griffey Jr., who returned to the Mariners, a sentimental signing for $2 million plus incentives for the player who started in Seattle well before baseball's 600-percent spike and whose presence actually pays for himself.
The GMs are talking about tough days ahead, and there were indications of a scaling back beyond the airport hotel and tacky, outdated décor. Though Griffey's just-signed contract is the only new one in the books, the push and pull of baseball's players and power brokers is already evident. While the general managers generally are predicting a sorry free-agent market beyond the big three of Holliday, John Lackey and Jason Bay, Boras pointed out that cries of poverty have been plentiful throughout the last two decades, or what's often called baseball's golden era.
Will the cries continue? Or will baseball teams start to pony up? It could go either way.
The sharp debate over finances provides a backdrop to a winter that's well under way, even with only one free-agent deal done here. Beyond the rich rhetoric, here's what else happened here:
1. The Tigers' surprise sale. Owner Mike Ilitch, whose liberal spending for downtrodden Detroit bolstered the Tigers in tough times, now finally appears ready to cut back. Tigers people told competing GMs they'd be willing to listen to offers for center fielder Curtis Granderson, pitcher Edwin Jackson, perhaps third baseman Brandon Inge and others in an effort to curtail their payroll only a year before several big contracts will expire. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski doesn't call it a fire sale. But one competing GM said, "I feel sorry for them." Sounds like some sort of sale.
2. Reds alert. Word is, the Reds will consider deals for their big-money players, such as closer Francisco Cordero, starter Bronson Arroyo and infielder Brandon Phillips. Reds GM Walt Jocketty said they don't need to trade any of those players, but admitted they are looking for a little "flexibility'' as they try to maintain a $70-million payroll while adding a shortstop and catcher. The new stance comes after last summer's decisions to acquire ScottRolen and not to trade Arroyo or Aaron Harang, whose late-season injury and high price tag makes him untradeable now. Cordero's apparent availability is interesting, but a free-agent market full of closers might hurt his potential marketability.
3. Hollywood story: Riches to Rags? The storied major-market Dodgers are not expected to be major players on the free-agent market -- not when the divorcing owners are spending their time fighting over control of the team. The Dodgers need a starting pitcher but are apparently not in the market for John Lackey, the top free-agent pitcher, and will instead try to find an innings eater or two. If they did try for a player of that ilk, who'd pay?
4. Johnny on the Spot. Boras strongly hinted that postseason hero Johnny Damon should be in line for another four-year contract from the Yankees by prominently mentioning that Jorge Posada received such a deal in his mid-30s, and Derek Jeter will surely get one next winter at the same stage. Boras also produced a Damon book with some surprising numbers, such as the fact that Damon is one of only two players to produce 150 runs each of the past 12 seasons (Alex Rodriguez is the other) and one of only 16 players with 150 hits and 100 runs in 10 seasons (the book points out Rickey Henderson did not accomplish the feat). Meanwhile, the Yankees, who were hoping to get Damon on a two-year deal, say they are "absolutely" not going to offer four to Damon, whose signing with the Yankees doesn't seem like such a surety at the moment. As for money, the Yankees also have been thinking about a deal that might top out at about $10 million a year. But coming off a superb season, Damon doesn't seem to feel he deserves a cut from $13 million. The Giants, who badly need a productive outfielder, appear to have emerged as one potential competitor.
5. Extravagant Holliday. Boras talked up Holliday so much he might not need a book for him. Holliday is generally viewed as the best of this market, but it remains to be seen who's going to step forward with a deal to match AlfonsoSoriano's $136-million contract of two years ago, if not Mark Teixeira's $180-million deal of last winter. ("That was in a much better economy," one GM pointed out about Soriano's deal.) The Mets, Red Sox, Giants, Braves, incumbent Cardinals and, perhaps, the Cubs, Mariners, Angels and Yankees could play here. Folks who have met with the Red Sox say they seem especially motivated following the Yankees' World Series championship (though, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein denied that affects the way they do their business, and it's true they're always aggressive.) Mets GM Omar Minaya is thought to relish Holliday, while others in the organization may prefer to spread their resources around. Meanwhile, some inside that organization seem to believe they can't beat the Yankees on Holliday if the Bronx team wants him, anyway. "If the Yankees want a player, they're going to get him," one A.L. GM said. Holliday is said to have a special interest in the Yankees. But it it's not known yet whether the Yankees will play at these prices for Holliday when they have other outfield options and a greater need in the rotation.
6. Nobody's Lackey. Angels ace John Lackey is surely looking for $100 million, or more. But one GM said, "He'll do well to match (A.J.) Burnett in this market," referring to the $82.5-million, five-year deal the Yankees gave him last winter. The Yankees are expected to check in. Rangers people met with Lackey's agent Wednesday (though, they know they don't have the money unless there's a quick ownership change, and even then ...). The Mariners and Brewers haven't ruled it out. "But not at these prices," suggested one competing GM. The Dodgers won't have the loot. But it's also curious that the incumbent Angels aren't trying harder.
7. Judging Roy. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos wisely said he has no objection to making trades within the division, and presumably that includes a deal for the pitcher he called "the best Blue Jay player ever." The biggest mistake of deposed GM J.P. Ricciardi was not seriously considering a trade to the Red Sox and Yankees, two of the biggest-spending teams. Anthopoulos understands the necessity of putting their rivalries aside. The Red Sox and Yankees are both expected to look hard at Halladay, whose value isn't quite the same now that he's a year closer to free agency. The Phillies could have some interest (though GM Ruben Amaro said they are concentrating on third and the bullpen), while the Angels could make a stealth move. The Yankees already have one $23-million pitcher, and the Red Sox have a Josh Beckett extension to consider, complicating things. But one thing most agree on is that Halladay will go somewhere.
8. California dreamin'. While teams are drooling over the possibility of AdrianGonzalez -- the Mets and Red Sox might head that list, too -- new Padres GM Jed Hoyer seems in no hurry to deal him. "Why would they trade (Gonzalez)?" asked one GM. "He's a great player, he's making little and he's theirs for two more years." All good points.
• Versatile slugger Mark DeRosa has received inquiries from the Dodgers, Mariners, Yankees, Nationals, Giants, Phillies, Rangers and Orioles so far. He was nearly as popular at the trade deadline, too.
• The Phillies' decision not to exercise Pedro Feliz's seemingly reasonable $5.5-million option has shaken up some agents. But perhaps they will spend even more money on the third-base position. They're looking hard at ChoneFiggins, who would give them three leadoff types in their lineup. They could also consider a more traditional choice in Adrian Beltre, who's an even better defender than Feliz. DeRosa, a University of Pennsylvania product, and PlacidoPolanco, the ex-Phil, are two more possibilities.
• The Yankees are one team that may look at Granderson, a very good player who struggled against lefties last year. The two Chicago teams also make some sense for the Chicago product, especially the Cubs, who want to move KosukeFukudome to right field and Milton Bradley elsewhere. While the Cubs and Rangers are at an impasse regarding Bradley (they appear to be a few million apart), that's still the deal that makes the most sense, as that's where Bradley thrived.
• The Orioles will consider Joe Crede to replace Melvin Mora at third base.
• John Smoltz is aiming to pitch this year. "He's working out and feeling good. He thinks he tried to come back too quick with Boston," agent Keith Grunewald said.
• Reliever Mike Gonzalez appears very popular in the free-agent market. There are loads of bullpen options, but he can set up, he can close and he's left-handed, making him about the most desirable of the lot.
• Minaya said some teams have shown interest in Luis Castillo. The Dodgers are one team to have spoken to the Mets. How about Castillo for his old Marlins teammate Juan Pierre?
• The Nationals are going with a safe choice for manager in Jim Riggleman. But a case could be made that they needed to do something daring. They need fans, attention and publicity, not to mention a turnaround expert. BobbyValentine would have made a perfect choice for them.