Free agency is finally here, less than a week before Thanksgiving. And the signings may not come so quick, either.
Baseball's powers are still arguing about the state of the game's economics, whether teams are losing money or still making it big and just how much loot the small-market teams are receiving in revenue-sharing and central-fund monies to boost them (some agents cite articles saying it's up to $60 million while MLB folks say it isn't that much).
Anyway, the free-agent season starts with a fair amount of acrimony, even more than usual. Agents mention the $6.3 billion in revenues to suggest baseball is healthier than the general economy. But the rhetoric from ownership suggests there won't be a pot of gold for a vast majority of the 100-something free agents.
Free-agent markets are very unpredictable, but the trend seems to be that the big stars in their prime (in this case, Matt Holliday, John Lackey, ChoneFiggins and maybe Johnny Damon) will get paid while many of the others will scrap for every dollar. Full-fledged free agency officially began Friday at 12:01 a.m., so here is a primer for this year's market (first, the players with an assist to my teammate Ben Reiter's famed Top 50, followed by the teams) ...
1. Matt Holliday. He absorbed two blows when management people with the Angels and Giants said they wouldn't be pursuing him within the last day. But that still leaves the Mets, Red Sox, Braves, Mariners, Cubs and Yankees as possible suitors. The Yankees are believed to be his first choice, but for now, they seem more intent on improving their starting pitching situation. The target price seems to be Mark Teixeira's $180 million deal, but some baseball execs seem to think he won't receive much more than half that despite AlfonsoSoriano's $136 million deal only two years ago.
2. Jason Bay. Bay's agent Joe Urbon called the interest "extraordinary,'' in an interview with TheBoston Globe, and while the Cardinals say they don't consider him a backup plan to Holliday, most other teams surely would. Word is, he rejected Boston's four-year bid, believed to be worth $60 million. Both sides say they'll keep talking, though.
3. John Lackey. At least the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Mariners, Brewers, Rangers, incumbent Angels and Nationals have expressed interest in the only bona fide No. 1 pitcher on the free-agent market. The general belief is that Lackey wants to go home to Texas or stay out west, if he can. Sources say agent Steve Hilliard told the aggressive Brewers he is happy to seriously consider them. I'll buy that, unless he said the same to the lowly Nationals, who just don't seem ready to lure a star of this ilk yet.
4. Chone Figgins. He remade himself as an on-base machine, justifying what some say is a five-year, $50 million asking price. He can play second and the outfield as well as third. But don't the Angels, who fit his style, need him back?
5. Johnny Damon. Agent Scott Boras suggested a four-year deal would be appropriate in light of Jorge Posada's deal of that length a couple winters ago. The Yankees are believed willing to give him two years, but it will be interesting to see whether they compromise at three. He is believed to badly want to stay but will have outside interest at least from the Giants.
6. Andy Pettitte. Not too much intrigue surrounds Pettitte, as no one really believes he'd leave the Yankees again. Some teammates say he's said he plans to return, though there's nothing official yet. As a postseason hero, he should double his $5.5 million guarantee of a year ago, though.
7. Hideki Matsui. Like Damon and Pettitte, he also doesn't want to play outside the Bronx. Despite the plan to keep open the DH spot, there's still a chance they make it work. His lack of a relationship with Ichiro makes Seattle improbable.
8. Orlando Hudson. After taking a team-friendly $3.4 million guarantee to go to the Dodgers -- who played Ronnie Belliard over him in the playoffs, anyway -- he may be looking for a payday. The Mets would take him if they can unload Luis Castillo. But the Nationals, a pursuer last year, loom large.
9. Miguel Tejada. Nice year in Houston (.313, 86 RBIs) should draw interest. Philly, Texas and possibly the Giants all make some sense.
10. Mark DeRosa. Forty four of his 92 career home runs have come in the last two years for this late-bloomer. A big clubhouse plus who's versatile like Figgins, only older and cheaper. Eleven teams have inquired, but I like the idea of the rare University of Pennsylvania product to reach the majors playing for the Phillies.
11. Jose Valverde. Terrific stuff makes him the cream of a very good crop of relievers. Likely to get a three-year deal from someone.
12. Joel Pineiro. Remade himself in St. Louis, where he was a "totally different pitcher,'' according to one scout. Price tag of $10 million seems a tad high, though. The Mets are one early suitor.
13. Adrian Beltre. A spectacular defender with power, he didn't live up to his $64 million Mariners deal. But he can play. The Phillies will consider.
14. Rich Harden. One of baseball's most talented pitchers, he remains a constant health risk. Buyer beware.
15. Marco Scutaro. Put up career year in Toronto after life as a journeyman. Red Sox look like a prime candidate.
16. Mike Gonzalez. Versatile left-handed reliever is said to have drawn interest from as many as 15 teams.
17. Jarrod Washburn. Knee issues hurt him in Detroit, but he starred in Seattle before that. His great rapport with Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair make them a natural reunion. Milwaukee also inquired about the native Wisconsinite.
18. Bengie Molina. The Mets have tried him before, but they can't afford to miss this time. With catching scarce, he should have a big opportunity for big bucks.
19. Marlon Byrd. Well-timed solid season in Texas gives him a chance to cash in
20. Jason Marquis. Perennial double digit winner who seems to be a good-luck charm (his teams have reached playoffs in all nine of his seasons). Begging for job with the Mets. They can test any good-luck charm.
21. Vladimir Guerrero. While his "body is breaking down,'' one GM said, he can still rake. Showed it in the postseason. Strictly a DH now, though.
22. Adam LaRoche. Big-time power and a second-half scourge. The Braves have liked him twice.
23. Fernando Rodney. Well-timed big-time year with Tigers.
24. Rafael Soriano. Talented reliever who can set up or close.
25. Billy Wagner. Was throwing great 11 months after returning from Tommy John surgery.
26. Mike Cameron. A big plus in the clubhouse, and still a big plus in center.
27. Nick Johnson. Great on-base percentage but he's brittle and is losing range.
28. Russell Branyan. Career year last year at 34 should boost interest. If he can hit them out in Seattle, he can hit them out anywhere.
29. Jon Garland. Noted innings eater. Back to the Dodgers?
30. Placido Polanco. Clever player had a poorly-timed off year last year. The Dodgers and Nats could be looking for a second baseman while the Phillies might consider bringing him back for third.
31. JermaineDye. He wasn't worth the $12 million option the White Sox turned down, but he's better than his rep. Weak finish will hurt, though.
32. Pedro Feliz. Excellent defender who shows occasional power. But low on-base mark won't help.
33. Carl Pavano. Back in the game after a four-year blight in New York.
34. Rafael Betancourt. Great job in Colorado raised stock.
35. Brandon Lyon. Solid set-up man.
36. Rick Ankiel. Low performance last year, high ceiling.
37. Yorvit Torrealba. Rockies rejected his $4 million option after he worked his way into the starting role yet again.
38. Juan Uribe. Surprisingly solid year in San Fran should play here.
39. Pedro Martinez. Became the No. 2 pitcher for the World Series runner-up by the end. An amazing man.
40. Jim Thome. Great team man hit homers for White Sox before joining Dodgers as bench player.
41. Randy Johnson. Still no word on whether the 300-game winner will return.
42. Jason Giambi. Proved useful as pinch hitter in Colorado. Says he prefers DHing to first base now.
43. Ivan Rodriguez. Nice job in Texas should give him one more year, at least.
44. John Smoltz. Said to be feeling better now and ready to return.
45. Carlos Delgado. Mets will follow him in winter ball.
46. Ben Sheets. A No. 1 pitcher when healthy.
47. Erik Bedard. Quirky personality also.
48. Joe Crede. Talented defender might do better staying away from turf.
49. Troy Glaus. St. Louis is moving on. Hard to gauge what he has left.
50. Xavier Nady. Yankees were prepared to start him over Nick Swisher before recurrence of elbow trouble.
The Big Spenders
• Yankees. They won't repeat last year's outlay of $423.5 million for three years. But they're always a threat to buy someone good. Looking for pitching. Will pursue Lackey plus trade possibilities Roy Halladay and Derek Lowe.
• Red Sox. They still have all that money left from not spending it on Teixeira. Looking for a big bat first. After that, it's anyone's guess. Very creative.
• Mets. They're expected to stay at around $147 million for their payroll. OmarMinaya said they need to find a slugger and seems locked on Holliday (though others in the organization like Bay, as well). Pineiro, Wolf, Marquis, Garland, Molina, Figgins and Delgado all look like possible targets.
The Hopeful Spenders
• Mariners. They talked to Lackey and are said to be thinking about Bay or Holliday after bringing back Ken Griffey and Jack Wilson. And that's on top of wanting to lock up Felix Hernandez.
• Brewers. They've looked into Lackey, Washburn, Doug Davis, Harden and Wolf plus possible No. 5-type guys Mark Mulder and Todd Wellemeyer. Mulder could reconnect with pitching coach Rick Peterson.
• Giants. Damon is a target. And Bay makes sense, even from a marketing standpoint in that area.
The Smart Spenders
• Angels. They have an interesting puzzle what with Lackey, Figgins and Guerrero all free agents. They employ their own stealth style, but it seems to work -- though, they shouldn't take their loss of Teixeira out on Holliday.
• Phillies. They'll consider DeRosa, Beltre, Polanco and maybe even Tejada and Figgins for third after letting Feliz go. But they also want to improve the pen, so an extra big pitcher looks like a long shot. They have $110 million committed to 12 players. Cliff Lee ($9 million) in for Adam Eaton ($8.5 million) is about as good a swap as one can make.
The Wild Cards
• Cubs. New owner Tom Ricketts hasn't said how he will proceed. The general feeling is that new owners don't like to make waves, but they make big money and there are no guarantees.
• Rangers. They met with the agent for Lackey and looked into Milton Bradley and other right-handed hitters despite an iffy ownership situation. MLB wants an ownership change by Thanksgiving, but people close to the financially-troubled current owner Tom Hicks say he is showing signs of wanting to hold onto the team lately. In the meantime, the Rangers remain in limbo.
The Surprise Wallflowers
• Dodgers. The storied major-market team appears to be looking for innings eaters (yawn!). Whether it's because of their iffy ownership situation or a plethora of arbitration cases -- they have nine -- don't look for L.A. to spend big this winter.
• Tigers. They spent their way to $140 million as owner Mike Ilitch does what he can to win. But they will appear to take a breather now even if they don't hold a major sell-off. GM Dave Dombrowski says there will be no fire sale, and if anyone knows fire sales, he does.
• The Mariners and Tigers are still discussing a possible trade involving Detroit right-hander Edwin Jackson, who is arbitration-eligible and should expect a big increase from the $2.3 million he made in '09.
• The Brewers are going to make a big push this winter to lock up star first baseman Prince Fielder.
• There are indications the Angels might be willing to trade outfielder JuanRivera.
• I have no problem with Tim Lincecum winning the Cy Young award, though I supported Chris Carpenter. But those two, plus Adam Wainwright, have to be the top three, no? The two voters who omitted Carpenter who led the league in ERA and winning percentage erred, I believe. The reasoning seemed to be about the slightly lower number of innings he pitched (Javier Vazquez had about 30 more innings). But I think the issue may also be the voters' great emphasis of the strikeout. At least one ballot seemed to reflect gross strikeout total.
• Lincecum's double Cy win gives him a major hit under the "special achievements'' category in arbitration. He will easily bust pass the record for first-year arbitration-eligible starting pitchers ($4.35 million for Dontrelle Willis and Cole Hamels) and the record for pitchers of any sort (Jonathan Papelbon got $6.25 million). The number to shoot for might be Ryan Howard, whose agent Casey Close won a stunning $10-million award as a first-year arbitration eligible player thanks in part to Howard's own special achievements (Rookie of the Year, MVP).
• Roberto Alomar has to be a Hall of Famer.