Jacob Luft
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Daily standings aren't kept during the Hot Stove season. Pennants and championship rings aren't given out, either. But in a sport in which only eight teams make the playoffs, most fans have been waiting eagerly for the meat market to open.

Much like the college football junkie who enjoys the recruiting season more than the games, this is the best time of year for fans because it is so inclusionary. Everybody gets to play. For free-spending, low-results ballclubs such as the Orioles and Mets, this is probably the only time they can be considered "winners."

Here is how I would rank the top free agents. (Roger Clemens is missing only because he is once again 99.9 percent leaning toward retirement. Ages are for Opening Day 2005.)

1. Carlos Beltran, CF, 28 2004 salary: $9 million Three-year averages: .281 average,.366 on-base pct, .523 slugging pct. Before Beltran's arrival in late June, the Astros had little baserunning or defense to speak of. Beltran provided both for Houston along with considerable power (23 home runs). He had such an outstanding season that few people even noticed he fell two home runs shy of the fourth 40/40 season in history.

Outlook: Agent Scott Boras is building momentum for a 10-year, nine-figure deal. Whoever does sign Beltran has to ask themselves if this a contract they can live with. Or, as was the case with A-Rod, are they going to end up blaming any misfortune on Beltran's exorbitant salary? Expect the Yankees or Cubs to nab him, with the Astros making a token run for appearances sake.

2. Pedro Martinez, RHP, 33 2004 salary: $17.5 million Three-year averages: 201 IP, 224 K, 49 BB, 15 HR, 2.84 ERA Intimidation. Dominance. Fifteen-to-20 victories a year with 200-plus strikeouts. Sounds pretty good, huh? It's fashionable to bash Martinez for no longer producing the Sandy Koufax-like numbers like he used to, but he's still solid gold.

Outlook: Forget those ugly outings against the Yankees. The Martinez we saw in Game 3 of the World Series (seven scoreless innings) is closer to his true ability. Any NL team with money to spare would be foolish not to court Martinez.

3. Adrian Beltre, 3B, 25 2004 salary: $5 million Three-year averages: .278-.328-.495 Everything about his 2004 performance reeks of "contract-year" inflation. His on-base percentage hovered around .300 from 2001-03 before skyrocketing to .388 last season. And he never had slugged above .500 before blowing past the .600 mark (.629). Since moving into Chavez Ravine in 1962, only three Dodgers had posted 40-plus home run seasons before Beltre's 48-homer outburst.

Outlook: Combining his youth, power and Gold Glove-caliber defense, Beltre easily could get Vladimir Guerrero-type money (five years, $70 million). But other than L.A., the only high-payroll teams with a need at third base are Anaheim (Troy Glaus is a free agent) and Seattle.

4. Carl Pavano, RHP, 29 2004 salary: $3.8 million Three-year averages: 186 IP, 121 K, 48 BB, 18 HR, 3.99 ERA Pavano has battled through injuries and high expectations to become a reliable innings-eater. His 23 quality starts last season tied Clemens for fifth in the NL, only three behind leader Randy Johnson. As a control artist, Pavano needs a spacious ballpark and a tight defense behind him to repeat what he did for Florida in 2004.

Outlook: On June 27, 2003, Pavano failed to retire any of the six batters he faced as the Marlins lost 25-8 to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. His record since that game: 24-12, 3.23 ERA. Factor in his 2003 postseason, in which he went 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA, and the bidding could reach the three-year, $30 million level. Expect the Red Sox and Yankees to wage a bidding war as the Marlins struggle to keep up.

5. J.D. Drew, OF, 29 2004 salary: $4.2 million Three-year averages: .283-.393-.508 Surpassing the 500 at-bat mark for the first time in his career, Drew ranked in the top 10 in the NL in OBP, slugging, runs, triples and walks. He also became a defensive force with a career-high 13 outfield assists.

Outlook: Drew compares favorably to Beltran for a much lower price tag. The Braves will do everything they can to re-sign him and, given his obvious level of comfort in Atlanta, he would do well to keep playing for Bobby Cox.

6. Carlos Delgado, 1B, 32 2004 salary: $19.7 million Three-year averages: .284-.403-.561 Even an "off" year from Delgado still looks spectacular -- 32 homers, .907 OPS. Unlike Richie Sexson, the other heavy-slugging first baseman in this market, Delgado has a long track record of stellar production: eight consecutive seasons of 30-plus homers.

Outlook: It's safe to say he will have to take a healthy pay cut. For teams in the market for a first baseman -- Mets, Marlins, Orioles, Dodgers -- this is the first place they should look.

7. Jason Varitek, C, 33 2004 salary: $6.9 million Three-year averages: .278-.358-.461 Need a switch-hitting catcher who plays terrific defense and exudes leadership? There's no doubt Varitek is the whole package. On the other hand, catchers his age tend to decline and he hasn't hit nearly as well on the road (.737 OPS) as Fenway Park (.861 OPS) during his career.

Outlook: Pudge Rodriguez proved the past two years with the Marlins and Tigers what a star catcher can do for a ballclub. The Red Sox don't need to be reminded of Varitek's contribution to their World Series title and will make every effort to sign him, although Varitek asking for five years, $50 million and a no-trade clause -- as has been reported -- might be pushing it a bit.

8. Edgar Renteria, SS, 29 2004 salary: $7.25 million Three-year averages: .308-.362-.440 Five-tool shortstops in their prime don't come cheap. On defense, Renteria canvases the middle infield brilliantly. He excels at situational hitting and can steal a bag or two as well. He's a winning ballplayer, plain and simple.

Outlook: The NL champion Cardinals didn't become perennial contenders by letting players of Renteria's caliber get away. It might take a while but a lucrative, longterm deal will be worked out.

9. Matt Clement, RHP, 30 2004 salary: $6 million Three-year averages: 196 IP, 192 K, 80 BB, 21 HR, 3.80 ERA Look past Clement's mediocre win-loss record of 35-36 the past three seasons and it's apparent he has come a long way in harnessing his explosive stuff. In two of the previous three seasons, he has compiled more strikeouts than innings pitched.

Outlook: Unlike Pavano, Clement doesn't pitch to contact, making him a nice fit for defensively challenged teams such as the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox. He should be good for 200-innings and 200-plus strikeouts and won't be terribly expensive.

10. Brad Radke, RHP, 32 2004 salary: $10.75 million Three-year averages: 183 IP, 108 K, 25 BB, 22 HR, 4.14 ERA "Workhorse" is a good way to describe the longtime anchor of the Twins' rotation. Radke's remarkable control has allowed him to compile eight seasons of at least 200 innings. With the right mix of defensive support and luck, he's always capable of putting up a huge year.

Outlook: Radke might end up as the consolation prize for a club that misses out on Pavano, which is odd considering Radke's much longer track record of success. If the Twins try to keep him, they easily can be outbid.

• But what about Nomar Garciaparra and Magglio Ordonez and other big-name free agents? You'll find them in the Best of the Rest.

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