Funny free-agent market. At its top, it's very good.
Just ask stars Matt Holliday, John Lackey and Jason Bay. They all cashed in big-time. And that's not such a shock.
But at the bottom, it's pretty darned rewarding, too. Go no further than Jamey Carroll, Alex Cora, Jason Kendall and Brian Schneider, bit players who did quite a bit better than they could possible have hoped for.
It's in the vast middle where players are being squeezed this winter. More than 100 free agents remain unemployed, and many of them are expected to settle for a contract, not celebrate one.
The majority of players aren't cashing in as in years past, a trend that cheers MLB's powers while concerning the union. This has been one weird market, with big stars and certain role players being rewarded while most everyone else struggles for a buck. That includes some established and perennially productive guys who appear to be experiencing a rude awakening.
Holliday, the best all-around player on the market, hit the exact figures predicted here months ago when he finally agreed to a $120 million, seven-year contract to return to the Cardinals on Tuesday, and while that was $60 million less than his alleged comp Mark Teixeira got last offseason, it was still a lot more than many execs guessed for him in a rough economy. Lackey received $82.5 million for five years with the provisot that he would play for the minimum salary in a sixth year if he has to undergo elbow surgery sometime during his contract, a contract quirk first reported by the Boston Globe. And Bay, who allegedly has some nicks and bumps as well, still managed to get $66 million guaranteed for four years with a reasonable chance to make $80 million over five (500 plate appearances in years three and four or 600 in year four will do it).
The stunner of the market, though, has to be the two-year deals for Carroll, Kendall and Schneider and the $2 million deal for Cora, whose greatest attribute appears to be that he's a helluva guy.
But while those deals represent contractual success stories, there remains a lot of worry within the middle ranks. Several very solid and better players remain on the market, and maybe they still have a chance to garner sweetheart deals (Derek Lowe and Oliver Perez managed to do so late last winter), but many of them carry the potential to become winter casualties.
Here are some thoughts on some of the best of the remaining yet-to-be-signed players...
1. Johnny Damon. Everyone figured he'd be back in pinstripes by now. Both sides seemed to want to do a deal, but the way things broke down, maybe they weren't as desperate to keep the relationship going as we all thought. And the result is that the Yankees signed Nick Johnson, a pale replacement for Damon, and Damon is still seeking employment. It's hard to know exactly where the breakdown happened, but the Yankees still have room for one more outfielder. The Yankees never made Damon one offer until they were said to be "down the road" with Johnson. But it's still remotely possible that they could have a chance for a do-over now that Melky Cabrera has been sent to Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez deal, a necessary and excellent trade. However, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who casually threw out a figure of $14 million for two years after agent Scott Boras requested $20 million over two, is said to only want to do a one-year deal at this point and is believed to want to spend no more than $6 million. If they could stretch a bit, they might be able to resurrect the lineup top (1 through 4) that was one of the best things about the world champions. But if not, Damon could have a chance with the Giants, Mariners, Braves or Angels.
2. Miguel Tejada. Even after a terrific offensive season, his market appears surprisingly thin. The Giants and Phillies signed their third basemen, leaving the Cardinals as the most logical landing spot. St. Louis is believed to want to keep it to a one-year deal, perhaps for $8 million, but eventually the sides should be able to work it out. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested that the Holliday signing might diminish the Cardinals' chances for Tejada. But this is probably his best option. Tejada is a solid choice to play third base and replace Mark DeRosa, who went to the Giants without a fight. If Tejada can't work it out with the Cardinals, he might have to turn to one of the two Texas teams, the Rangers or Astros.
3. Orlando Hudson. The Mets have spent the better part of the winter trying to unload Luis Castillo, but not because they despise Castillo but rather because they love the O-Dog. Hudson brings just the sort of upbeat demeanor that the Mets need. However, the Mets have basically given up hope of unloading Castillo. There was discussion of a Castillo-for-Mike Lowell swap, but Mets people are leery of Lowell's hip and thumb issues, and it's hard to see why that deal would appeal to Boston, anyway. Assuming the Mets are stuck with Castillo, Hudson's market could be as weak as it was last year. The Nationals have shown some interest, and while he managed to avoid them last year, he might not be able to do so again. He would probably take the $8 million he made last year but may again have to settle for a deal in which half is guaranteed and half has to be earned via incentives.
4. Joel Pineiro. Pineiro was said to be looking for $40 million and four years to start things, but now would happily settle for a deal similar to Randy Wolf's three-year deal for nearly $30 million with Milwaukee. (Wolf is one of the few middle men who didn't get squeezed.) The Mets showed early interest, but appear to be looking for a bargain. They recently debated whether to try to land Pineiro with a contract similar to the $15 million, two-year deal that Jason Marquis signed with the Nationals. The Dodgers, Cubs and Nats are among the teams to have shown interest, but none of them appears to have the type of money to outbid the Mets.
5. Jose Valverde. The terrific closer declined arbitration with the Astros, and now may wind up regretting it. He probably could have earned at least $10 million via arbitration, but it appears now that the teams looking for closers aren't going to be willing to go there. The Tigers and his former Diamondbacks team look like they may be looking for a fire sale on one of the game's more productive relievers.
6. Jon Garland. This noted innings eater and consistent pitcher doesn't seem to get the respect he deserves. Mets people like him better than most of the batch that remains, including Doug Davis and Jarrod Washburn, but wonder whether he can pitch in New York. He did pitch well for the Dodgers at the end of last year, and while he didn't make their playoff rotation, he just might make this coming year's rotation, which is looking mighty thin right now.
7. Bengie Molina. Molina began by looking for $20 million over three years. The Mets, meanwhile, emboldened by their ability to get Bay while holding to four years, seem serious about sticking with an offer of one year and a vesting option, and are acting like they could turn to Rod Barajas or Yorvit Torrealba (that one seems like a stretch, as he's currently grieving the Mets over a deal that went awry last time). The Mariners, who plan to employ Rob Johnson, could be a threat, but after acquiring Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee, it isn't known whether they have any money to spend.
8. Jarrod Washburn. The Twins made an offer, reports Scott Miller of CBSsports.com. The Brewers are another possibility, and Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair remains an admirer. Washburn has won in the AL, and his rough second half may be attributable to a knee injury. But it looks like he'll pay for it.
9. Orlando Cabrera. The Orlandos get so little respect that it's a wonder they don't start their own team, maybe in Orlando. Cabrera helped Boston win a World Series and also Anaheim and Minnesota get to the playoffs. He is a terrific player who seems to wear out his welcome for unknown reasons.
10. Jermaine Dye. A weak finish to his 2009 season seems to have overwhelmed what were five very productive years on the South Side of Chicago. The Rangers, Giants, Braves and Yankees all look like possibilities. But he'll probably have to settle for a one-year deal at this point.
11. Vladimir Guerrero. He has dedicated himself to tightening up his physical condition after a year in which he was frequently hobbled. The Rangers, his favorite team to torment, are looking for a right-handed bat. The Tigers and Orioles could be possibilities, too. He wants to get back to playing the outfield, and that might help his marketability in that the DH-type market is flooded (Jim Thome, Carlos Delgado and Gary Sheffield).
• Bay's contract negotiations with Boston could be made into a movie. What appears to have happened was this: The Red Sox offered $60 million for four years in the summer only to pull the offer and reduce it to about $44 million over three years after either a cold streak or an iffy medical report, or both. The Red Sox continued to show interest in the winter but never got back to four years. It's very possible that Bay actually accepted the $60 million deal at one point, as there would have been no other reason to submit to medical testing. In any case, Mets doctors found no major issues with Bay and expressed faith that he is in great shape to fulfill his contract, whether it be four years or five.
• The Mets have a battery of scouts going in to see Delgado in the coming days. There is concern about whether he can run, but he looks like a likely one for the Mets to sign.
• As long as Omar Minaya's the GM, the Mets can never be ruled out for Pedro Martinez, but it appears that their thinking is that they want to sign someone who's sturdier in light of their recent injury problems. Pedro has "pride,'' points out one admirer, suggesting that he'll want to sign with certain teams that have a chance to win. A few of those teams could be the Dodgers, Cubs, Phillies and Marlins.
• Bobby Abreu looks wise to have signed a $19 million, two-year deal just after the season, as a glut has killed the outfield market below Holliday and Bay.
• Mark Mulder is a perfect fit for the Brewers, whose new pitching coach is Rick Peterson, who had Mulder when he was at his best in Oakland.
• Two scouts say that the A's got a potentially great one in outfield prospect Michael Taylor. 'He's a five-tool guy,'' one said.
• Very interesting that at least three small-market teams -- the Marlins, A's and Blue Jays -- appear to be eyeing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. The Angels make some sense because of Chapman's connection to Kendry Morales. But normally big-spending owner Arte Moreno appears to be tightening the belt this winter.
• The Adrian Beltre deal, which is to pay Beltre $9 million in 2010, $5 million on a player option for 2011 and a $1 million buyout (if he opts not to exercise the second year) works for all sides. Beltre had three offers of $24 million for three years after a poor offensive season, but wants the chance to re-establish his market on an excellent team in a ballpark suited for him. If he posts a big year in either year one or two, he'll cash in. But he's also taking a little risk.
• The Consideration award goes to Holliday and also to Randy Johnson, who both made their news the day before the Hall of Fame announcement on Wednesday.