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Seattle's slew of good deals leads offseason surprises

With players beginning to report to spring camps and all pitchers and catchers on their way within days, the wild winter is just about a wrap. Here are some snapshots of an offseason full of surprises.

1. Seattle's slew of good deals

The Mariners won the winter, starting with a deal to steal igniter Chone Figgins for $36 million over four years from the rival Angels. The Mariners improved their pitching (Cliff Lee) and defense (beyond Figgins, there was Casey Kotchman, Milton Bradley and an extension for perhaps baseball's best centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez). The Mariners closed the gap with the perennially powerful Angels, which underwent some major changes of their own but probably remain the favorites after recovering with deals for Hideki Matsui, Joel Pineiro and Fernando Rodney after losing Figgins, John Lackey and Vladimir Guerrero.

2. Beltre's big gamble

Departing Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre bet on himself by taking a $9 million deal for 2010 plus a second-year player option in Boston, where he'll have the Green Monster and a playoff worthy team to enhance his gamble, rather than accept Oakland's $18-million, two-year offer or reported three-year offers elsewhere for $24 million. Boston's own bet is that improved defense at four spots -- besides Beltre, there's Marco Scutaro at shortstop, Mike Cameron in center and Jacoby Ellsbury moving to left -- will help them get back to the World Series for the third time in seven years.

3. A's left at the altar

The Oakland A's lost out with bids to Beltre, Scutaro, Aroldis Chapman and Jamey Carroll. Eventually, they reeled in pitching star Ben Sheets with one of the winter's more shocking contracts and were still showing an interest in ex-Athletic Johnny Damon.

4. Close's call

Agent Casey Close was doubted when he requested an $8-million guarantee for the talented Sheets, who didn't throw one pitch last year. But Close actually did $2 million better than that, getting $10 million from the small-market A's even though the Rangers and Mets -- the other two teams said to be most interested -- eventually declined to bid since they couldn't meet the $8-million mark. No matter, the A's' signing was generally praised for being the only way for them to acquire a possible ace. It also gives them a great potential trading chip for July should they be out of the race by then.

5. Don't call us, we won't call you

Johnny Damon was supposedly sought after by the Yankees yet they didn't mention money to him until Dec. 18, when they were said to be "down the road'' with Nick Johnson. Yankees GM Brian Cashman says he felt it wouldn't make sense to offer a fraction of what he thought Damon was seeking since he'd heard through the grapevine (which included Yankees players and team sponsor Mitch Modell, who coincidentally was renting a house to Damon) that Damon wanted at least three years and wouldn't take less than $13 million a year. Cashman also says that offering what they wanted to pay would be like bidding $500,000 on a house that had an asking price of $2 million. So he concentrated on Johnson instead, and after a late try for Damon for $6 million for one year (with $3 million deferred), signed Randy Winn and Marcus Thames to join Brett Gardner in their outfield mix. The Yankees kept their payroll to about $200 million even after acquiring needed No. 4 starter Javier Vazquez, but don't be surprised if they have some spending money for the trade deadline.

6. Going to school

Bobby Abreu learned a big lesson from last winter, when he had to wait until almost the start of spring training to get a one-year deal with the Angels. This time, he played it safe and avoided a mess of a winter for free agent hitters, especially those in their mid-30s, by signing early for a solid deal ($19 million for two years) in the very place he wants to play and the very locale that probably fits him best, Los Angeles. Assist to his agents, the Greenbergs, for taking the wise path here.

7. Mauer Power

Never has a big-stakes negotiation appeared to be going so smoothly as the one between catching superstar Joe Mauer and his hometown Minnesota Twins. We don't exactly know what's going on, of course, since Twins management and Mauer's well-respected agent, Ron Shapiro, both define the term "close to the vest.'' But so far it appears the talks have been a series of sweet nothings (and sweet somethings, as well). Manager Ron Gardenhire came out early and said he expects it to get done. So does everyone else. It appears to be going so well, in fact, that John Boggs, the agent for Padres star Adrian Gonzalez, expressed his hope the Padres would treat his client similarly (the implication is that they aren't). The best guess here is that Mauer and the Twins will reach a deal in the range of the $180-million, eight-year deal Mark Teixeira got from the Yankees last offseason, though there have been whispers of a 10-year deal (and one local radio report, as well). If it winds up being for 10 years, the number just might hit $200 million.

8. What might have been

The Phillies did a superb job turning one year of Cliff Lee into four years of Roy Halladay. But the question persists: How great would things have been for the Phillies if they had just made the Halladay deal, and not the accompanying trade for Lee? They would have been the story of the offseason. Looking back, a lot of baseball people think they should have done that. But it's hard to criticize the Phillies, a team that works smart and goes for the gusto year after year. Their $140-million payroll is higher than that of the megamarket Mets, and about $40 million higher than the Cardinals, who have almost identical revenues to Philly.

9. Reds alert

The Reds, who allegedly had monetary issues, made one of the bigger deals of the winter when they signed Cuban refugee Aroldis Chapman, a 21-year-old let-handed pitcher, to a $30-million, six-year deal. Chapman is said to have the talent of Randy Johnson but needs to harness his control. Some other teams wondered if there's a maturity issue, as well, but Cincinnati believes he'll be ready for the rotation soon.

10. Nationals disgrace no more

The Washington Nationals, fresh off a season in which they signed phenom Stephen Strasburg, were in the mix for a lot of improvements, and made quite a few, bringing in Cooperstown-bound catcher Ivan Rodriguez, solid starter Jason Marquis and good-hitting second baseman Adam Kennedy.

11. Wolf in sheep's clothing

Despite being in his mid-30s and having some injury history, Randy Wolf was rewarded with a near-$30-million three-year deal from the successful small-market Milwaukee Brewers. Wolf was likely aided by having a gold-plated rep for being a tough team guy, though some still fear this could be a repeat of the Jeff Suppan deal of three years ago.

12. Holliday cleans up

Cleanup hitter Matt Holliday signed back with the Cardinals for $120 million over seven years, becoming the winter's only nine-figure man. But shortly after the deal was done, and baseball people judged it to be a very good one for Holliday, agent Scott Boras privately expressed his belief that $140 million was actually the right number for Holliday in light of the fact he thought $160 million was right for Mark Teixeira (who actually got $180 million the year before from the Yankees). One difference, though, was that Teixeira was a target of teams from much bigger markets, including both the Red Sox and Yankees, not to mention the Angels. Holliday would have been happy to consider either New York team or either Los Angeles team but the closest he came to interest there was a couple calls from Mets GM Omar Minaya, who had interest but realistically understood that Mets ownership wasn't going to play with Boras insisting the deal had to be for seven years.

13. He's nobody's Lackey

John Lackey hit A.J. Burnett's number of $82.5 million for five years, which was probably pretty predictable considering they have similar stats and age. The Red Sox were fairly logical as a potential landing spot, too, since only a few teams can play at that price -- though the signing still seemed to come out of nowhere. One interesting twist in the deal is that Lackey will have to pitch a sixth year at the minimum salary if he's hit with a significant elbow issue in any of the first five, as first reported by the Boston Globe.

14. Will he wind up in sick Bay?

The Mets, who were hurt more by devastating injuries than any other team last year, knew that Bay's previous team, the Red Sox, viewed him as such an injury risk that they reduced their four-year offer to him last summer. But the Mets expressed no reservations about Bay, who despite these alleged knee and shoulder issues consistently plays 150 games per year, or more.

15. Lowell in limbo

The Red Sox had a deal to trade 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell to the Rangers for Max Ramirez. But the trade was canceled after Lowell was diagnosed with a hand injury to go with his pre-existing hip issue. He's now been replaced at third base by Beltre, so he appears to be a recovering man without a position.

16. To live and divorce in L.A.

The storied Dodgers franchise was handicapped by its bickering owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, whose divorce is making the megamarket Dodgers operate like they're located in Upper Podunk, not L.A. Instead of playing for stars, like usual, it gathered a lot of bargains. They do retain a very talented young team and wisely avoided any bickering with their players by making deals on a record 13 arbitration-eligible players.

17. Mets injuries back on center stage

Mets management sparred with star centerfielder Carlos Beltran after he had knee surgery to correct a problem both sides agreed needed to be corrected. Apparently, the Mets believed a third opinion could be beneficial, even though the first two belonged to world-renowned knee surgeon Richard Steadman and highly respected longtime Mets surgeon David Altcheck. Altcheck actually had already given the go-ahead for the operation, but Mets people still felt they needed to give some sort of written approval. At this point, with much bigger issues, the Mets should probably not concern themselves with such technicalities.

18. Mets play hardball

The Mets played hardball with targeted free agents Bengie Molina and Joel Pineiro, resulting in both players going elsewhere. Though they did offer Molina a second-year player option, apparently it was such a watered-down deal it drove him back to San Francisco. The Mets drew the line at $14 million for two years on Pineiro when he was seeking $18 million (he eventually took $16 million from the Angels). Mets people wondered whether these players preferred to go elsewhere. Perhaps they did, but the negotiations might have had something to do with that.

19. Fishin' For Dollars

The union made a case to compel the slow-spending Marlins to break out their wallets, and within a week there was a four-year, $39 million deal for star right-hander Josh Johnson. It's said that deal was forthcoming, anyway, but before the union spoke up, Florida had been only offering three years.

20. The King and I

King Felix Hernandez set the bar with Seattle at $78 million for five years for a young ace, and Justin Verlander used that target figure to slightly top it, with $80 million. Of course, with Hernandez only 23 and still able to become a free agent at 28, he's set up to make $250 million, or more, for his career. As a sidelight, both deals bode well for Cliff Lee, as it's apparent now that very few aces will hit the market in coming years.

21. Tiny Tim's big payday

Tim Lincecum settled with the Giants for $23 million over two years, avoiding a potentially contentious arbitration hearing that would have seen the sides arguing over a whopping $5-million gap. Lincecum won because he got an enormous raise from $650,000, and doubled the previous high salary for first-year arbitration eligible starting pitchers, which was only $4.35 million (Dontrelle Willis and Cole Hamels). But MLB also has to be relieved at the salary split, which is $8 million in 2010, $13 million in 2011 and a $2-million signing bonus since a $13-million salary for a first-year arbitration eligible player would have set a precedent baseball's powers didn't want to deal with. The Giants were wise to get it done without fighting with their franchise player. Lincecum did fine but played it safe.

22. Retiring types

Future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas all retired while two others -- Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz -- remain candidates to keep playing, though they haven't found jobs yet (and neither have borderline Hall candidates Carlos Delgado and Gary Sheffield).

• While the Tigers are still seen as the favorites in the Damon derby, the White Sox apparently are still interested.. The Braves, Rays, A's and Reds look like long shots, but with Damon still unsigned, those four have to be considered in the mix as well.

• One agent expressed surprise that Corey Hart won his arbitration case while B.J. Upton lost his. But that just shows how arbitrary the results can be.

• The Indians have some money left to spend and are looking at Jermaine Dye and Hank Blalock.

• The Dodgers and Rockies have watched Eric Gagne throw and both teams have shown the willingness to take a chance.

Kendry Morales had a financial dispute with the Randy and Alan Hendricks before leaving them for Scott Boras. Morales is the one who brought Chapman to the Hendricks brothers so there was quite a turn for the worse in their relationship.

Felipe Lopez was obviously frustrated not to find a starting job from among 30 teams after hitting .310 with a .383 on-base percentage, which led to his switch from Boras to the Beverly Hills Sports Council. The Rockies showed interest at one time but abruptly changed their minds and took Melvin Mora, who had a poor year, instead. The Cardinals have some interest but have suggested they wanted David Freese to have a clear shot at the third-base job.

• Congratulations to Bud Selig for the statue that will be erected for him outside Miller Park. But don't take his willingness to be bronzed as evidence he's ready to step down after 2011. I'll believe it when I see it.

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