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Offseason, free agency could deliver more surprises

Many of baseball's best young players are locked up early in their career nowadays, limiting free-agent lists to lesser lights in some recent years. But at least this year's free-agent market still contains a trio of players who will be shooting for $100-million deals (two of them should surely get it), at least a half-dozen legitimate difference-makers, a couple of iconic Yankees Hall of Famers-to-be and a number of very solid pieces -- even though it is seen by some big-league executives as only average overall, at best.

Baseball is doing very well, much better than the economy as whole, with revenues up again, to more than $7 billion, and attendance off only about one percent in 2010, despite the obvious boost in 2009 of two new parks in New York City. So competition for free agents could be fierce at the very top of the market -- especially in the cases of Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, and perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree, Jayson Werth.

This coming market also includes a great hitting and fielding third baseman (Adrian Beltre), a consistent slugger in his prime (Adam Dunn) and an elite closer (Rafael Soriano). But further spicing things up is the possibility of at least a couple big stars (Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder more likely than Adrian Gonzalez) being dangled in trades. The season gave us a surprise World Series winner in the band of misfits, outcasts and sterling pitchers of the San Francisco Giants. There could be more surprises in store this winter. Here's an early preview of what we might see.

1. Who's going to win the Lee Sweepstakes?And how high will the bidding go? The Yankees remain the heavy favorite to win the services of one of baseball's best and most clutch pitchers. A so-so World Series performance won't deter them from giving the 32-year-old left-hander at least a $100-million contract, and probably significantly more than that.

Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has presented a confident face that they can keep Lee, and the Rangers' new $80-million-a-year local TV deal puts them in the ballgame at least. However, beating the Yankees at their game still seems like a long shot. Lee wanted to go to New York at midseason, and while he seemed to enjoy his brief time in Texas, and his wife, Kristin, was clearly annoyed by a handful of obnoxious Yankees fans during the ALCS, the reality is that the Yankees have yet to fail to land a big-time free agent they've targeted since the days of Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in the early 1990s. Yes, eons ago.

The asking price is expected to be a repeat of the deal for Lee's good buddy CC Sabathia, who got seven years and $161 million from New York two years ago. And with the aggressive Nationals expected to be in the mix (plus who knows who else? The Angels? Red Sox?) bidding things up, it seems very likely Lee will at least approach Johan Santana's $138-million, six-year contract. Expect him to sign with the Yankees for a deal in that range.

2. How much can Crawford make, and where might he go? The Angels and Red Sox are the early favorites after disappointing seasons by those teams' usual standards. Torii Hunter is pushing hard for Crawford in Los Angeles, and the Red Sox might prefer more power and the higher OPS numbers of Werth. Crawford's hometown Astros don't usually spend this sort of money on free agents, but Crawford is a great local story. The Tigers also have money to spend, and of course, the Yankees can never be counted out. The Giants also love Crawford but may be a bit leery of the free-agent market after overpaying for Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito in recent years.

Crawford, 29, is aiming to beat $100 million, and his speed and youth should make that a fairly easily attainable goal. The guess here is that the Angels, who need table setters after losing Chone Figgins a year earlier, get him for seven years and perhaps $119 million in a repeat of the six-year-old Carlos Beltran deal. And for the record, Hunter said he doesn't mind one bit if Crawford makes a lot more money than him.

3. What about Werth? The Phillies are said by a source to have initially suggested this summer a repeat of the deal Jason Bay got from the Mets last offseason, which would mean $66 million over four years. But that was summarily rejected by Werth, and he is shooting to redo the $120 million, seven-year contract Matt Holliday got from the Cardinals.

Werth has more power than Crawford and has shown a willingness to play center field, which should help him as a free agent, but with Werth being 32 it seems a stretch to think even such a multi-dimensional player will reach the $100 million mark. The Phillies, who have done an excellent job from a business standpoint, apparently haven't come close to giving up. They know they need a right-handed bat, and a person familiar with their thinking said he expects them to try hard for Werth, giving them a decent shot to retain him. The Tigers, who have $50 million coming off the books and seek a middle-of-the-order bat, also could be a possibility. The best guess here is that he goes to Boston or stays in Philly. The haul? Maybe $85 million for five years.

4. Who are the next best free agents? Closer Soriano will be sold as a major difference-maker after seeing the impact he had on the Rays in 2010 (45 saves, 1.73 ERA) and will be seeking to beat the $11-to-13 million-a-year deals signed by closers Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan and get near Mariano Rivera's $15-million salary (which will go up next year, as he, too, is a free agent). The Angels and perhaps the Red Sox or Mets could make sense (if they were to deal Jonathan Papelbon and Rodriguez, respectively).

The fielding-challenged Dunn should really consider the American League (and the White Sox and A's are among teams that may show interest), but he is said by friends to much prefer the NL. The Cubs aren't out of the question for him with his incumbent Nationals more likely to seek a plus-defender for first base, such as Carlos Peña.

Beltre is expected to be very popular after a big year in Boston, and while the Angels, Red Sox and A's are very logical suitors, several other teams could be interested in the all-around star who does a terrific job of timing his better years.

Victor Martinez rejected Boston's two-year offer for about $20 million and is expected to seek at least four years and draw interest from the Tigers, Orioles and Rockies, who know they may be in over their heads.

5. Will the iconic Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera remain the Bronx? The overwhelming belief is that they will. Though, Rivera should be the easier of the two to get signed, by far. The Yankees might like to try to bring him back with a raise from his $15 million salary to perhaps $17 or $18 million on a one-year deal. But if he insists on two years, it might be pretty hard for the Yankees to say no to a player who is almost inarguably the greatest relief pitcher ever, especially after a very typical season for him, even at age 40, that included 33 saves and a 1.80 ERA.

There are early indications the talks with Jeter may take awhile. Some industry sources still say they wouldn't be surprised if he initially sought to obtain a six-year deal to match the expiration age of Alex Rodriguez's contract, which would put Jeter at 42. The Yankees haven't opened talks yet with his agent, Casey Close, and while it's unconfirmed, there are a few early hints that the team may be thinking about a deal of about half that length, perhaps three guaranteed years.

The Yankees need Jeter, as they view him as a legend and wouldn't want him playing elsewhere. But by the same token, Jeter would risk diminishing his legacy by leaving the Bronx. Even in a poor year offensively for him, in which he posted career lows in batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.370), he still scored more than 100 runs, drove in 67 and stole 18 bases, and there aren't many shortstops who provide that kind of production. This may not go as quickly as folks think, though.

6. Will Gonzalez be traded? In a word, no. The Padres only fell short of the eventual world champion Giants in the NL West by one game and have no reason to shop A-Gone, who almost surely will stay, at least to start the season. They could easily wind up dealing him at the summer deadline, but if they're in the race, they probably aren't opposed to keeping him until the end of the year and letting him leave via free agency.

As new Padres owner Jeff Moorad has acknowledged, they are in deep to try to keep him long-term, especially with Gonzalez understandably seeking to repeat Mark Teixeira's $180-million, eight-year deal. The parties will reportedly meet soon, but the Padres aren't believed to be considering a deal anywhere near Teixeira's neighborhood. In any case, following Gonzalez' shoulder surgery, the Padres are expecting even better production from their one major star, who batted .298 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs.

7. Could Fielder be traded? The Brewers appear likely to at least look at their options, although they very much like their everyday nucleus and seem more likely than not to keep Fielder to start the season. That doesn't prevent Milwaukee from weighing its options.

One early trade possibility could be the Mariners, whose GM, Jack Zduriencik, was the scouting director in Milwaukee when the Brewers drafted Fielder and whose own scouting director, Tom McNamara, was the scout who signed him. A package of Justin Smoak and a young pitcher or two might make sense for Fielder, who is seen as having almost no chance to sign long-term with the small-market Brewers when his contract expires after the 2011 season.

8. What are the chances of a Greinke trade? It is possible he could be dealt, but not too likely. The Royals will look into it, though the belief is they'll need to be overwhelmed to seriously entertain trading one of baseball's best pitchers. They might, in fact, want two starting pitchers in return, and that's just for starters. Complicating matters are a limited no-trade clause believed to include most major-market teams (likely the Yankees and Red Sox) and Greinke's desire to play in a small market. He overcame anxiety issues, but those close to him say he enjoys small-city life and wants no part of New York. The Yankees aren't believed to be interested in pursuing him under the circumstances.

The Giants' improbable World Series victory is one of the better championship stories over the past several decades, rivaling that of the 1988 Dodgers and the 1969 Mets, which is still the best story of all.

The keys to this Giants team, of course, were their four excellent starting pitchers, deep staff and excellent closer. But they received one of the most improbable performances ever from Cody Ross and especially Edgar Renteria, who barely made the Giants' original postseason roster and had only two at-bats (both hits) in the NLDS.

Here's a rundown of Giants heroes.

1. Dick Tidrow. Their scouting guru has "a special brand of genius,'' said one admiring competitor. No one knows pitching like this former Yankees and Indians hurler, and he plucked starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez and closer Brian Wilson with draft choices. The first three were first-rounders, with both Lincecum (in 2006) and Bumgarner (in 2007) going No. 10 overall. Matt Cain was the 25th pick in 2002 and both Sanchez (27th round in 2004) and Wilson (23rd round in 2003) were picked after round 20.

2. Brian Sabean, GM. He hired excellent scouts, relied on pitching and had the guts to hire a veteran manager with a mind of his own in Bruce Bochy. Sabean has taken a lot of hits in recent years, but ultimately, it was the right call to stick with all their talented young pitchers. He also landed Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez, who fortified their bullpen after he rejected requests of Bumgarner or Sanchez for Milwaukee's Corey Hart or Toronto's Jose Bautista.

3. Larry Baer. The club president who came with owner Peter Magowan and still operates well under new owner Bill Neukom has helped the Giants stay in excellent financial condition with their excellent stadium deal in perhaps baseball's most picturesque setting.

4. Bruce Bochy. He's one of baseball's best managers. It's interesting that he was eased out when Sandy Alderson was in charge in San Diego (though Bud Black made an excellent replacement), but Bochy's handling of the 'pen, both in San Diego and in San Francisco, is legendary and goes counter to the trend to seek a compliant manager who does whatever the GM tells him to do.

5. Renteria. The Rangers' scouts weren't alone in thinking he was done, or close to done. Told that the Rangers never believed he had this in him, the Series MVP who delivered the game-winning hit in the clinching Game 5 responded, "Me, either." Should he keep to his stated intention to retire (though he may be rethinking that now), it would be a fabulous bookend to a career that started with a nice rookie year in 1996 and World Series-deciding hit in 1997. The only previous players to have two Series-deciding hits in their careers were Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. Nice company.

6. The Freak. Tim Lincecum was painted as the lesser pitcher in his last four pitching matchups, but he went 3-1 vs. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The two-time Cy Young winner has a lot of arm for such a little guy.

7. Matt Cain. He didn't allow an earned run all postseason in 21 1/3 innings of work, showed his true bulldog side and didn't utter a peep when Giants people made their one tiny mistake, which was to move Sanchez ahead of him in the NLCS rotation.

8. Bumgarner. It's hard to believe he's only 21. Pitchers who come up big like that (2-0, 2.18 ERA) in the postseason, at that age, are a rare breed indeed. Johnny Podres, who won World Series MVP honors for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, comes to mind. Steve Avery, the NLCS MVP for the Braves at 21 in 1991, is another one. But there aren't many.

9. Buster Posey. The Giants' rookie catcher is 23, looks 16 and plays like a veteran pro. "He's the guy I'd pick to start my team,''' one competing executive said. Can't blame him for that. Posey is terrific. It'll be close between him and Jason Heyward for NL Rookie of the Year, but sportswriters will look a bit better if it goes to Posey, the cleanup man and sterling catcher for the world champions. Voting is done right after the regular season, so if Heyward gets it, that is the reason.

10. Dave Righetti. The former Yankees great and longtime Giants pitching coach did a superb job with all the young pitching talent in San Francisco. Not many players who made as much money as Righetti did while playing go into coaching. The man obviously loves to work.

11. Juan Uribe. He got some big hits for the Giants in the postseason, including the home run that beat the Phillies in the clinching Game 6 of the NLCS, and that coincides nicely with his upcoming free agency. Aubrey Huff is also a free agent, and the Giants are said to want both back.

12. Giants scouts. They seemed to do a terrific job advancing the series. The Giants defense is just OK, but it seemed to be very well-placed. They also had a terrific game plan to combat the Rangers' offensive attack. At least one Giants person, assistant GM Tony Siegle, hinted at a disdain for the Moneyball philosophy when he said, "So much for Moneyball,'' following the Series.

Moneyball obviously is a brilliant book about a brilliant guy in A's GM Billy Beane and an inarguable concept that it's nice to look for market inequities and have very good players who are paid very little. The book also espouses the use of stats. Siegle said they use stats, too, but the Giants are clearly viewed on the scout side in the scout-vs.-stats controversy that still eats at some baseball people who believe Beane and the Moneyball concept were given too much credit.

• The Brewers surprised a few folks (including this one) by naming Angels coach Ron Roenicke as their new manager over the more accomplished favorite Bobby Valentine. An associate of owner Mark Attanasio said late last week he believed Valentine would be Attanasio's choice. However, over the weekend Attanasio said in a phone interview that there had been no decision and that calls were still being made to check up on the candidates. Roenicke is well-regarded and is the safe, cheaper choice. Valentine has a few detractors, and perhaps either Attanasio or GM Doug Melvin found them on the phone.

This is to be Melvin's last chance after Ned Yost and Ken Macha. (Yost was fired and replaced by interim Dale Sveum in a move made by Attanasio; and Macha supposedly didn't hit it off with most of Milwaukee's young nucleus in two losing seasons). Attanasio is said to have been pleased by Melvin's list and thought to have considered six of Melvin's eight top choices as workable. Melvin apparently didn't have bench coach Willie Randolph on his list because he wanted a clean break from the Macha regime (though he did bring back Sveum to be the hitting coach on a two-year deal).

Roenicke is a very highly regarded coach who worked under Mike Scioscia (as did Padres manager Bud Black and Rays manager Joe Maddon before him) and is said to have given a stirring, emotional speech after the tragic death of young Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart at the hands of a drunken driver in April 2009.

• Valentine is said to have had a bad parting with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, and one Mets executive said months ago that he believed Valentine would have a hurdle to clear to have a chance to get the Mets job. Now with Sandy Alderson in as the Mets' new GM, it appears Valentine's chances would be next to nil.

Alderson is the mentor to Moneyball, and while associates expect him to seek some managerial experience, being that it's New York, they don't think he'll go for someone as strong-willed as Valentine (one of Moneyball's tenets is that the manager is seen as middle management, which might be part of the reason Bochy didn't last in San Diego too long after Anderson got there).

• It seems to be apparent that one of the drawbacks to being Mets manager is that more negative things come out than if you work in another city with a less aggressive media contingent and less vocal fan base. One remarkable thing about this offseason is that three ex-Mets managers with winning records -- Valentine plus Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel -- are less sought-after than one might imagine. Valentine, the most accomplished ex-manager actively seeking employment (Joe Torre, another ex-Mets manager, isn't as actively shopping and Lou Piniella doesn't appear to be shopping at all), only received one offer, from the Marlins, and was passed over by the Mariners and Brewers. And Randolph and Manuel don't appear to be getting sniffs when far less accomplished guys are.

• The Mets apparently won't spend big on their player payroll this winter (Alderson all but admitted as much at his press conference), but after bringing in longtime associate J.P. Ricciardi to be a top lieutenant, it's clear few, if any, teams will spend more on their front office. They are already indebted to ex-GM Omar Minaya for more than $2 million through 2012, Alderson's salary is estimated to be $2-to-3 million and Ricciardi, who's the former GM of the Blue Jays and was reportedly being wooed by the Red Sox, undoubtedly makes good money too.

• The Rangers have a tough call on Vladimir Guerrero's mutual option for $9 million, and the Red Sox do, too, on David Ortiz's $12.5-million option. Boston wants Ortiz back, so it's likely to bite the bullet and pick it up if a two-year deal and less guaranteed money per year can't be arranged.

• While the Phillies are trying to bring back Werth, they may also look at Magglio Ordoñez or ex-Phillie Aaron Rowand as a way to balance out their lefty-heavy lineup. They probably don't want to trade Raul Ibañez and be forced to eat $7-to-8 million on his contract. And they're thinking about breaking in top outfield prospect Domonic Brown slowly after he struggled in a late-season cameo.

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