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Setting up Hot Stove market as GM meetings get underway

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With baseball's General Manager meetings taking place this week, some executives are complaining that the free-agent market is weak and shallow. But while that's mostly true if a team seeks a superstar in his prime, that's clearly not the case if you're looking for a certain type of specialist, especially a reliever or designated hitter. While all-around stars are sparing on the market (after Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre, Adam Dunn, Rafael Soriano, Victor Martinez, Paul Konerko and three Yankees icons Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, there's a distinct dropoff), teams that need strictly a bat or a late-inning arm are in luck.

The DH/part-time outfield market is robust with Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Hideki Matsui, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman, Magglio Ordonez and Johnny Damon all looking for jobs. But the relief market has to be the strongest in years. Even if it's assumed Rivera returns to the Yankees, and that's pretty much a given, Soriano is a star closer, Joaquin Benoit was lights out as a set-up man last year and Kevin Gregg, Kerry Wood, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Arthur Rhodes, Pedro Feliciano, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Randy Choate, Grant Balfour and Jose Contreras are among a long litany of bullpen arms who could help just about any team in some way. Just for good measure, career saves leader Trevor Hoffman is also considering a return -- but he's said to only want back with a chance to close some games.

So it really depends what a team seeks. Teams in search of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher that can't financially compete with the Yankees might find this market disastrous, as the drop is steep from superstar Lee to the next tier, which is topped by Jorge De La Rosa and Carl Pavano, assuming Pettitte keeps to his word and either returns to the Yankees or retires (that's a very safe assumption). The list is also extremely shallow, putting De La Rosa, Pavano and Jon Garland in good stead.

If a team needs an outfielder but doesn't have $80 million-plus to spend and thus has little hope to land Crawford or Werth, it's looking mostly at aging former stars, middle-of-the-road guys or strict backups. First base is fairly strong, with Konerko, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Peña, Adam LaRoche, Nick Johnson if he can stay healthy and potentially Dunn and Berkman. So is the catching position (besides V-Mart, there's A.J. Pierzynski, John Buck, Gerald Laird, Bengie Molina -- if he plays another year -- and the usual ensemble of backups,) but the rest of the infield is sparse, at best.

Adrian Beltre is the lone in-his-prime star third baseman, Jeter is by far the best middle infielder (and we all have to think he's going back to the Yankees) and Orlando Hudson is once again the top second baseman, almost a yearly occurrence every winter. Juan Uribe is a useful and clutch player who obviously isn't in Beltre's category but still appears to have plenty left, while still other former World Series heroes populate the infield list (David Eckstein, Edgar Renteria and Craig Counsell).

Here are some more things to look for this winter ...

1. Zack Greinke. The Royals are said to want back three big pieces, with at least two of them being pitchers, and it's hard to argue with them as Greinke is the second ace available, behind Lee. However, Royals GM Dayton Moore appears reluctant to deal Greinke, and a 15-team no-trade list combined with the strong belief among Greinke confidantes he simply will not accept a trade to New York or any other major market, makes this a tough one. The Royals have an excellent nucleus of position players coming to the majors soon, with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Wil Myers, but they are expected to be ready just in time for Greinke's contract to expire at the end of the 2012 season, putting Kansas City in a quandary.

2. Adrian Gonzalez. Padres GM Jed Hoyer is willing to listen to offers with the clear intention to bring the Padres' one monster superstar into the season. San Diego made it all the way to game No. 162 last year before finally being eliminated, so the chances they trade Gonzalez seem remote. The Red Sox, Dodgers and Mariners have shown keen interest in the past.

3. Heath Bell. The Padres will listen on Bell, as well. He had another very nice season as their closer, but it's more realistic to think they could replace him than Gonzalez.

4. Prince Fielder. As in the case of A-Gone and the Padres, the Brewers' chances to keep Fielder on a long-term contract are practically nil. They do seem more likely to try harder to trade their cleanup hitter since they may have a harder time convincing themselves they're contenders. They also have a deep need for pitching. And they may not find the market to their liking considering Fielder is unlikely to be a quick sign for anyone. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was scouting director in Milwaukee when they picked him in the first round in 2002.

5.Mark Reynolds/Dan Uggla. The Diamondbacks' powerful gamer sunk to below .200 last year while continuing to strike out more than anyone, 211 times in fact. The D-backs have said they want to cut down on strikeouts. The A' have been a possibility for him. Uggla looks slightly available now after rejecting a $48-million offer by the Marlins.

1. Angels. They are an ultra-successful franchise that's lost a lot of players to free agency the past two years, including Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez and Chone Figgins, and seem primed to try to make one or two big scores. Carl Crawford appears to be their top target, but Beltre or Soriano could also be in play for them. Offense would appear to be their main need, but they have built themselves around pitching for years, so they are at least taking a look at Lee.

2. Tigers. They have $50 million coming off their books and an ultra-aggressive owner in Mike Ilitch. They seek middle-of-the-order bats and could be players for Werth, Martinez or Dunn.

3. Red Sox. They go into the winter as the favorite for Werth but are also expected to dabble in Crawford and Lee. Beltre remains a target. V-Mart is said to be one, as well, but he appears more likely to make a bigger score with the Tigers or Orioles.

4. Yankees. When have they not had money? They are intent on signing Lee, and that contract should be for at last five years, and maybe six, and probably at least $120 million. They also have checked in on Crawford, so there's an outside chance they could try for him and move one of their outfielders, possibly Nick Swisher, who's coming off an excellent season in which he batted .288 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs. They also need a set-up if they can't retain Wood.

5. Nationals. They are expected to go big for Lee, as are the Rangers, who signed an $80-million-a-year TV deal and are under new solvent ownership. The Orioles and Pirates are also making a bit of early noise behind the scenes, and the A's have been an aggressive team early with interest in a middle-of-the-order bat.

1. Red Sox. Beltre and V-Mart are free agents with no suggestion Boston is the favorite for either. The Tigers and Orioles are thought willing to go well above what the Red Sox offered during the season (about $20 million for two years) for Martinez, and Beltre is said to be getting a lot of early outside play, no surprise considering his excellent year (.321, 28 HRs, 102 RBIs) and a general lack of viable available third basemen.

2. Rays. Crawford and Soriano are certain to go as they have priced themselves out of attendance-challenged Tampa Bay's range. The Rays have hoped that Peña, coming off a sub-.200 season with an affinity for the team and area (he has a home in Orlando), could decide to return. Benoit could be a candidate to close for them coming off his ridiculously good season (1.34 ERA, 0.68 WHIP), but he could easily leave, too. Choate and Balfour, two more key members of the bullpen, are also free agents, as are Gabe Kapler and Brad Hawpe.

3. Twins. They are no longer a winter weakling and finally have financial might. But they also have a bullpen full of free agents (Rauch, Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jesse Crain and Randy Flores) plus key players Pavano, Hudson and Thome who will be on the market.

4. White Sox. They seem to want to retain Konerko, a favorite of owner Jerry Reinsdorf. But they have to be considering Pierzynski, too, in that catching prospect Tyler Flowers has been inconsistent. J.J. Putz, Andruw Jones, Freddy Garcia, Mark Kotsay and Omar Vizquel are other free agents.

5. Yankees. All available for now are Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte, three of the Core Four. But it would be shocking if Jeter or Rivera left. Pettitte has suggested he'd probably retire if he had to make the decision now. But he's thought the same early in a few recent offseasons, and always eventually decided to come back. So don't count him out. Free agent Marcus Thames quietly had a nice year for them, but with Jorge Posada likely to take over the DH duties, there's probably no room for Berkman or the oft-injured Johnson.

1. De La Rosa. The talented lefty is only 29. While he's been inconsistent in his career, some team is bound to bend and give him three years, or even four or five, in the weakest starting pitcher market possibly ever.

2. Beltre. The early market is said to be hot for this two-way player, as his gamble to take a one-year deal last offseason paid off handsomely. The Angels and Red Sox look like early favorites, but what's to prevent, say, the Orioles, from making a big offer?

3. Garland. Maybe one of these days some executive is going to recognize his consistency and reward him with a three-year deal. If any year is going to be the year, this should be it. A safer bet than Pavano, for instance.

4. Benoit. He looks like a potential closer after his monster season in Tampa.

5. Dunn. Teams pay for power. While the Nationals seem to prefer defense at first, there will be plenty of teams lining up for Dunn, who has hit 354 home runs in his 10-year career, especially if he'll consent to DH. The White Sox, A's, Tigers and Cubs look like possibilities.

1. Bill Hall. He emerged as a valuable supersub in Boston's pressurized environment last year.

2. Matt Treanor. This solid catcher will be a manager someday, say the Texas execs.

3. Melvin Mora. From overpaid starter back to versatile utilityman, he can play a lot of positions.

4. Choate. Everyone needs a lefty specialist.

5. Feliciano. Everyone needs a lefty specialist with a rubber arm (he's led the National League in appearances three straight seasons).

• The Pirates did well by getting Clint Hurdle to manage them, a hiring that will officially be announced Monday. They surely waited a long time to find their manager, but they seem to have found the perfect one for a longtime rebuilding team (18 straight losing seasons). The perennially positive Hurdle would have been a good choice for the Mets, too, who now appear almost certain to hire either Terry Collins or Bob Melvin. Hurdle was the one the Pirates wanted for a long time, while the Mets weren't willing to expedite their process for him despite what was said to be an excellent interview with them (there may have been concern that he only had one winning season in Colorado). Collins seems to have an edge with the Mets as the one with a longterm relationship with new Mets exec Paul DePodesta, who appears to wield a lot of power from his home in San Diego. Collins was a candidate nowhere else and hasn't managed in the majors since leaving the Angels in 1999 (though DePodesta was about to hire him when DePodesta was Dodgers GM before he himself was ousted), while Melvin has interviewed in several other places.

• Chip Hale was said to have had an excellent interview with the Mets, but GM Sandy Alderson isn't seen as someone who'll hire a man with no major-league experience for New York. Hale is likely to return as the Mets' third base coach. Wally Backman, the people's choice to manage the Mets, also is said to have impressed Alderson. But Backman appears more likely to receive a minor-league promotion to manager at Class-A Port St. Lucie or possibly Double-A Binghamton if Tim Teufel, the former Met, is promoted to the major-league staff. Pitching coach Dan Warthen did a nice job and was promised a job in the organization, so he may well be back in the same role, with ex-Mets hero Howard Johnson more likely to be moved from major league hitting coach.

• The Marlins have been looking at possible trades for Uggla after he failed to accept their $48-million, four-year offer. Outside execs said they considered it a reasonable offer. But Uggla is coming off his fourth straight 30-homer season, and no other second baseman has ever had four such seasons, never mind consecutively.

• Among those up for the Hall of Fame, I would consider voting for Steve Garvey, Dave Concepcion, Ron Guidry, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and Marvin Miller. Miller didn't exactly charm Veterans Committee member Jim Palmer by calling him an "anti-union sonuvabitch" on MurrayChass.com. But Miller's time is long overdue.

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