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Five Cuts: Third base desperation, Soriano's failed gamble and more

Baseball's winter meetings have drawn to a close, but the Hot Stove is still in full flame. Twenty-eight of this winter's top 50 free agents, per Ben Reiter's "Reiter 50," remain unsigned, including eight of his top 11, five of his top six, and each of the top two. For all of the rumors about blockbuster trades that came out of Nashville this past week, the biggest swap that was actually executed was headlined by an outfielder who has yet to hit a home run in the major leagues (newest Phillie Ben Revere) and a starting pitcher who has yet to qualify for the ERA title (Twins compensation Vance Worley). The winter meetings gave some shape to this offseason and may have allowed teams to lay the groundwork for major deals that will be finalized in the coming weeks, but the best is yet to come. Here, then, is a look at some of what we were able to glean from this past week in Nashville.

Teams are accustomed to slim pickings in the middle infield or behind the plate, but this past week has revealed a lack of depth in the market for third basemen that has resulted in a greatly inflated value for some previously marginal major leaguers. The scent of desperation wafted into the room on Monday, when the Yankees announced that Alex Rodriguez was going to have surgery on his left hip that could sideline him for the first half of the 2013 season. That news came just after cross-town counterpart David Wright inked a new, eight-year deal with the Mets the previous Friday, a deal that was officially announced in Nashville on Wednesday.

With Wright no longer a shoot-the-moon target for teams in need of third base help and the big-money Yankees now joining the competition for third-sackers, journeyman Jeff Keppinger, who had been non-tendered by the Giants a year ago, suddenly became a hot commodity. Despite a career batting line of .288/.337/.396, a poor defensive reputation, and a 33rd birthday coming in late April, Keppinger landed a three-year, $12 million deal from the White Sox, the first multi-year contract of his career. The Yankees had hoped to sign Keppinger and incumbent left-hitting corner man Eric Chavez to form a third-base platoon in Rodriguez's absence, but in the wake of Keppinger's deal, Chavez signed with the Diamondbacks for one year and $3 million, where he'll likely be the strong side of a platoon with righty Chris Johnson.

The Yankees subsequently offered old foe Kevin Youkilis a one-year, $12 million deal and continue to await his answer. Meanwhile good-field, no-hit third-sacker Jack Hannahan, who just last week was non-tendered by the Indians, one of the Yankees' competitors for Youklis's services, is now fielding multi-year offers of his own. The Marlins have reportedly inquired about the man Youkilis displaced in Chicago, the White Sox's Brent Morel, a career .230/.273/.338 hitter, and the Cubs have thrown up their hands and re-signed Ian Stewart (.183/.272/.289 the last two years) for $2 million as insurance for rookie Josh Vitters in the hope that Stewart's damaged left wrist has finally healed.

Elsewhere, the Phillies were reportedly close to acquiring long-time Ranger Michael Young Thursday morning, reportedly needing only Young's approval to seal the deal which Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported would see the Rangers cover more than half of the $16 million Young is owed in the coming season, the last on his contract, in return for "a young major league reliever" and a "lower-level prospect." Young just turned 36 and in 2012 hit .277/.312/.370 while making just 25 starts at third base.

After Youkilis and company, the remaining free agent third basemen include Placido Polanco, who is 37 and slowed by back problems, Brandon Inge, a .226/.304/.377 hitter the last six seasons who is coming off shoulder surgery, Ty Wigginton, a poor defender who hit .250/.313/.404 over the last four years, the recently non-tendered Mark Reynolds, who would rather play first base, Miguel Cairo, a career backup who turns 39 in early May, Chone Figgins, who hit .227/.302/.283 in three years with the Mariners, and assorted other poor choices. It's no wonder teams are suddenly willing to pay a premium for mere competence at the position.

The Angels signed righty Joe Blanton to a two-year, $15 million deal on Wednesday, making him the first starting pitcher to switch teams via a multi-year contract this offseason. Prior to that, just three pitchers had signed multi-year deals since the end of the World Series: the Royals' Jeremy Guthrie, Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, and the White Sox's Jake Peavy, all of which were finalized prior to Thanksgiving and none of which exceeded three years (Guthrie's) or $30 million in total value (Peavy's two-year extension, which replaced his $22 million option for 2013, was worth $29 million).

It seems the entirety of the market for big-money starting pitchers is being held up by Zack Greinke, the top pitcher on the market, who was last reported to be deciding between the Rangers and Dodgers, potentially landing a record contract for a pitcher with either team. Whichever team fails to land Greinke could well turn their attention to Anibal Sanchez, who is generally regarded as the second-best free-agent starter on the market, after which we may finally see some action on Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster and company, pitchers who have clearly earned multi-year deals but have yet to generate much heat due to the Greinke's holding up the market.

Greinke is also largely holding up the upper range of the outfield market as well. Though three top center field options, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, and Shane Victorino, have all signed, the rest of the outfield market seems to hinge on top free agent Josh Hamilton. Hamilton's preferred destination is Texas, but the Rangers seem to be prioritizing Greinke and may not be able to afford both, though team president Nolan Ryan hasn't ruled that out. A decision by Greinke could result in a decision on Hamilton by the Rangers, which would in turn allow Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the next-best free-agent outfielders, to establish their market. That market could include the Rangers and Mariners, the top two teams on Hamilton at the moment, both of whom have reportedly shown interest in Swisher and Bourn as alternatives.

In stark contrast to the third base situation, despite the fact that the other top free agent catchers have already signed (Russell Martin with the Pirates, Mike Napoli and David Ross with the Red Sox), there has been very little heat on long-time White Sox backstop A.J. Pierzynski, who is coming off a career year in which he hit .278/.326/.501 with 27 home runs. The Yankees, who are desperate for catching after failing to retain Martin, reportedly have shown no interest in Pierzynski, and the White Sox have said that they'd be comfortable entering the 2013 season with the combination of Tyler Flowers and Hector Gimenez. Both seem like bluffs to me, but Pierzynski will turn 36 at the end of December and has a lot of wear on his body having caught 1,566 games over the last 12 years. He was never an above-average defender, and doesn't have the best reputation as a teammate, however misleading that might be. The chances of him following up his career year with a comparable season are extremely slim, and over the previous five years he hit just .280/.315/.408, which is merely average even for a catcher and hardly encouraging given those other red flags.

In looking ahead to the Yankees' offseason in the wake of their ALCS sweep at the hands of the Tigers, I wrote of Soriano that, "there's a common perception that Rafael Soriano, having once again proven himself an ace closer, will decline his $14 million player option and find a place that he can continue to rack up saves. Consider, though, that Soriano's $14 million is more than Jonathan Papelbon, last winter's top available free-agent closer, will make in any of the next four years and would make Soriano the second-best paid reliever in baseball behind Rivera. He won't get that money anywhere else because most teams have learned it's better to develop a closer than to buy one."

Soriano not only opted out of his Yankee contract but he also declined a qualifying offer from the Yankees worth $13.3 million for the coming season, which means he will now cost his new team a top draft pick. Unsurprisingly, he has indeed found the market for his services lacking.

Soriano's agent, Scott Boras, has reportedly been trying to foist his client on the Tigers, who are sure not to re-sign fellow free-agent closer and Boras client Jose Valverde. However, the Tigers have thus far expressed no interest in Soriano, with one team official going as far as to tell Peter Gammons that "Soriano ain't happening with us." The Tigers appear content to enter the coming season with fireballing rookie Bruce Rondon as their closer backed up by veterans Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and playoff closer Phil Coke. That could be a bluff as well, but Rondon, who turns 22 on Sunday, is the real deal, averaging 100 miles per hour with his fastball and striking out 11.2 men per nine innings while posting a 1.53 ERA across the top three levels of the minor leagues last season.

Soriano found himself in a similar bind after the 2009 season, when the Braves' arbitration offer added a draft pick to his price, but then he was able to accept arbitration from Atlanta, forcing a one-year deal and, ultimately and somewhat unwittingly, a trade to the Rays. Having declined the Yankees' qualifying offer this fall, he lacks that option this time around and may have to settle for something well shy of the $14 million he would have received had he only agreed to set-up the 43-year-old Mariano Rivera for one more year, an arrangement which led to his spending six months as the Yankees' closer this past season.

With the winter meetings in the rearview mirror, one thing that seems clear is that the Yankees are serious about tightening their belts to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2014. Though the Yankees have retained veteran pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera, they haven't given out a single multi-year deal this offseason, going as far as to lose Martin to the Pirates via a reasonably-price two-year deal. They seem likely to let Nick Swisher walk as well despite an increased need for hitting in the wake of Rodriguez's injury, and their offer to Youkilis was pointedly a one-year deal in contrast to the two-year offers he is reportedly entertaining from other clubs. What's more, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi reported on Thursday that Yankee general manager Brian Cashman lacked the authority to make offers to free agents at the winter meetings without ownership approval, a change from the team's usual arrangement.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have already surpassed the Yankees in payroll obligations for the coming season, with more than $198 million tied up in 2013 payroll to the Yankees' $168M, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, and could well add a major contract for Greinke, Sanchez, or another front-line starter (or two), while the Rangers are going toe-to-toe with Los Angeles on a potential record-setting deal for Greinke. As one Dodgers employee responded to CBSSports' Jon Heyman's inquiry about the team's budget on Monday, "what budget?" It remains to seen if it will carry over onto the field in the coming season, but there has been a major power shift among the game's superpower's off the field.

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