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Holliday, Bay, Lackey look like best of intriguing group of free agents

After last year's unusual winter, in which certain star players got paid big bucks, some were paid handsomely and other good ones were left standing at the altar, it'll be interesting to how this coming winter's class will be treated. I asked one general manager and one agent to gauge where the market might go, and in some cases their predictions differed wildly, especially with the biggest position-player stars, Holliday and Bay (in a few cases, though, their predictions were exactly the same).

It's never easy to predict how high free-agent salaries might go. But after a winter in which stars Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett were rewarded with contracts for $180 million, $161 million and $82.5 million, respectively, but very good players such as Bobby Abreu, Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf, Orlando Cabrera and Jon Garland were left with one-year deals, it's especially difficult to predict where things are headed. The economy still isn't good, but baseball revenues appear to be holding up. So who knows?

With almost all the playoff entrants all but decided now, it's time to take a look at the best of the upcoming free agents. I have listed the predictions of the agent and GM, and also put in my two cents (my predictions were made before seeking theirs). A couple of their predictions were ranges, and talented yet fragile Rich Harden was deemed too unpredictable by the GM to venture a guess. Here are the best of the best of the free agents-to-be:

1. Matt Holliday, Cardinals OF. St. Louis is going to try to keep Holliday, one of four big summer pickups who helped the Cardinals run away with the NL Central. The Cardinals are going to hope that he loves being in their baseball-crazed city to the point where he would forego bigger dollars elsewhere (Boston and both New York teams are likely interested). With franchise man Albert Pujols's contract up in two years and Cy Young candidate Chris Carpenter in a year, the Cardinals don't figure to be the high bidder. The agent said he believes that Holliday and Bay should each get $2 to $3 million a year less than Teixeira. But the GM said, "Teixeira's a plus defender, a switch-hitter and slightly younger'' than Holliday. Agent: $147 million, 7 years. GM: $80 million, 5 years. Me: $120 million, 7 years.

2. Jason Bay, Red Sox OF. The Red Sox tried earlier, and Bay has said he loves playing in Boston, a stark change from Pittsburgh. Agent: $147 million, 7 years. GM: $60 million, 4 years. Me: $80 million, 5 years.

3. John Lackey, Angels pitcher. The Angels tried last winter at close to $60 million over four years, but Lackey said he signed a team-friendly deal last time and won't do it again. Agent: $75 million, 5 years. GM: $60 million, 4 years. Me: $85 million, 5 years.

4. Chone Figgins, Angels infielder. Versatile player is expected to draw interest from many teams. The White Sox and Yankees might top the list.Agent: $40 million, 4 years (or $30 million, 3 years). GM: $35-40 million, 4 years. Me: $50 million, 4 years.

5. Jose Valverde, Astros closer. Terrific season except for aging a year (he'll be 32 next spring). Agent: $36 million, 3 years. GM: $27 million, 3 years. Me: $16 million, 2 years.

6. Bobby Abreu, Angels outfielder. One of baseball's most consistent players made $16 million in 2008 before inexplicably having to take a pay cut of nearly 70 percent. The GM sees Abreu as comparable to Raul Ibanez, who received $31.5 million for three years last winter. Agent: $6 million, 1 year. GM: $30 million, 3 years. Me: $30 million, 3 years.

7. Jarrod Washburn, Tigers pitcher. Huge performance in Seattle, not so much in Detroit. Could go back and rejoin the Mariners. Agent: $18 million, 2 years.GM: $18 million, 2 years. Me: $36 million, 3 years.

8. Miguel Tejada, Astros shortstop. The easiest prediction is that he'll be playing third base somewhere. Agent: $30 million, 3 years (or $20 million, 2 years). GM: $18 million, 2 years. Me: $10 million, 1 year.

9. Orlando Hudson, Dodgers second baseman. The Mets would make a real run if they can find a taker for Luis Castillo. Agent: $21 million, 3 years. GM: $25 million, 2 years. Me: $16 million, 2 years.

10. Jon Garland, Dodgers pitcher. Another who was left to settle last year.Agent: $30 million, 3 years.GM: $15 million, 2 years. Me: $16 million, 2 years.

11. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels outfielder/DH. An interesting case that gave both our experts great pause. A terrific talent who aged an extra year and was hurt for most of the first half. Agent: $30 million, 2 years. GM: $15-18 million, 2 years. Me: $20 million, 2 years.

12. Rich Harden, Cubs pitcher. Injury-prone ace is a $100 million player on talent. However, he's hurt almost as often as he's healthy, and some will avoid him altogether.Agent: $27 million, 3 years. GM: No prediction. Me: $20 million, 2 years.

13. Marco Scutaro, Jays shortstop. Career year was well-timed. Agent: $18 million, 3 years (or $14 million, 2 years). GM: $20 million, 3 years. Me: $20 million, 2 years.

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14. Randy Wolf, Dodgers pitcher. He will get more if he's willing to leave L.A., the agent predicts. Agent: $16 million, 2 years (in L.A.). GM: $18 million, 2 years. Me: $15 million, 2 years.

15. Doug Davis, Diamondbacks pitcher. Good chance he stays in Arizona.Agent: $24 million, 3 years (or $16 million, 2 years). GM: $15 million, 2 years. Me: $12 million, 2 years.

16. Rafael Soriano, Braves reliever. Talented pitcher but hasn't lived up to hype in Atlanta. Agent: $21 million, 3 years. GM: $14 million, 2 years. Me: $12 million, 2 years.

17. Johnny Damon, Yankees outfielder. Big year. But "better in Yankee Stadium,'' the GM said. Agent: $18 million, 2 years. GM: Whatever the Yankees want to pay.Me: $16 million, 2 years.

18. Benjie Molina, Giants catcher. Nice season. Mets may make a run.Agent: $11 million, 2 years. GM: $10-12 million, 2 years. Me: $15 million, 2 years.

19. Andy Pettitte, Yankees starter. He says he's undecided about a return. But everyone thinks he's going back to the Yankees. Agent: $10 million, 1 year. GM: $11-12 million, 1 year. Me: $12 million, 1 year.

20. Hideki Matsui, Yankees DH. Big field of DHs may hurt him. Could replace Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle, the GM predicted. Agent: $20 million, 2 years. GM: $5-6 million, 1 year. Me: $8 million, 1 year.

21. Trevor Hoffman, Brewers closer. He's said he wants to return, and he should be due a raise. Agent: $8 million, 1 year. GM: $7-8 million, 1 year. Me: $8 million, 1 year.

22. Jim Thome, Dodgers pinch hitter. Caught in the middle of a DH-heavy market. Agent: $8 million, 1 year. GM: $5 million, 1 year. Me: $5 million, 1 year.

23. Billy Wagner, Red Sox reliever. He wants to close somewhere, so it's likely he rejects Boston's arbitration offer. Agent: $1-2 million, 1 year. GM: $7 million, 1 year. Me: $10 million, 1 year.

24. Carlos Delgado, Mets first baseman. Hoping to return for a two-week tryout but looking at incentive-laden deal whatever happens. Agent: $2 million, 1 year (plus incentives). GM: $5 million, 1 year. Me: $5 million, 1 year.

The market also includes some talented players who have questions of injury or recent underperformance, such as pitchers Erik Bedard and Brett Myers and position players Adrian Beltre and Rick Ankiel. The agent and GM foresaw one-year deals in these cases.

There are also a number of players with options who could become free agents. Jermaine Dye and Tim Hudson each have mutual options for $12 million. In Dye's case, the agent and GM said they believed that the White Sox would turn down the option. The agent predicted that Dye would get $16 million for two years, while the GM predicted $18 million for two years. (We didn't address Hudson, since he just came back from Tommy John surgery and his situation is so unpredictable.) Manny Ramirez has a player option for $20 million. Both the agent and GM predicted that Ramirez would accept that option. I foresee Dye turning down the option and getting $25 million for two years and also see Ramirez picking up that $20 million option.

• There are several theories for the Rays' stunning 11-game slide, which ended on Sunday: 1) the Scott Kazmir trade sending a negative message; 2) a realization that they were out of it; 3) Carlos Pena's season-ending broken hand; 4) B.J. Upton's abject struggles; 5) overuse of key pitchers in the pen; and 6) a new player or two not fitting in.

• The Tigers showed great integrity and interest in winning by continuing to play Magglio Ordonez through his uncharacteristic underperformance earlier in the year, and Ordonez triggered his $18 million vesting option with a fifth-inning groundout in the Tigers' 11-1 loss on Tuesday night. Ordonez can still hit, and his first-half struggles may be attributed at least in part to his wife's cancer surgery in May. But it's highly questionable whether he's an $18 million player anymore. Still, the call was the right one, as he has helped the Tigers stay in first place by hitting .357 with a .510 slugging percentage and .940 OPS since the break. Ordonez was hitting only .271 with limited power when manager Jim Leyland lessened his role in June. (The Rangers' Kevin Millwood is 4 1/3 innings away from vesting his 2010 option for $12 million).

• A geographic shocker from a friend that few (if any) have noticed: Los Angeles leads both leagues in hitting while New York is second in both. The Angels lead the AL with a .286 batting average; the Yankees are second at .283. The Dodgers lead the NL at .273 with the Mets second at .270. Yes, that's right, the Mets are second in batting average.

• The Mets' real offensive problem is power, and they will look for home run hitters as they eye free-agent options for left field, first base and catcher.

• The Rangers are in the usual spot of rooting for the Red Sox, who are playing the AL West-leading Angels this week. With seven games of their own left against the Angels (and a 9-3 record vs. L.A.), the division title is now Texas' best playoff hope, even though they trail both the Angels and Red Sox by six games in the loss column.

• Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance vs. the Angels (six scoreless innings) in a 4-1 win on Tuesday is Boston's biggest boost to date.

• Albert Pujols has locked up the NL MVP. But while looking to fill out their ballots, voters shouldn't ignore Andre Ethier's six walkoff hits. He did it again on Tuesday night with a two-run home run to beat the Pirates' Phil Dumatrait 5-4 in 13 innings.

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