By John Donovan
November 12, 2007

At midnight, it's a new game. At midnight, baseball's free-agent market suddenly becomes, in the truest sense of the term, a free marketplace, a veritable free-for-all where any team can bid on any free agent at any time and at any price.

You want to take a shot at Alex Rodriguez? Go for it. After midnight, nothing's stopping you -- if you have a few hundred million. Need a center fielder? The market has a lot of good ones. Get your orders in quickly.

Have your eye on a crafty starting pitcher, or a decent reliever? Hurry up. The line forms to the right.

"It's weird," says Andruw Jones, one of those center fielders who well could define this free-agent winter. "You don't know what's really going to happen."

More than 140 players have filed for free agency since the end of the season. Some will be re-signed by their teams in the final hours leading up to the midnight deadline on Monday night, when teams lose negotiating exclusivity with their own free agents. But for the vast number of free agents, the open market looms, a place that promises more than a little uncertainty, a few hard decisions to be made, a fresh start and, true for a lot of these guys, copious amounts of cash.

Take Jones, for example. His long-time team, the only pro club he's ever known, the Braves, say they're not going to offer him a contract. So Jones will wait -- in his case, he'll probably be cooling his heels for weeks -- as a bunch of other teams figure out what it would be worth to have a 10-time Gold Glover play for them.

Jones is represented by Scott Boras, the agent for some of the most high-priced and highly sought-after players in the game. He and Jones have talked about what lies ahead. And Jones has had weeks to brace himself for it.

"Scott is a really, really smart guy. He tells me: 'Just be patient,'" Jones said on Sunday at a charity golf event in Atlanta. "This is going to be slow. Lots of teams out there are interested in a center fielder."

Many teams are after a center fielder this winter. But a lot of center fielders are out there to be had, too, including Jones, the Twins' Torii Hunter, the Padres' Mike Cameron and the Phillies' Aaron Rowand. Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome of the Chunichi Dragons, who will make the leap to American ball in '08, also is available, though some don't consider him a true center fielder.

Once the bidding begins, the value that certain teams place at certain positions should make for a fascinating look into the minds of those teams. Equally interesting will be how any perceived shortcomings among those players affect the market. Jones, for instance, is coming off a terrible year, the worst of his career, in which he hit only .222 with a .311 on-base percentage. Will teams look at that as a trend or a fluke?

Jones, who has been criticized for years in Atlanta for his apparently lackadaisical attitude, knows that this is out of his hands at this point.

"I wish I could bring back the season from last year," he said. "But I can't. It just didn't work out. I think I have a really good idea of what went wrong. About a week after the season, I think I figured it out. I wish I could have fixed it during the season, but I didn't. So we'll see what happens."

Jones, who says a faulty stance led to his poor numbers, including 138 strikeouts and a .169 batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position, said all he wants out of free agency is to sign with a team that has a chance to win. Jones played in 75 postseason games with the Braves, including 10 in the World Series.

The money, of course, is of some importance, too, especially after he gave the Braves a discount the last time he signed a long-term contract: a six-year, $75 million deal back in 2002. Boras already has floated what seems to be a preposterously inflated number -- six years at maybe $20 million a season for Jones -- though most insiders view that proposition for what it is: A ridiculous Boras number.

For his part, Jones, 30, realizes that his sub-par '07 season could have an impact on how much he signs for this time. So he said he might be willing to go for something with a shorter term. Just so he can go through all this again in a couple of years.

"Sometimes, you have to do that to build yourself up again. Sometimes you have to go short term," he said. "That's alright. We'll see."

Whatever happens, Jones doesn't expect a quick resolution to his free agency. With all the free agents out there, with all the money floating around, this is going to take some time for a lot of players. We're really just getting started.

• A few teams tried feverishly over the weekend to sign their free agents before they were thrown into the pool with everyone else. Tops on that list is Boston, trying to nail down a commitment from Mike Lowell. The third baseman reportedly has a three-year offer from the Red Sox in hand for somewhere around $13 million a year. But there evidently is some thought that Lowell, coming off a year in which he hit .324 and drove in 120 runs, could get four years (and, therefore, another $13 million or so) on the free market from some other team.

• Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, speaking to New York reporters at halftime of a Knicks game on Sunday, expressed a confidence that he would re-sign with the Yanks before the deadline. Posada could land a deal reportedly around $40 million for three years. The Yanks also are working hard to get closer Mariano Rivera signed, too. He's reportedly up for a three-year deal worth $39 million.

The Mets, reportedly, are ready to pounce on Posada if the Yanks don't convince him to stay. And any number of teams would be in on Rivera if the Yanks don't tie him up.

• The Braves stated their intention a long time ago not to get into the frenzy for center fielder Jones. The Phillies, too, now have taken a similar tack with their guy, Rowand. Ruben Amaro Jr., the team's assistant general manager, looking at what Rowand, 30, might get on the market, told the Inquirer, "I'm not sure he's a realistic piece for us right now."

• Complicating the crowded center field market is a trade possibility: Boston's Coco Crisp. He doesn't offer the offense that some of the others do, but he's a good defender who can be had fairly cheaply ($4.75 million in '08). And he's signed, with a club option, through '10.

• The Cubs are going hard after Fukudome, who officially has made it known that he wants to play in America. There is some question about his elbow -- he had offseason surgery to remove some chips -- and he's not a huge home run threat (though he could hit 25). But he's a terrific on-base guy, someone who would look good near the top of the lineup with Alfonso Soriano, with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez behind him in the power holes.

• The Tigers don't look inclined to try to re-sign lefty Kenny Rogers, whose agent -- Boras -- has insisted that Rogers wants to test the market. How much of a market will there be for a 42-year-old who made only 11 starts in '07, with a blood clot in the shoulder and elbow problems? With 49 wins in the three years before '07, you have to think that there will be one. He made $8 million in '07.

• Also on Boras' plate, according to the Denver Post: The Rockies want to talk with him about working up a contract extension for MVP candidate Matt Holliday, who can't be a free agent until after '09. The Rockies want, essentially, to buy out a couple of Holliday's free-agent years, proposing a contract extension that would run through, say, 2011. It'd have to be a pretty hefty offer to convince Boras to give up a chance to get this guy on the open market.

• Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, in comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was flummoxed with the Gold Glove awarded to Mets third baseman David Wright. Jones isn't one to fly off the handle with these kinds of comments. He obviously thought it through. And you know what? He's right.

• It's awards week, with the top rookies, pitchers and managers all getting their awards. (Next week, the MVPs for both leagues are named.) The rookies, of course, are always new. But I'm predicting first-time winners in all of the other categories, too, except for one. Put me down for Dustin Pedroia and Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Beckett and Jake Peavy, Terry Francona and Bob Melvin, and A-Rod and Jimmy Rollins.

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