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 ...
• 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.