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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Supply outweighs demand when it comes to closers market

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

As millions of residents of Queens, St. Louis and Cleveland could testify, there was a time -- oh, about two months ago -- when no one could have dreamed that one day we all would get to live in a world where the supply of closers would exceed the demand.

But in case you hadn't noticed, look around. We're there.

The winter of 2008-09 has turned into an offseason unlike any we can ever remember. Somehow, there are actually more closers available than teams chasing them.

And no, that's not some crazy hallucination. Do the math for yourself.

Francisco Rodriguez
Not many teams appear to be in the running to sign Francisco Rodriguez.
Available as free agents: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Trevor Hoffman, Kerry Wood and, depending on how you look at them in your bullpen neighborhood, Jason Isringhausen, Brandon Lyon, Eric Gagne and Juan Cruz. There's also Chad Cordero, who is coming off shoulder surgery and is iffy for Opening Day.

Also, potentially available on the trade market: J.J. Putz, Bobby Jenks, George Sherrill, Huston Street, Jose Valverde and Matt Capps.

That's 15 names, and 12 of those players (all but Street, Gagne and Cruz) have saved more than 20 games in at least one of the past two seasons.

But how many teams are actively looking for a closer? You might be shocked by how short that list is.

You have the Mets, Indians, Brewers, Rangers, Tigers and maybe the Cardinals, if it's the right short-term fit. So that's six teams.

And if any of those closers on the trade-auction stand gets dealt, it's possible that club could look elsewhere to replace the arm it just traded away. But we're still talking about only another team or two.

In other words, if you're adding along at home, that's probably a max of eight teams -- and maybe as few as five -- shopping in a market with, conceivably, about twice as many closer names to choose from.

So what does that mean? Well, once again this week, we neglected to get our MBA at Wharton. But you don't have to be Kenneth Paulson to know that this is the classic definition of a buyer's market.

"This is probably the only market in this offseason that you could consider to have some depth to it," one major league executive said. "But that also means there's a chance that there could be someone left without a chair at the end of the game."

That game, in case you missed the chair reference, is musical closers. And some teams started playing it weeks ago.

The Rockies let Fuentes exit and will replace him internally with Manny Corpas. The Marlins traded Kevin Gregg but will plug in the up-and-coming Matt Lindstrom.

The Cubs announced they're letting Wood depart and, even though they dealt for Gregg, will promote Carlos Marmol to president of ninth-inning affairs. The Padres pushed Hoffman out their door, and they probably will stay in-house and go with Heath Bell.

The Angels haven't ruled out signing some kind of late-inning bullpen help, but Jose Arredondo still looms as the likely heir to K-Rod's throne. And the Cardinals are mulling handing over the ninth to Chris Perez or Jason Motte, although they still would have interest in someone like Fuentes or Wood if they could keep the contract short enough.

"Usually, when a team loses, let's say, a second baseman, it means it's in the market for a replacement second baseman," one general manager said. "But in this case, you have teams like the Cubs and Padres both putting front-line closers into the market and not looking to replace them from the same market. And that creates a ripple effect that impacts both clubs and players."

TRIVIALITY

We're down to only two teams that have never had a player finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting in any season in this decade. So: (a) Can you name those teams? And (b) for extra credit, can you identify each team's previous top-10 MVP finisher? (Answer later.)

Sure does. So if you're looking for a big-picture offseason plotline to follow this winter, it ought to be very entertaining to see exactly how that effect plays out.

First off, it's great news for a team such as the Mets, who appear to be the only big-budget shopper looking to plow major dollars into a closer. So the odds of K-Rod's being able to get his rumored price (five years, $75 million) are sinking by the day.

"I'd be shocked," said an official of one team in the bullpen market, "if he gets five years at this point."

But even if Rodriguez has to scuffle by on a three-year or four-year deal at $13-14 million a year, the good news for him is: At least he's still looking highly employable.

And you'd certainly think the same about Fuentes, Hoffman and Wood -- men whose track records seem well established. But not necessarily, if they miscalculate the lay of this closer-laden land.

"I'd expect those guys to do fine," one executive said. "The only trouble they could run into is if they don't get what they want and they just wait and wait -- and then the teams with the most resources, like the Mets, go away. Any of these guys could run into that. If they overplay their hand or don't judge the market right, they risk being left without a job."

And the same, says one agent, could even be true for K-Rod: "If Fuentes signs first, even K-Rod can be in trouble, because how many teams are going to spend those kinds of bucks for a closer?"

The answer might very well be: None. The Brewers will be aggressive -- "but they need two starting pitchers (to replace CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets)," one GM said. "So I don't know how much they can allocate for a closer."

The Tigers are trying to hold, or cut, their payroll, so they don't fit. Money is tight in Cleveland, so the Indians won't be in the K-Rod market. The Cardinals don't seem to want to commit to anyone in this group long-term. And with all those teams out of the picture, that could leave Rodriguez choosing between Texas and a damage-control return to the Angels, who haven't slammed the door as emphatically as many people believe.

So, amazingly, this is a market that could chew up even K-Rod if the right (or wrong) forces converge. Unlikely, but still possible.

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of other options, in all sizes and price ranges, for any team with a shopping cart. And there could well be opportunities for teams that already have closers to swoop in and steal a big name to pitch the eighth.

So those are the rules of the game, contestants. Better grab a chair while you can, because once this game of musical closers gets rolling, there easily could be more losers than winners.

Rumbling through the jungle

• We keep hearing predictions that the Mets will wind up signing K-Rod for four years and $50-55 million. But don't bet your copy of "The Life and Times of Jesse Orosco" on a deal that long. One baseball man reports that when he asked a Mets official about the possibility of a four-year contract for any closer, he was told that was a "deal breaker" for a team that still owes Billy Wagner $10.5 million next year, plus a $1 million buyout.

• Meanwhile, how big an upset would it be if the Mets don't sign any of those free-agent closers? The same source says he was told that, despite talk that the Mets prefer to fill that role with a free agent, if Seattle were to put J.J. Putz on the market, he would go to the top of the Mets' list.

Manny Ramirez

Ramirez

• The Blue Jays are constantly being fingered as a possible suitor for Manny Ramirez. But GM J.P. Ricciardi told Rumblings, unequivocally: "We won't be involved with Manny. That keeps coming up, but it's not true. I think one reason is that Manny has always liked it in Toronto. He's hit more home runs here than anybody. And he likes the city, because he can fly under the radar here. So he may be asking his agent to try to find a way to put him here. He's a great hitter, so it's tempting. But being tempted and being realistic are two separate things."

• The Angels remain an unlikely destination for Jake Peavy. And they've been downplaying Peavy talk as pure "speculation." But an executive of one team that spoke with them insists that Peavy has made it "onto their radar pretty hard." He would be only a contingency plan. But if the Angels sign Mark Teixeira, they still would want to chase a front-line starter -- and probably would have no shot at affording both Teixeira and CC Sabathia. So at that point, they theoretically could take a run at Peavy if he's still out there. Then again, if San Diego's asking price doesn't come down, Peavy could zip off the Angels' radar screen as fast as he zipped onto it.

• Friends of Angels owner Arte Moreno predict that the team's pursuit of Teixeira will not operate on Scott Boras' customary drawn-out time frame. In fact, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Angels establishing a deadline, and either signing Teixeira or pulling out by the end of the winter meetings.

"Look at Arte's history," one source said. "He doesn't like his money to be out there for a long time. Once he makes an offer, there will be a window. So he'll be patient -- but only to a degree. Just look back at the deals he's done. Look how quickly Torii [Hunter] got done. Look how quickly Vlad [Guerrero] got done. So he's not going to wait a long time."

Moreno's friends also sound skeptical that the Angels will give Teixeira the eight to 10 years Boras is reportedly asking. And they suggest that although Teixeira is the club's No. 1 focus, if Boras tries to turn this into a duel for the last dollar, Teixeira won't be an Angel.

"Again, check his history," the same source said. "Arte is about winning. And he's about people who want to be there."

• Speaking of people who want to be in Anaheim, the Angels' current ace, John Lackey, has been telling friends he's confident he'll have a contract extension in place by Opening Day. Lackey has one year left on the four-year contract he signed before the 2006 season.

CC Sabathia

Sabathia

• Here's a fun little trivia question for you: Which player hit the second-longest home run in Dodger Stadium this season, according to the amazing hittrackeronline.com?

Well, it was (who else?) Mr. Carsten Charles Sabathia, whose 440-foot suborbital shot on June 21 fell just a foot short of a 441-foot bomb by Ryan Ludwick that ranks No. 1 on the hittracker list.

So why do we bring this up? Because the replay of that homer still runs in CC's brain. And it makes some people wonder whether his love for swinging the bat, not to mention for California living, might be enough to trump the Yankees' hurricane of dollars.

We've heard the arguments that Sabathia's contract is too important to his fellow players for him to turn down the most dollars. And it's hard to imagine that the Dodgers will attempt to beat the Yankees' total dollars. But one longtime friend of CC told Rumblings this week that if the dollars he's offered in California are "anywhere close [to the money in New York], he'll go there."

Another veteran baseball executive asked this question: "Let's say he takes less money than he'd get in New York, but he still signs the richest pitching contract of the winter. Wouldn't he be able to sell that [to the union]?"

Our suspicion is: As long as he beats the average annual value of Johan Santana's deal (just under $23 million), he would.

• Here's an interesting rumbling making the rounds: The Dodgers were concerned enough about Russell Martin's regression behind the plate this year that they at least inquired about the asking price for Jason Varitek.

Had the price been more affordable than Boras' over-the-top quest to beat Jorge Posada's deal (four years, $52.4 million), the Dodgers might have pursued that idea further. But contrary to the speculation that is running through the GM meetings, they wouldn't have traded Martin if they'd signed another catcher. They would have moved him back to his original position, third base.

• Curt Schilling has been telling people that he feels so good after his recent shoulder surgery that, barring setbacks, he's more likely than ever to attempt a midseason comeback next season. The tentative game plan: Schilling would hold a June audition for interested teams, then start pointing toward a late-June or July return date. More than a month ago, on his 38pitches.com blog, Schilling described his arm as feeling "fantastic."

Raul Ibanez

Ibanez

• Want a nominee for the most hotly pursued free agent under the radar? How about Raul Ibanez? He'll turn 37 in June, but we've counted at least a dozen teams that have expressed some degree of interest in him. That group:

Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Cardinals, Nationals, Braves, Royals, Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers (if they can't re-sign Milton Bradley), Angels (if Teixeira, Juan Rivera and Garret Anderson all go elsewhere) and Ibanez's old team, the Mariners.

The Mets, Cubs, Cardinals, Braves and Mariners have him at the top of their position-player shopping lists. He won't be looking for any eight-year deals. And when we asked an official of one team what makes Ibanez so attractive, he gushed: "Character. Proven run producer. In better shape than a lot of 25-year-olds. And he'll play hard every day, every game, every second he has the uniform on."

• Despite reports that Pat Burrell turned down $21 million for two years from the Phillies, a source with knowledge of those negotiations says that "never happened." The two sides did talk contract after the World Series but discussed only "very general parameters," the source said.

The Phillies indicated they were interested in bringing Burrell back for "as short a term as possible." But Burrell, obviously, expects there will be more years and dollars out there on the market. So if that's the case, the Phillies have a tricky decision to make on whether to offer him arbitration.

On one hand, he's a Type A free agent, so the Phillies would get a premium compensation pick. On the other hand, he made $14 million this year. So if he were to accept arbitration, he'd be in line for a raise after reaching base more times (237) than any NL left fielder except Matt Holliday and thumping more extra-base hits (66) than any NL left fielder except Ryan Braun. Stay tuned.

• Once the Yankees get their free-agent menu sorted out, they'll look to make a deal to upgrade in center field. But one player they probably won't be reeling in is Brewers center fielder Mike Cameron.

The Brewers are contemplating trading Cameron for pitching if they can't re-sign Sabathia. But as GM Doug Melvin's quotes this past weekend about how the Yankees "overbid" on CC would indicate, the Brewers aren't big fans of the Yankees these days. So clubs that have spoken with the Brewers are suggesting the Bronx is about the last place they'd like to deal Cameron, if they deal him at all.

• We're hearing that Astros ace Roy Oswalt has been in owner Drayton McLane's ear, lobbying for the signing of Ben Sheets. But that might take more years and dollars than the Astros have allocated. Other than their pursuit of Randy Wolf, they appear to be strictly bottom-feeders. Names they're said to have kicked around: Mike Hampton, Freddy Garcia, Paul Byrd and possibly even Pedro Martinez.

TRIVIA ANSWER

The Reds haven't had a top-10 MVP candidate since 1999 (Greg Vaughn). The Pirates, incredibly, haven't had one since Barry Bonds raked in his 1992 MVP trophy. And the last Pirate other than Bonds to make it into the top 10 of MVP voting is Andy Van Slyke, who finished fourth -- behind Bonds, Terry Pendleton and Gary Sheffield -- in '92.

• Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte's agent, Randy Hendricks, has attempted to reopen the door for a potential return to Houston if things don't work out with the Yankees.

"I'm curious how Drayton will respond," said one baseball man who knows McLane well. "Would he take Andy back? He wasn't real happy when he and Roger [Clemens] left to go to New York the last time [in 2007]."

Return of the Rumblings scouting bureau

Reviews from the Arizona Fall League:

• Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson (5-0, 0.67 ERA, 49 strikeouts, 28 2/3 innings pitched): "If he doesn't make their club next spring, he'll be their first call-up. He's really close. He's got good command of three pitches. He's a very good athlete for a kid who's 6-[foot]-6. He's got a good feel for pitching. I can see why they wouldn't put him in that [Jake] Peavy deal. I hear other scouts say he's a No. 3 starter. Hell, he's better than that."

• Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison (.404 batting average, .444 on-base percentage, .667 slugging percentage, 5 home runs in 99 at-bats): "Such a good approach for a young kid. Great swing. Great concept of the strike zone. And he's got power. This guy should be a hell of a hitter."

• Phillies shortstop Jason Donald (.414 AVG, .480 OBP, .759 SLG, 5 HRs in 87 ABs): "Very steady shortstop. Has good at-bats. I don't know how much power he'll have down the line, but he's got some strength. He's the best infielder in that Phillies system by far."

• Braves catcher Tyler Flowers (.394 AVG, .463 OBP, 1.014 SLG, 12 HRs in 71 ABs): "Big, strong, raw-boned guy. Very powerful offensive catcher. Defensively, needs polish. But better agility than you'd think he'd have. I'm not sure what they're going to do with him, with [Brian] McCann there. But he's a player."

Phil Hughes

Hughes

• Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes (1-0, 3.60 ERA, 28 K's, 25 IP): "Saw him two games, and he cruised. He dominated, and he should. His curveball was very sharp. All those people who think he's lost his luster -- no way. Hell, he'd be our No. 2 starter right now."

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in from WEEI.com's Fake News Dept.:

DAVID ORTIZ SAYS SOX CLUBHOUSE
NEEDS ANOTHER SLUGGER,
AND ALSO ONE OF THOSE MACHINES
THAT DISPENSES NACHO CHEESE

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.