Free agent frenzy to begin Sunday

Updated: November 12, 2006, 2:35 AM ET
SportsTicker

BRISTOL, Connecticut - The Hot Stove League officially begins Sunday.

All 30 major league teams on that day will be able to start making offers to the 181 players who have filed for free agency.

Outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and pitchers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt appear to be the big fish general managers will be looking to reel in.

Soriano is the most attractive talent on the market, and he probably will be seeking a deal in the five-year, $80 million range. He made $10 million last year after asking for $12 million in arbitration. The 30-year-old hit .277 with 46 homers and 95 RBIs for the Washington Nationals last year despite playing half his games in cavernous RFK Stadium.

A second baseman his first five full season with the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, Soriano moved to left field with the Nationals after balking initially, and he actually increased his value on the open market.

Soriano became the first player in history with 40 home runs, 40 stolen bases and 20 outfield assists in a single season. He also became the first member of the 40-40-40 club, which encapsulates homers, stolen bases and doubles.

With the trade of Bobby Abreu to the New York Yankees last July, the Philadelphia Phillies have made Soriano their top priority, but the Los Angeles Dodgers also will be courting the multi-talented star.

Lee split 2006 between the Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers, batting a combined .300 with career highs of 37 homers and 116 RBIs. He also stole a personal-best 19 bases and struck out just 65 times - the lowest total of his eight-year career.

The Brewers traded Lee to the Rangers in July once they became convinced they would not be able to re-sign the two-time All-Star after the season.

Lee is a defensive liability in the outfield, therefore he would have more value to an American League team. The Baltimore Orioles and Dodgers will be interested, but they'll have to shell out at least $50 million over four years.

Ramirez, a legitimate power threat, walked away from a guaranteed $22.5 million from the Chicago Cubs over the next two years, exercising an opt-out clause that allowed him to terminate the deal after the 2006 season.

However, the 28-year-old's gamble should pay off because this class lacks top-rate power hitters who also can hit for average. The Cubs desperately want their slugger back, but clubs like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, San Diego Padres and Phillies are looking to pry him away.

Ramirez quietly enjoyed a fine offensive season in an otherwise dismal year for the Cubs, batting .291 with career highs of 38 homers and 119 RBIs. After hitting just .259 in the first half, Ramirez batted .328 with 22 home runs after the All-Star break.

Ramirez has come into his own the last three years, averaging 35 homers and 131 RBIs. An All-Star in 2005, Ramirez owns a career average of .279 with 196 homers and 669 RBIs in nine seasons with the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Zito, a 28-year-old lefthander with a wealth of postseason experience and a Cy Young already on his resume, clearly is the premier American pitcher on the market this winter.

His name is being linked with both New York teams, the Boston Red Sox, the Angels and even the Texas Rangers, who just signed former Oakland coach Ron Washington to be their manager.

The three-time All-Star went 16-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 34 starts this past season and tossed eight brilliant innings to lead Oakland to a 3-2 victory over Minnesota in Game One of the American League Division Series.

Zito is 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA in seven seasons with the A's. His best campaign was 2002, when he went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA en route to the Cy Young Award.

Schmidt was one of the names that was tossed around at the trade deadline, but the San Francisco Giants decided to hold onto him in an effort to win immediately. However, the Giants were unable to win even with Schmidt, finishing 76-85, and the end result is that they likely will lose their ace for nothing.

In 32 starts this past season, the 33-year-old Schmidt was 11-9 with a 3.59 ERA. He tied for fifth in the National League with three complete games, ranked eighth with 180 strikeouts and placed 15th with 213 1/3 innings.

Schmidt, a three-time All-Star, is 78-37 in 5 1/2 seasons for the Giants and 127-90 with a 3.91 ERA during his 12-year career with Atlanta, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Perhaps the biggest free agent prize on the mound is Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was made available by the Seibu Lions in the Japanese Pacific League. According to a report on ESPN.com, the Red Sox won a bid for the right to negotiate with the 26-year-old righthander.

According to the report, Boston outbid the Yankees and Mets, among others, with a bid in the $40 million range to have 30 days to negotiate a contract with Matsuzaka, who is represented by Scott Boras.

If no deal is reached, then Matsuzaka will return to Japan and the major league team gets its posting fee returned.

Using a pitch he calls the "gyroball," Matsuzaka led Japan's Pacific League in wins three times, ERA twice and strikeouts four times in an eight-year career. Last season, he went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA and struck out 200 in 186 1/3 innings.

Matsuzaka grabbed national attention when he earned the MVP in the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March.

And then there is Barry Bonds, who is second on the all-time list with 734 career home runs. The seven-time MVP needs just 21 homers to tie the immortal Hank Aaron for the major league record.

Bonds hit .270 with 26 homers this past season, his 14th with the Giants.

The Giants seem the likely fit for Bonds, who is still held in high esteem in the Bay Area. But Giants president Peter Magowan said last month that the Giants no longer will build around Bonds, who has battled knee injuries and also has been at the center of baseball's ongoing steroids controversy over the past several years.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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