Soriano is a prime commodity

Originally Published: November 15, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- Baseball executives might want to clear out of the Naples Grande Resort soon, in hopes that some fresh air and a change of scenery will prompt them to think twice about all that money they're on track to spend.

But with two days left in the general managers meetings, the agents are looking awfully chipper, and lots of pressing questions remain to be answered.

We at ESPN.com surveyed 20 general managers, assistant GMs, and assorted scouts and personnel people for their takes on six hot stove questions of interest. Here's how they responded:

1. Given a choice between Barry Zito and Daisuke Matsuzaka, which free-agent pitcher do you prefer?

Responses: Matsuzaka 13, Zito 5 and two undecided.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Matsuzaka

Barry Zito
Zito

Matsuzaka's World Baseball Classic performance showed he could thrive on the big stage, and he wins points for mound presence. He has better stuff and command than Zito, and he's two years younger.

The biggest red flag with Matsuzaka is his heavy workload in Japan, although one scout observed that he has a sufficiently strong lower-body foundation to support it. Matsuzaka will have to adapt to a new way of life, with unfamiliar hitters and incredible pressure and scrutiny in Boston -- a city that can be a challenge for any player.

"He's a bulldog," one National League assistant GM said. "He'll come over and compete. But he pitches up in the zone a little bit, and I wonder if he's going to be as great as advertised. The way some people make him sound, he's going to be a No. 1 starter and win 20 games right away. He'll have to elevate his game to do that."

Zito's biggest selling points are his 102-63 career record, six straight seasons with between 213 and 232 innings, and his postseason victories over Johan Santana and Roger Clemens.

But in some ways, Zito doesn't fit the classic ace profile. The latest Bill James Handbook lists the pitchers with the slowest average fastballs, and Zito was fourth-slowest in the American League at 85.8 mph -- a tick below Cleveland's Paul Byrd. Craftiness is great, but some teams prefer blow-away stuff for their $15 million annual investment.

Zito has done a nice job adding a cutter to give him another pitch for strikes. But he led the AL with 99 walks last year, and he won't be helped leaving Oakland, where the mass expanse of foul territory is a boon to pitchers.

The operative word in Zito's case is "reliable."

"He takes his turn every time, and because he doesn't throw that hard, he has stuff that should allow him to pitch forever," said one respondent.

2. Where do you think Barry Bonds will sign?

Responses: San Francisco 15, Oakland 3, Detroit 1, Angels 1.

Barry Bonds
Bonds

Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent, has a difficult job. Bonds wants another $18 million deal as he prepares to pass Hank Aaron. But if Borris can't cobble together a DH market, the Giants are in position to give Bonds a take-it-or-leave-it offer and wait around for him to say yes.

Detroit seemed like a potential fit until the Tigers traded for Gary Sheffield. There was a brief buzz in Texas, but Rangers owner Tom Hicks almost pulled a quad muscle rushing to distance himself from it. "You can be adamant in saying that Barry Bonds won't be signing with the Texas Rangers," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

So what are the alternatives? There's Oakland, if the Athletics don't re-sign Frank Thomas and Bonds comes at a reasonable price. We might be talking less than $10 million a year, a significant comedown for Bonds.

"Never count Billy Beane out of anything," an AL assistant GM said. "If he sees value, he'll be in there in a heartbeat. If it gets to a price point where he feels it's worth it, he's capable of pulling it off."

Still, the familiarity factor is the most compelling reason to think Bonds will remain in San Francisco. If Greg Anderson makes headlines again, or the Mitchell investigation ever leads anywhere, or Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams announce they're writing a "Game of Shadows" sequel, the Giants have been through it before and are equipped to handle the chaos. It's not a fun thing to learn on the fly.

The Giants are tired of the 24-and-1 mentality surrounding Bonds, and GM Brian Sabean no doubt wants to remake his club with a younger, more athletic look. But Bonds and San Francisco have coexisted for 14 years, so what's one more?

"Barry isn't going to be well-received in most places," an AL executive said. "In San Francisco, at least he knows he'll get 81 games in a friendly environment. I don't see why he would risk that. I think the Giants are calling his bluff a little bit right now."

3. Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee?

Responses: Soriano 19, Lee 1.

Carlos Lee
Lee

Alfonso Soriano
Soriano

If you asked this question in the spring, when Soriano was a man without a position and Lee was fresh off a 30-homer, 100-RBI season in Milwaukee, the vote might have been closer. Judging from our poll, Soriano helped his cause significantly in 2006, while Lee raised a few questions.

Soriano made positive strides in the outfield after his initial resistance and became the fourth player in history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. It remains to be seen whether he'll sign a Carlos Beltran-type deal, but teams love his athleticism, energy, and rare blend of power and speed.

"Even if he doesn't hit a homer, he can find a way to get in scoring position," a Soriano booster said. "He can score from first on a double. Carlos Lee is a great hitter, but he's a liability defensively and he clogs up the bases."

Lee turned down a four-year, $48 million contract offer from Milwaukee in July, and the Brewers sent him to Texas at the deadline. Lee finished with a .300 batting average, 37 homers, 116 RBI and a .540 slugging percentage, but doubts remain about his poor defense and his dietary habits.

Lee has never struck out 100 times and has decent plate discipline. His biggest shortcoming is a lack of dinner plate discipline. The buzz is that he surpassed 270 pounds last season, and baseball people wonder: If he got that big with a huge payday at stake, how much of a wide-body could he be halfway through a five-year deal?

Even some of the compliments directed toward Lee weren't particularly flattering.

"He has surprising speed for a big, fat guy," an NL scout said.

4. Where will Roger Clemens be pitching in 2007, or will he retire?

Responses: Houston 10, Boston 3, retire 3, Yankees 2, Rangers 1 and one undecided.

Roger Clemens
Clemens

One AL executive grimaced when asked about Clemens. "I'm so tired of that drama, I don't even care," he said.

It's no secret that Astros management -- and much of the Houston clubhouse -- grew tired of the will-he-or-won't-he scenario last summer. Clemens' inability to make a quick decision, coupled with Andy Pettitte's uncertainty about returning, clouds the Astros' decision-making again this winter.

Houston remains the most logical Clemens destination for several reasons: There's his family situation, his comfortable arrangement with the Astros and the natural apprehension a lot of pitchers have about facing those daunting American League lineups. Does the Rocket really want to walk into the sunset sporting a 4.68 ERA?

"If he accurately assesses his ability now, he won't want to get out of the National League," a scout said. "Randy Johnson became better once he accepted the fact that he's a third starter now. He's not an ace, and the same is true of Clemens. He's the best pitcher of our generation, but he's diminished from what he once was."

People who like fairy-tale endings favor Clemens coming full circle with Boston, and others predict that the Yankees will outspend the field to lure him to the Bronx. The Rangers are always in the mix, but after investing so much time and effort into Clemens and falling short last season, Texas isn't inclined to dive in with the same passion this time.

5. Which player with a no-trade clause -- Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez or Pat Burrell -- is most likely to be traded?

Responses: Burrell 15, Ramirez 2. Two respondents said none of the players will be moved. One undecided.

Pat Burrell
Burrell

Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez

A-Rod trade speculation has died down considerably since October. An NL executive points out that if the Yankees try to move Rodriguez, it will become a circus and overwhelm everything Brian Cashman is trying to accomplish this winter.

And don't discount the Scott Boras factor. A-Rod's agent is likely to throw in enough concessions and quid pro quos to muck up the process entirely.

The Red Sox, obviously, are tired of Ramirez's moods and his flakiness. "I think Boston would love to get rid of him," an NL scout said. "How many times can you say, 'That's just Manny being Manny'?" Still, Ramirez is one of the elite hitters of his generation, and how could the Red Sox replace those 40 homers and 100-plus RBI?

Which leaves Burrell. Philadelphia fans are down on him; the Phillies are motivated to trade him and free up salary to pursue Soriano or a starting pitcher; and the two-year, $27 million chunk remaining on Burrell's contract isn't so cumbersome that GM Pat Gillick can't figure out a way to make it work.

Gillick found a way to trade Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu, so he's imaginative enough. And if Burrell gets the message that his playing time is about to be reduced, he could be more open-minded about expanding his list of destinations.

"If a team is looking for a 100-RBI guy in the middle of the order, they might have an interest," an NL GM said. "It would be nice to give him 250 at-bats in the DH role because he's not a great outfielder. I think he's still a decent player, but he's just so streaky. That's one reason teams shy away from him."

6. Which "second tier" starter do you like best: Adam Eaton, Ted Lilly, Gil Meche, Vicente Padilla or Randy Wolf?

Responses: Lilly 8, Padilla 6, Wolf 3, Meche 1, Eaton 1 and one undecided.

Vicente Padilla
Padilla

Ted Lilly
Lilly

"They all have their little hickies, don't they?" one NL GM said.

Of course they do. That's why they'll have to muddle along with three- and four-year deals in the mere $24 million to $40 million range.

Wolf is still 17 months removed from Tommy John surgery, but he proved he could pitch well in a bandbox in Philadelphia. A Wolf supporter called him "a baseball player who just happens to pitch."

Eaton and Meche are talented guys who've never put it together, for an assortment of reasons. Eaton has yet to stay healthy enough to pitch 200 innings in a season, and Meche projects an outward passivity that doesn't match his above-average stuff.

Then there's Padilla, whose reported alcohol problems and loner personality make people wonder just what makes him tick. He's a career 66-61, but his 15-10 record in Texas could be a springboard to the next level.

"I like Padilla," a scout said. "He has the best stuff of the bunch. He's a mean son of a gun. He's willing to pitch inside, and he had very good success last year in a hitters' park in the American League."

An AL East executive chose Lilly on a hunch that he's going to break through and win 18 games one of these years. Lilly's fastball can hit the low 90s when he's right, and his curveball can be a knockout pitch. He just doesn't bring it to the park as consistently as, say, Zito.

"He's not a touchy-feely lefty," a Lilly backer said. "He's a four-pitch guy with legitimate stuff. Consistency is the only missing piece for him. When he's right, you know you have a chance against the Red Sox or Yankees. When he's not, Kansas City has a chance, too. He makes you scratch your head."

Teams have experienced so many multiyear disasters in the Russ Ortiz-Carl Pavano mode, any starter who can stay healthy and win 12-14 games with a sub 4.50 ERA is considered a decent investment. Lilly wins out as the safest, if not the flashiest, choice in the group.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer