Depending on your viewpoint, Vernon Wells' new seven-year, $126 million deal with Toronto is either a heartwarming tale of loyalty or yet another sign that major league baseball owners never learn.
Proponents think the Blue Jays made a wise preemptive strike. Wells is a fine all-around player, and he could be worth appreciably more next winter when 29 other clubs have a chance to bid for him on the open market.
The worriers are experiencing flashbacks to 2000, when Mike Hampton signed for eight years and $121 million with Colorado while extolling the merits of the Wheat Ridge school system. To the worriers, every day brings a new forehead slapper. They regard the recent Gil Meche, Carlos Lee and Gary Matthews Jr. deals as the baseball equivalent of buying Krispy Kreme stock at 50 bucks a share.
And if teams are willing to spend so freely to sign new players, it naturally follows that they'll be generous in trying to retain their old ones.
"The more the market goes up, the more teams are scared of losing players. So they'll panic and overpay to keep them," said a National League executive. "In another year or two, a lot of teams will regret what they gave guys, and they'll be looking for ways to unload them and move them off the books. It goes in cycles."
Next winter's free-agent crop is frighteningly thin, and it could get even thinner as clubs emulate the Blue Jays and lock up stars before they're free to roam. The biggest incentive for a player is peace of mind. So what if Wells gets $126 million now instead of waiting and signing for $160 million next year? He has financial security if he crashes into a wall and breaks his wrist, or has an off year at the plate. This is known in the business as a "trade-off."
Here are seven other prominent players likely to generate significant interest as free agents next winter. Will they sign extensions and stay with their current clubs, a la Wells, or play out the 2007 season and hit the road? Here's our best guess:
Good bet to sign this winter
Jason Jennings, Houston
The Astros traded pitchers Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz and outfielder Willy Taveras for Jennings, and they don't want this arrangement to be a one-and-done deal. The feeling is mutual: Jennings is a Dallas native and Baylor University product, and those Texas ties die hard.
The Astros signed Roy Oswalt to a five-year, $73 million contract before he reached free agency. In light of Meche's five-year, $55 million deal with Kansas City, Jennings is probably looking at five years and something in the middle. Considering what the Astros gave up for him, agent Casey Close has a lot of leverage at his disposal.
Jennings' 58-56 record and career 4.74 ERA and 622-to-425 strikeout-to-walk ratio are nothing special. But he made strides last year, adding a cut fastball to his repertoire and exhibiting better control.
While Jennings is probably a No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a first-place club, he is young and durable enough, at 28, to be a reliable sidekick to Oswalt for years to come. Don't be surprised if the Astros sign him to a multiyear deal before spring training.
If Barry Zito is worth $80-100 million, it's hard to fathom what Zambrano might make. He's three years younger than Zito, has shutdown stuff and most of his relevant numbers are trending upward. Given Zambrano's age, durability and track record, two executives said a six-year deal at $18 million annually is realistic.
The biggest concern is Zambrano's heavy workload at such a young age; he's 25 and ranks fifth in the majors with 861 innings pitched since 2003. "I've been saying for the last three years that he's going to break down, but he hasn't yet," said an American League general manager.
Zambrano fired Scott Boras as his agent last year and is now represented by Barry Praver and Scott Shapiro, who are keeping their expectations to themselves. "The market will speak for Z's value," Praver said. "There's no reason to place a limit on it at this time."
"We certainly have interest in keeping Carlos in Chicago," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said. "That's always been something he's expressed to me that he wants to do. We'll sit down and have conversations with his representatives before and during spring training, and pursue it with our normal diligence."
Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle
Ichiro will be 34 in October, but he has the body of a 28-year-old – not to mention six straight Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances, 200-hit and 100-run seasons on his résumé. Think the Dodgers, Angels or Giants wouldn't love to have him as a leadoff hitter and drawing card?
After signing Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista to multiyear deals, the Mariners have to make a full-fledged effort to hang on to the franchise's signature player. But is Ichiro ready to commit?
Ichiro has had some bumpy moments with manager Mike Hargrove, and he's getting tired of the losing in Seattle. Although Ichiro is on board with moving to center field next year, the Mariners' recent moves – signing Batista and Jose Guillen and trading for Horacio Ramirez and Jose Vidro – probably aren't enough to make him rush and grab a pen.
On the other hand, Ichiro is sure to be an organizational priority. Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, Seattle's majority owner, is a huge fan, and he'll set the tone in the Mariners' efforts to keep Ichiro in Seattle.
Carlos Guillen, Detroit
Guillen is Detroit's clubhouse "glue guy," and manager Jim Leyland regards him as a future managerial candidate and one of the smartest players he's ever been around.
Guillen performs, too. His .919 OPS led all major league shortstops last season, and at times he seemed to be the only Detroit hitter willing to work a count and take a walk. The American League MVP voters rewarded him with a 10th-place finish.
The only caution flags surrounding Guillen are health- and defense-related. He's played 140 games twice in the last six seasons, and his 28 errors tied Felipe Lopez for the most among big-league shortstops. But the Tigers will be living dangerously if they allow Guillen to hit the market in November: Next winter's free-agent shortstop crop is weak, with David Eckstein and Omar Vizquel being the biggest names available.
When Julio Lugo gets four years and $36 million from the Red Sox, Guillen might be in line for four and $44 million. Tony Giarratano, a slicker fielder who was once considered Detroit's shortstop of the future, has been dogged by injuries in the minors. If Giarratano can eventually make the jump, the Tigers could always shift Guillen to first base near the end of his deal, when his defensive range is likely to diminish.
The Tigers have signed Brandon Inge and Jeremy Bonderman to four-year deals this winter, and things should heat up with Guillen in spring training. If Guillen is going to remain a Tiger, he's made it clear he wants a deal in place by Opening Day.
"Carlos likes it in Detroit, and he's happy there," said agent Peter Greenberg. "He would be willing to explore an extension, and the club has indicated they would like to explore it. We'll see what happens."
Major long shots
Torii Hunter, Minnesota
Hunter is a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, a clubhouse leader and the smiling face of the organization. Also, the Twins will move into a new ballpark in 2010. What better positive signal to send to the fans than locking up the organization's resident goodwill ambassador?
But is a $90 million expenditure on Hunter a prudent baseball move? Hunter batted sixth in the order most of the time last season, and he has a .323 career on-base percentage and a .786 OPS in eight seasons.
Minnesota GM Terry Ryan has some tough choices on the horizon. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer are eligible for salary arbitration this spring, and the Twins might explore multiyear deals with each of them. And Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana and All-Star closer Joe Nathan will be free agents in 2008.
It won't be a popular move to allow Hunter to leave town. But Ryan has two Executive of the Year awards and four first-place finishes on his résumé, and enough credibility that Twins fans might trust his judgment on how he spends the team's money.
Hunter lives in Dallas, and he's made no secret of his admiration for Texas manager Ron Washington and desire to play center field for Washington one day. For a while, it appeared that Hunter would have to stand in line for the privilege. Now that Wells is staying put in Toronto, Hunter might move to the front of Texas' wish list.
Jermaine Dye, White Sox
Dye's 44 homers, 120 RBI and .622 slugging percentage were all career highs, and he finished fifth in the MVP voting ahead of such luminaries as Mauer, Johan Santana and Travis Hafner.
Still, Dye turns 33 in January and has some durability concerns, and the White Sox would be buying high if they sign him directly off his best season. Chicago's top prospect, Ryan Sweeney, is a candidate to play center field for the big club in 2007. But Sweeney has a fine throwing arm and could easily switch to right field if Dye departs.
Down the road, Dye might be a nice fit in San Francisco. He's an Oakland native, and the Giants are going to need a middle-of-the-order producer if this is, indeed, Barry Bonds' final season.
Kiss him goodbye
Andruw Jones, Atlanta
With his next homer, Jones will have 343 for his career and move past Mel Ott and Hank Aaron for the sixth highest total by a player before age 30. The five guys ahead of Jones: Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews.
Five years ago, Jones did an end run around Scott Boras and negotiated a six-year, $75 million deal with Atlanta. But Jones has pledged to stick with the program this time, and Boras is sure to sell him as an "icon" among center fielders.
Jones broke into pro ball with Atlanta at age 16, and he would love to remain a Brave. But there's little room for sentiment in Boras' world, and he's never been one to negotiate deals before a player's walk year. More likely, Boras will point to Wells' contract as evidence that Jones deserves eight years and $160 million on the open market.
That's way too rich for the Braves. General manager John Schuerholz just non-tendered Marcus Giles as a cost-cutting move, so the Braves are in no position to pay their center fielder $18-20 million annually. Look for Jones to be available next winter, and the Red Sox, Rangers, Angels, Dodgers and other affluent clubs to take their shot.