- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Sorting through the free agent market in July is like trying to pick the Oscar winners based on theatrical trailers. There's no telling how the August dog days, the postseason and the impact of media and public pressure on front offices will drive up the price once a player hits the open market.
Still, there's no better time than Independence Day to sit back and take stock of current events.
This week's "Starting 9" looks at the top position players approaching free agency and how their performances are affecting their employment prospects. An "up" arrow indicates that a player has enhanced his market value. A "down" arrow indicates the opposite. And a sideways arrow means the industry perception of him hasn't changed much since Opening Day.
Supply and demand obviously will be factors. While there are a slew of outfielders available, you won't find many cornerstone middle infielders, frontline catchers or power-hitting first basemen in this bunch. That's good news for Texas general manager Jon Daniels as he prepares to put out feelers for Mark Teixeira.
Andruw Jones, Braves (.201 batting average; fifth in the majors with 83 strikeouts)
If Alfonso Soriano could command eight years and $136 million and Vernon Wells received $126 million over seven years, Scott Boras had to be looking at a Manny Ramirez-like, $160 million windfall for Jones. Now that the season is half over and Jones has a lower OPS than Brad Ausmus and Coco Crisp, it's time to scratch that thought.
Jones has been swinging at fastballs in his eyes, chasing breaking balls in the dirt and trying to pull pitches that he should be driving up the middle or the opposite way. His 47 RBIs are largely a reflection of Edgar Renteria and Chipper Jones being on base so often in front of him. He's hitting .210 with runners in scoring position.
"He's been so good for so long; he's never had to make adjustments at the plate," said a National League personnel man. "Couple that with all the pressure that goes into a walk year. And he's getting older, so there have been a lot of changes to that body. I think it's a lot of bad things coming together at once."
Jones has an emotional attachment to Atlanta, and Braves fans fondly recall his end-run on Boras to sign a six-year, $75 million contract in 2001. But times have changed, and Atlanta management is too squeezed financially to make another huge commitment.
So where does he go? The Yankees are sure to be mentioned, regardless of their level of interest. And Nationals president Stan Kasten, formerly with Atlanta, might be interested in bringing Jones to Washington in conjunction with the Nationals' move to a new park.
If Jones doesn't pick up the pace, he might have to consider signing a one-year deal to re-establish his market value. Either that, or Boras will have to pull something magical out of his hat.
"Andruw was primed for Boras to ask for nine years. Now, who knows?" said an AL front office man. "Scott will propose a one-year deal with a five-year option or something like that. He'll come up with something creative."
Boras, reached by phone Wednesday, said he doesn't expect Jones' difficult start to have a major impact on teams' level of interest this winter.
"Every one of my major clients -- whether it's a pitcher or a position player -- has gone through times like this,'' Boras said. "A-Rod went through it last year. Andruw Jones has done too much for too long and he's too complete a player. You have to look at this over a broad spectrum rather than six or eight weeks."
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners (.369 batting average, 23 steals in 25 attempts)
When Mike Hargrove stepped down as manager, a lot of people took that as a positive sign for Ichiro to remain in Seattle. The Ichiro-Hargrove dynamic was frosty at times, and Ichiro has a very good relationship with interim manager John McLaren.
Ichiro, true to form, has been noncommittal about his future with the organization. But he's certainly producing like a contented man. He leads the majors in hits, and he's about to make his seventh straight All-Star appearance.
Power isn't Ichiro's forte, but the combination of his on-base ability, base-stealing acumen and Gold Glove defense makes him a unique commodity. He also has an inherent fan appeal as a Japanese superstar and ranks high on the "ancillary income" front.
It's hard to justify a lengthy contract for a 34-year-old speed guy, but you never know with Ichiro. When he loses a step or two, maybe he'll decide to muscle up and hit 20 homers a year. Regardless, we might be looking at a five-year deal in the $15 million to $16 million annual range.
"If anybody can play into their 40s, it's this guy," said a scout. "He's freakishly flexible, and there are so few table setters out there. He has an ungodly feel to hit."
Torii Hunter, Twins (17 homers, .539 slugging percentage)
While Hunter would love to stay in Minnesota, he's told reporters that he enjoys Yankee Stadium and is a big admirer of Texas manager Ron Washington. He lives near Dallas in the offseason, and the Rangers, who signed Kenny Lofton to a one-year contract last winter, might be ready for a more long-term answer in center.
Those aren't the only potential destinations. St. Louis needs a replacement for Jim Edmonds, and the White Sox could strengthen their center field situation and weaken a division rival by signing Hunter away from the Twins.
Hunter is having a nice season, for sure. Those 17 walks in 326 plate appearances aren't so hot. But he ranks second to Curtis Granderson in slugging percentage among big league center fielders, and he's picked right up where he left off after his 10-homer outburst last September.
While Hunter is popular in Minnesota and the Twins are about to move into a new ballpark in 2009, general manager Terry Ryan has some tough choices ahead of him. Joe Nathan, Johan Santana, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau are next up in the free agent parade, and the Twins can't sign them all.
As for Hunter's next contract, five years and $75 million was the most common prediction we heard. That means Hunter will probably get six years and north of $90 million.
Jorge Posada, Yankees (.331 batting average, .918 OPS)
Once spring training came and went with no contract extension, Posada responded like a man with absolutely no concerns about his future. He ranks among the American League's top 10 in hitting, and he's been playing like a spry young kid of 32 or 33.
The reality: Posada turns 36 in August and is approaching 1,300 career games behind the plate -- a point where teams are hesitant to make extended commitments to catchers. Jason Varitek and Pudge Rodriguez were several years younger when they signed four-year, $40 million deals, and better defensively than Posada.
"Right or wrong, Varitek gets so much credit for leadership and game-calling and running a staff," said a scout. "If he doesn't hit, you're fine with him. Posada has always been known as a hitting catcher. If he's not a plus bat, he's hurting you defensively."
The Yankees have nothing in the pipeline, and it's a weak free agent crop, so general manager Brian Cashman doesn't have a lot of attractive options. Derek Jeter also wants Posada back. If the Yankees miss the playoffs, they'll have a hard time selling a failure to sign a franchise favorite and major link to the organization's winning past. Look for Posada to return to New York.
Jermaine Dye, White Sox (last among major league right fielders with a .687 OPS)
Talk about bad timing. Last year Dye won a Silver Slugger Award and ranked second in the American League in homers (44) and fifth in RBIs (120), extra-base hits (74) and OPS (1.006). If Carlos Lee could fetch $100 million from Houston, Dye wouldn't have been that far behind.
Now the chances of Dye's hitting the mother lode are growing slimmer by the day. He has a .409 slugging percentage -- compared to .622 last season -- and he's been a victim of the same roster-wide malaise that's made Chicago an afterthought in the American League Central.
"His bat seems to have slowed down, and he's not moving all that well," said an American League scout. "I don't want to write him off yet, but he looks like he's aged five years."
Privately, the White Sox people say Dye's nagging leg problems have been a factor in his dropoff, and that he might have a nice bounce-back year left in him. The big question now is how aggressively general manager Kenny Williams will try to move him before the July 31 deadline, and whether he'll have any luck doing so.
If Dye thinks he has something left in the tank, he's another guy who might be wise to take a one-year deal and go back on the market after the 2008 season.
Mike Lowell, Red Sox (.293, 12 homers, 55 RBI)
Lowell is traveling in some impressive company these days. With an .851 OPS, he ranks sixth among major league third basemen behind Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Miguel Cabrera, Aramis Ramirez and David Wright.
Now for the bad news: Lowell hit .227 in June, and the Red Sox are hoping he doesn't fade the way he did after the All-Star break last season.
The betting is that Lowell won't be back with Boston in 2007. The Sox have the option of moving Kevin Youkilis to third base and targeting a young, relatively inexpensive first baseman (say, a Dan Johnson or Chad Tracy) in a trade or making a play for Mark Teixeira.
With the influx of young third basemen in the game -- from Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun to Cabrera, Wright and Alex Gordon -- lots of teams appear set for years to come at the position. Barring a coming-out party for A-Rod, Lowell and Houston's Mike Lamb are the best available at third base.
Mike Cameron, Padres (10 homers, .764 OPS)
Cameron has recovered from a terrible start to raise his average to .263, but he's on track to strike out more than 150 times. While he suffers from playing half his games at Petco Park, his home-road splits aren't as bad as you might expect.
It'll be interesting to see where Cameron fits in the overall center-field tableau. He's still a fine defender, a great clubhouse guy and a 20-homer, 20-steal man in a typical season. But now that the Padres have acquired Milton Bradley -- also a free agent at season's end -- they'll have their choice of options.
Cameron, a Georgia native, might be an intriguing fallback option for the Braves if they fail to re-sign Andruw Jones. Then again, given John Schuerholz's payroll situation, even Cameron might be beyond Atlanta's price range.
Aaron Rowand, Phillies (.309, 11 homers, 43 RBIs)
Rowand ranked 20th among National League outfielders in All-Star fan balloting, so his impressive 2007 season isn't attracting a ton of attention outside Philadelphia. But Cardinals manager Tony La Russa named him to the team as a reserve, so his profile is about to get a boost.
The career portfolio is still evolving. Rowand, who turns 30 in August, has one 20-homer season on his résumé and has yet to drive in 70 runs in a season. He's shown improved patience at the plate this season. But he has only two homers in 147 at-bats outside Citizens Bank Park, and his gung-ho style will always take a toll on his body. He's had minor problems with his back, ankle and left leg already this season.
The chances of Rowand's remaining in Philadelphia are 50-50 at best. The Phillies need to upgrade their pitching and third base situation in the offseason, and they have Shane Victorino and the fleet Michael Bourn as candidates to play center.
Rowand remains a fan favorite in Chicago and has a great relationship with White Sox GM Kenny Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. With Chicago still in need of a center fielder, the Sox are likely to be in the mix when he files for free agency.
Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks (.315, 13 homers, 46 RBIs)
Byrnes, once known as a flaky guy with a bird's nest haircut and a penchant for crashing into walls, has come a long way since Baltimore non-tendered him in 2005.
Last season he joined Alfonso Soriano and Jimmy Rollins as one of three big leaguers with 25 homers and 25 stolen bases. This year, he's second in the National League to Matt Holliday in hits and has a better OPS than Carlos Lee.
"I'm curious to see if he can sustain it," said a scout. "He's a little bit of a free swinger who'll expand his zone. But right now he's hitting everything hard."
Is there a place for Byrnes in Arizona's long-term plan? That's hard to see with Carlos Quentin, Chris Young and hot prospect Justin Upton in the mix. But versatility and energy are major selling points for Byrnes. He can play left, center and right field, and he's hit everywhere from leadoff to the No. 5 spot for Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin.
Teams that lack the resources to pursue an Ichiro or Hunter might try to act quickly this winter and sign Rowand, Byrnes or Cameron to a three- or four-year deal for $6 million to $9 million annually. If Aubrey Huff could get three years and $20 million from Baltimore, these guys should be worth at least that much.
Others of note
• Kosuke Fukudome, Chunichi Dragons: Add this five-tool Japanese star to the outfield surplus. Best of all, there's no posting fee.
• Luis Castillo, Twins: He's still a .300 hitter in the leadoff spot, but has zero extra-base power and doesn't steal as many bases as he once did.
• Omar Vizquel, Giants: His offense is slipping, and it might be time, at 40, for him to walk away.
• David Eckstein, Cardinals: Still a tough out, but back problems are putting a crimp in his performance.
• Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox: Another Chicago player who's hurting his market value. His production is down markedly from the last two seasons.
• Michael Barrett, Padres: Given Barrett's decent bat and mediocre work behind the plate, might some team consider signing him as a third baseman? "He's a good athlete and he was an infielder his whole life," said a scout. "I don't think it would be that hard a move for him."
• Paul Lo Duca, Mets: As always, he's among the toughest to strike out in baseball.
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