- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The 15-day free-agent filing period still is in effect, so Major League Baseball's general managers are devoting their annual meetings to trade talks, surveying the landscape, and fraternal bonding in the shadow of Disney World.
Once the 30 clubs gather for the winter meetings in December in Nashville and the wraps are off the checkbooks, that's when life will officially get goofy.
In the meantime, we're trying to get a grip on where the hot stove season is headed. So we surveyed 15 general managers, assistants and other assorted personnel at the Hyatt Grand Cypress for their thoughts on the following five questions. Here are the results:
1. Where do you expect Alex Rodriguez to be playing next year?
Contract estimates ranged from a low of five years and $150 million to a high of 10 years and $300 million.
You never know when agent Scott Boras will be able to pull a $350 million rabbit out of his hat. As an American League assistant GM observed, "With Scott, what's most obvious isn't always the right answer."
No one, for example, would have identified the San Francisco Giants as a prime suitor for Barry Zito or the Seattle Mariners as the team that was going to shell out $64 million for Adrian Beltre. With Boras, there's always the potential for a wild-card contender, a dark horse or the inevitable "mystery team" to enter the equation.
But right now, all signs point toward the West Coast.
While the Angels generally have low-keyed their interest level in Rodriguez, they're the logical front-runner. The owner, Arte Moreno, is intensely competitive and hungry for a title, and the Angels need a power hitter to take some strain off Vladimir Guerrero. The Los Angeles market would be a boon to A-Rod's off-field endorsement opportunities. And Boras, who has season tickets to both the Angels and the Dodgers, could have a field day playing one club against the other.
For all the Mets speculation making the rounds, GM Omar Minaya has enough on his plate trying to find pitching and fill holes at second base and catcher without adding a full-fledged A-Rod pursuit to his agenda. Do the Mets really want to have to trade Carlos Delgado to make room for David Wright at first base -- or even shift Wright to second -- to accommodate Rodriguez?
The Orioles are a major long shot but worth filing under "intriguing." A-Rod grew up idolizing Cal Ripken Jr. The Peter Angelos-Boras dynamic took a step forward when the O's signed Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters in the June draft. And if Rodriguez goes to Baltimore, that could pave the way for local boy Mark Teixeira to sign with the Orioles as a free agent next winter. Of course, a $25 million investment in A-Rod seems excessive for the Orioles. But it's not quite so outrageous when you consider they're committed to more than $27 million for Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons, Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton next season.
Interestingly enough, no one that we surveyed mentioned the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers or Seattle as the prime A-Rod destination. But it's a long winter, and rest assured, those clubs will be coming to an Internet rumor mill near you shortly.
2. Where do you expect Barry Bonds to be in 2008?
Three respondents predicted that Bonds will retire, and one executive said he'll be "in jail."
Judging from his 1.045 combined on base-slugging percentage and 28 homers in 340 at-bats, Bonds still has plenty to offer with a bat in his hands. "Dollar for dollar, he may be the biggest difference-maker available as far as number of wins he's going to put on the board for you," an AL general manager said.
Although it's not etched in stone that Bonds has to play in the AL, the designated hitter option ensures that teams there would be able to get the most out of him. But where? Oakland is the obvious choice for the usual reasons: It's a short trip across the San Francisco Bay, so Bonds wouldn't have to relocate to a new market where the fan reaction might be hostile. And Athletics general manager Billy Beane never has been afraid to go against the grain.
"Bonds is a typical fit for what Billy usually does," an AL personnel man said. "He waits for the Mike Piazzas and Frank Thomases to not have a job, then brings those guys in. To me, [Bonds] fits their profile pretty well as a hitter."
Jack Cust hit 26 home runs in 395 at-bats last year, so the A's already have a low-cost, left-handed hitting alternative at DH. And they can live with an outfield of Nick Swisher in right, Mark Kotsay in center and a Travis Buck-Chris Denorfia platoon in left. But if it's January and Bonds magically falls out of the sky, rest assured that Beane won't categorically dismiss the possibility.
The Rangers, who disavow any interest in Bonds, make sense for a couple of reasons: They had pretty good luck with Sammy Sosa in 2007, and they need to upgrade an offense that ranked eighth in the AL with a .754 on base-slugging percentage.
Given Bonds' personality, off-field image and likely salary demands -- not to mention the upcoming release of the George Mitchell report -- this is a decision that's likely to be made above the general manager level.
"I think some owners are stepping in and saying, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' an AL assistant GM said. "The [home run] record is broken, and any sort of cachet you get from that is in the rearview mirror. Now you're looking more at the baggage."
3. Who would you want in center field, Torii Hunter or Andruw Jones?
Responses: Hunter, 14½; Jones, ½.
It's hard to believe that in 2005, Jones was coming off a 51-homer season and Scott Boras envisioned him as the crown jewel of the 2007-08 offseason. A .222 batting average will take a lot of luster off a player's image.
Even though Jones played at a lighter weight last season, he's not aging gracefully. He just won his 10th straight Gold Glove, but the consensus is that he's not the defender he used to be. He also lost points because of his failure to adjust at the plate, his seeming nonchalance and all-around regression last season. Jones posted a .413 slugging percentage -- lower than Melvin Mora, Kevin Millar, Kenny Lofton, Mark DeRosa, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Bautista, to name a few.
"He has so much ability, it's ridiculous," a National League official said. "That's what he's relied on all these years. But now he has to kick in the afterburners, and it's just not happening."
In a strange way, some people wonder whether Boras might try to parlay Alex Rodriguez's sudden appearance on the free-agent market into an opportunity for Jones.
"I think the tack Scott might take is to get few teams on the hook for A-Rod, then get two or three clubs who don't land Alex and bring in Andruw for 40 to 50 cents on the dollar, and say, 'I have a guy who's equally in his prime and has a chance to be a monumental impact player for you,' " an AL official said.
Yes, we're talking about the old "backdoor alternative" ploy.
As for Hunter, he has a .324 career on-base percentage, and he's crashed into enough walls and logged enough outfield miles at the Metrodome that the wear and tear have taken a toll. But the general managers see him as more reliable, a better leader and more of a team player than Jones. Trust us: Those attributes are worth something.
"The difference in defense is probably negligible these days," an NL general manager said. "But offensively, I think Torii is a better player. I'm not sure either guy is what we consider a 'professional hitter,' but Torii has a better chance to hit good pitching."
4. What will the Minnesota Twins do with Johan Santana?
Will they sign Santana to a long-term contract this winter, trade him this winter or keep him in 2008 (and possibly trade him in July)?
Responses: Fourteen respondents think Santana will be with Minnesota on Opening Day. One predicted he will be traded during the offseason.
Bill Smith has a difficult job of replacing the universally admired Terry Ryan as general manager. There's a decent chance the Twins are going to lose Hunter through free agency, and it would take monumental chutzpah for Smith's other headline move to be trading Santana a year in advance of free agency, with a new stadium on the way in Minneapolis.
Standing pat doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Francisco Liriano is right on schedule in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and a rotation of Santana, Liriano and three pitchers from the Scott Baker-Matt Garza-Boof Bonser-Kevin Slowey-Glen Perkins contingent would make the Twins a potential AL Central force in 2008.
"We're going to try and re-sign him," Smith said Tuesday when asked about Santana. "If we can't, he's still one of the best, if not the best pitcher in the game."
After Carlos Zambrano agreed to a $91.5 million deal in August just before hitting the open market, the folks at the players' union would love to see Santana go the distance and send starting pitchers' salaries into the stratosphere. If Barry Zito's seven-year, $126 million deal set the standard, it's hard to imagine what Santana might fetch once he's available to 29 other clubs.
Most observers think Smith might as well wait until July to assess his options, because teams still will be lining up to make a run at Santana if he's out there at the nonwaiver trade deadline.
"Zito was riding a little off reputation, and there were some clubs that just weren't in on him," an AL executive said. "There isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't be in on Santana if it had the opportunity. There's a big difference."
5. If you had to sign one of these six free-agent starters
Responses: Silva, 4; Lohse, 4; Hernandez, 3; Colon, 3.
One NL general manager declined to pick from the list. "For the money they're going to get, none of them work for me," he said.
With Roy Oswalt, Josh Beckett and Carlos Zambrano off the market after signing long-term contracts over the past 16 months, the aforementioned group is the pick of this winter's litter. But it doesn't mean front-office executives have to be happy about it.
"Can you read me the list again?" an NL executive said. "I almost lost consciousness after hearing it the first time."
Silva and Lohse both have their selling points. Silva is a proven innings-eater with a 1.59 career groundball-to-flyball ratio. Get him to an NL team with a thick grass infield and a strong defense, and some people think he could post an ERA in the mid-3s.
"From watching him on tape, I think he can be helped [mechanically]," one general manager said. "His lower-half direction is poor."
There are major concerns about Colon's weight and health, and you won't find a lot of people who buy into Hernandez's listed age of 32. Still, Colon is head and shoulders above this group talent-wise, and he might be worth a one-year flyer. And Hernandez is working on a streak of eight straight 200-innings.
"The cost isn't going to be outrageous with Livan," an AL assistant GM said. "He's a good guy who's good with young players, and you're pretty sure he's going to be healthy and you can get 220 innings out of him. There just seem to be fewer variables with him."
Who'll sign A-Rod? What about Barry Bonds? We surveyed 15 GMs, assistants and other assorted personnel.