- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Baseball's general managers usually have a week after the World Series before gathering at a plush resort in some warm-weather site for their annual meetings. Not this year.
The Phillies' parade is barely over and Chase Utley's farewell expletive is still ringing in our ears, and the game's executives have already arrived in Dana Point, Calif., for three days of salary arbitration meetings, rules discussions, early trade talks and private audiences with Scott Boras.
This is always a chaotic time of year in baseball, but these GM meetings seems particularly intriguing. The free-agent crop features some formidable bats (Mark Teixeira and Manny Ramirez), a record-setting closer (Francisco Rodriguez), a front-of-the-rotation horse (CC Sabathia) and lots of established starting pitching behind him.
Will the sputtering economy have an impact on baseball's average salary? Most people in the game expect the big stars to get paid, but the riches won't be quite as abundant for the middle-rung and fringe players. And as usual, teams will explore their trade options before shelling out big money for free agents.
As the hot stove season gets under way, ESPN.com surveyed 15 general managers, assistant GMs, baseball operations people and scouts on seven notable questions that will play out in the coming weeks. Here are their responses:
1. Which team will sign left-hander CC Sabathia?
The Brewers are making a sincere effort to bring back Sabathia, and the pitcher's heart is pointing him toward his native California. But the overwhelming sentiment is that the Yankees will open the vault, lure Sabathia to the Bronx and christen him their staff ace and Opening Day starter in 2009.
The Yankees exercised restraint and long-term thinking last winter, lost out to the Mets in the Johan Santana sweepstakes and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. With Hank Steinbrenner getting antsy and the coffers flush with new stadium revenue, the consensus is that the Yankees will do whatever it takes to land Sabathia.
Indeed, we heard the phrase "whatever it takes" a half dozen times.
"I don't see how the Yankees don't blow every other team out of the water, financially," said a National League front-office man.
The estimates of Sabathia's deal range from a low of five years and $125 million to a high of six years and $180 million. One executive predicted New York could go as high as eight years.
While Yankee love reigned supreme, one AL official makes a compelling case for the Dodgers.
"They have lots of money coming off the books, with a lot of cheap young players filling critical spots," the official said. "Throw in the fact that they're an NL club in his home [state] with [potentially] two rotation spots to fill, and I think it makes the most sense."
2. Which team will sign Manny Ramirez?
Responses: Los Angeles Dodgers 10, New York Mets 4, New York Yankees 1.
Manny Ramirez made his priorities clear at the end of the National League Championship Series when he told reporters that he plans to go to the highest bidder. "The [price of] gasoline is up, so I'm up," said Ramirez -- jokingly, according to reporters who were present.
Actually, the price of gasoline has declined in recent weeks, but Ramirez seems like a good bet to surpass the $20 million annually that he received in his last free-agent deal with Boston eight years ago.
Stock in Manny was down in late July, when Ramirez was vilified for dogging it in Boston. His profile went up when he hit .396 in August and September in leading the Dodgers to the playoffs and past the Cubs in the Division Series. Now Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and GM Ned Colletti are going to have a tough time saying no.
"Manny is still an offensive force, big-time," said an AL assistant GM. "At times he's not in the best condition, and he can shut it down, so there's a risk to him. But after what he did for that team -- turning their season around -- the Dodgers are going to have a hard time explaining to their fans that they didn't get it done."
The Mets need to find a closer to replace Billy Wagner and some help for the rotation, so they might not have the cash to bid on Ramirez. Surprisingly, none of our survey respondents mentioned the Phillies, who are considered a potential Ramirez suitor because of manager Charlie Manuel's relationship with Ramirez and the team's need for a left fielder if Pat Burrell leaves town.
The estimates for Ramirez's contract range from a low of three years and $55 million to a high of five years and $105 million. Several respondents predicted three years and $80 million.
3. Will the Padres trade pitcher Jake Peavy?
Responses: 13 say Peavy will be traded, 2 say no.
Possible destinations: Atlanta 9, Dodgers 1, St. Louis 1, Cubs 1. The other "yes" voter said the Padres will trade Peavy "to anyone who'll give them four prospects."
Padres general manager Kevin Towers seems awfully motivated. He has a legitimate No. 1 starter, with a team that's not going to contend and a mandate to keep the payroll in line; Jake Peavy could bring several promising young players in return.
"Based on what I've seen, it sure sounds like [there'll be a deal]," said a National League scout. "There's been quite a bit of smoke."
The Braves are the popular choice for a number of reasons. They've been the most aggressive suitor, and they have enough young talent to satisfy the Padres even after digging deep into the system to acquire Mark Teixeira a year ago. San Diego will have a tough time prying loose pitcher Tommy Hanson, who's tearing up the Arizona Fall League, or 19-year-old outfield prospect Jason Heyward, but there's more in Atlanta's cupboard.
Peavy has a no-trade clause and will probably waive it for only a select few clubs. The Cubs' interest could hinge on whether Ryan Dempster returns or leaves through free agency. The Astros, Dodgers and Cardinals are also on Peavy's most desirable list, but Houston and St. Louis don't match up with San Diego, talentwise.
If the Padres try to move Peavy to a place he doesn't prefer, he can either decline to waive his no-trade clause or ask for more money to sweeten the deal. Peavy's contract with San Diego guarantees him $60 million over the next four years, and the Padres have a $22 million club option for 2013.
4. Will the Rockies trade outfielder Matt Holliday?
Responses: 9 say Holliday will be traded, 6 say no.
Possible destinations: Boston 1, Philadelphia 1, Washington 1, New York Mets 1, Cleveland 1, Arizona 1, and 3 "not sure."
The responses to this one are all over the map. While Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd has vowed to be aggressive this winter, he's walking a fine line between "retooling" and trying to compete with a club that's just a year removed from the World Series.
Some observers think O'Dowd is more likely to trade third baseman Garrett Atkins. Atkins is two years away from free agency, and the Rockies could shed a big salary while handing over the position to prospect Ian Stewart.
While no one questions Matt Holliday's ability, he has a 1.068 career on base-slugging percentage at Coors Field and an .803 OPS on the road. And clubs who talked to O'Dowd about Holliday during the 2008 season got the impression that the Rockies will have to be bowled over to trade him.
"I'm not sure that anyone gives up the necessary package for a one-year Scott Boras client with a big home-road split," said an AL executive.
O'Dowd did a nice job in the Jason Jennings trade two years ago, acquiring Willy Taveras, Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh from Houston. But after the success that Boston, Tampa Bay and Colorado have had in bringing young players along the past two years, no team is in a rush to move top prospects for rentals these days.
Who would you rather sign to a four-year deal, Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett?
Responses: Lowe 9, Burnett 6.
Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster and A.J. Burnett (once he exercises his opt-out clause) are generally regarded as the best starting pitchers on the market after Sabathia. The conventional wisdom, right or wrong, is that Dempster will wind up back with the Cubs. So which of the other two would executives prefer?
Burnett, 31, is 3½ years younger than Lowe and has the high-octane stuff. He established career highs this year with 221 1/3 innings and 34 starts, and posted an 18-10 record against superior competition in the American League East.
Burnett has found a nice comfort zone in Toronto. He has slid in at No. 2 behind Roy Halladay in the Blue Jays' rotation, and he has an excellent working relationship with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. Although Burnett hasn't ruled out New York, Boston or any of the other big markets, some executives think he might want to give strong consideration to staying in Toronto.
While Lowe turned 35 in June, he is lithe and athletic, and he has yet to appear on the disabled list in the majors. "His stuff this year was as good as it's ever been," said a National League GM. Still, Lowe's 2.60 ground-ball to fly-ball ratio was his worst since his rookie year in 1997.
Since Lowe has been a closer, his next team could always consider using him in a relief role down the road if needed. As a sinkerballer, he might be better equipped to get by if his radar gun readings decline a tick.
In the end, the choice comes down to a matter of taste. Do you prefer the older, "safer" choice, or the younger guy who performs like a No. 1 when he's on his game?
"I'd take Lowe," said an NL front-office man. "His age doesn't bother me as much as Burnett's entire injury portfolio."
"Burnett by a mile," said an AL executive. "He'll be 35 in the last year of the deal whereas Lowe will be 39 at the end of the deal. It's not close for me."
6. Left fielder Pat Burrell or right fielder Bobby Abreu?
Responses: Burrell 8, Abreu 7.
Pat Burrell is 2½ years younger and hits with more power. He has averaged 28 homers and 92 RBIs in nine seasons with the Phillies.
Bobby Abreu, who turns 35 in spring training, has a higher career on-base percentage than Burrell (.405 to .367) and 318 career stolen bases to Burrell's five.
While 24 of Abreu's 36 homers over the past two seasons have come at Yankee Stadium, Burrell isn't as big a beneficiary of Citizens Bank Park's cozy dimensions as you might think; since the park opened five years ago, Burrell has 74 home runs in Philadelphia and 74 on the road.
"He's like a Troy Glaus," said an American League executive. "When he hits 'em, he hits 'em. It doesn't matter where he's playing."
Although Abreu is regarded within the industry as slightly better defensively, neither player is much of a bargain with a glove. Statistician John Dewan's plus-minus system ranked Abreu as the second-worst right fielder in the game in 2008 (ahead of Colorado's Brad Hawpe) and Burrell as the second-worst left fielder in the game (ahead of Minnesota's Delmon Young.
"At least Abreu moves better," said a National League executive. "Burrell looks as if he's running on glass."
One big difference: While Burrell is prone to white-hot stretches followed by prolonged slumps, Abreu is a more consistent producer. As Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said earlier this year, "Bobby's always going to put something in the basket." That might be a walk, a stolen base, an extra-base hit or a three-hit day.
Burrell made a run at the All-Star team with a .979 OPS before the break, then slumped to a .215 average after the break. It's not the first time he's vanished for an extended period.
7. Will Ken Griffey Jr. play in 2009? If so, where?
Responses: 14 say yes, and one says yes only on the condition that Griffey is willing to accept a reduced role. "I doubt any team would commit everyday at-bats to him," the executive said.
Potential destinations: Seattle 8, Tampa Bay 1, Oakland 1, Atlanta 1, New York Mets 1, Chicago White Sox 1, and 2 "not sure."
Ken Griffey Jr. hit three home runs in 131 at-bats after joining the White Sox in a deadline trade with Cincinnati and had difficulty covering ground in center field. It has since come to light that he was playing on 1½ legs. Griffey had his left knee drained three times last season -- twice in Cincinnati and once in Chicago -- and underwent arthroscopic surgery for some minor repairs last month.
Seattle is the obvious choice for 2009, since it would allow Griffey to come full circle and complete his career on a heartwarming note. Griffey could play right field, first base and DH, help replace some of Raul Ibanez's offense, provide a bridge to outfield prospects Greg Halman and Michael Saunders, and generate some goodwill for a team that's badly in need of it.
The question is: Will new GM Jack Zduriencik make the call, or is this an "organizational" decision?
"It seems that upper management makes a lot of the calls there, and I imagine he'd be pretty good for PR and ticket sales," said an AL general manager.
Oakland merits a mention because GM Billy Beane seems to have a soft spot for accomplished hitters in the twilight of their careers. The A's have taken the plunge on Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza and Mike Sweeney in recent years, with mixed results.
Tampa also could make sense if Cliff Floyd's shoulder injury prompts him to call it quits. Griffey lives in Orlando and might be energized playing alongside B.J. Upton and all those talented young players on the Rays' roster. Griffey has 2,680 career hits and might need to play three more years to reach the 3,000-hit milestone.
Griffey and his agent, Brian Goldberg, have never been hard-liners in negotiations, and Junior might be willing to go for a deal in the $5 million range with some incentives. Believe it or not, this is the first time in Griffey's 20-year career that he's a free agent.