- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Major League Baseball's Hot Stove season began in November, with the annual ritual known as the Scott Boras Olympics. The list of high-profile events includes tightrope walking, the rhetorical high jump, synchronized catcher negotiations and the always-grueling salary arbitration preparation marathon.
And now the preliminaries have given way to baseball's No. 1 late-January spectator sport: the ever-popular Manny Ramirez employment watch.
With two weeks left until spring training, Boras continues to project the outward sense of calm that makes him so formidable and, at times, so exasperating to clubs. He still talks and thinks in grand terms even in a market that's resistant to hype and whispers of "mystery" suitors.
"Manny Ramirez is an extraordinary franchise player who makes money for teams," Boras said. "The closer teams get to spring training, the more they know what they're not and what their competitors are, and that prompts ownership to evaluate the situation. That's how it works."
As the game's most prominent agent and premier lightning rod, Boras has had a hectic winter even by his exacting standards. His public approval ratings hover somewhere in Dick Cheney territory. But contrary to the popular belief that he would be marginalized or lose his clout after Alex Rodriguez's celebrated end-around with the Yankees last winter, Boras' headline-generating potential remains unscathed.
Things peaked just before Christmas when Boras negotiated an eight-year, $180 million deal for first baseman Mark Teixeira with the Yankees. The process generated hard feelings in Boston and prompted The Boston Globe to write an editorial that equated dealing with Boras to investing in a Bernard Madoff "Ponzi scheme," but Teixeira walked away with the fourth-richest contract in MLB history.
Skeptics who suggested that Boras was blowing smoke on Derek Lowe got a wake-up call two weeks ago. Amid speculation that Lowe was destined to settle for scraps after CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett ate up all the big starter money in New York, the Atlanta Braves swooped in and signed Lowe, 36, to a four-year, $60 million contract.
Throw in multiyear deals for arbitration-eligibles Prince Fielder and Ryan Madson, and Kyle Lohse's $41 million contract with St. Louis before the market turned ugly, and it makes for a considerable haul. Even some of Boras' lesser lights have fared well. There's a joke in front-office circles that Boras clients who rank down the pecking order are more likely to have their calls returned by one of the agent's lieutenants than the man in charge. One executive calls it being demoted to the "Mike Fischlin division." But you won't hear any complaints from Willie Bloomquist, who parlayed one extra-base hit in 192 plate appearances with Seattle into a two-year, $3 million contract with Kansas City.
Nevertheless, it's been a rough winter all around in baseball, and dozens of agents have taken solace in grousing about collusion and penurious ownership. Boras, for all his resources and strategic vision, isn't immune from market forces, a cratering economy, the perils of overreaching and a trend toward teams' going young at the expense of big outlays on veterans.
As a result, some of his early plans have hit speed bumps. He tried to sell teams on a creative, Magglio Ordonez-type deal for third baseman Joe Crede, but enough clubs are skeptical about Crede's back that it appears he'll have to accept a one-year, make-good offer from the Twins, Giants or another cost-conscious suitor and use it as a springboard to a longer deal next winter.
Boras client Garret Anderson has had to stand in line with Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and the other lefty-hitting outfielders. Andruw Jones, released by the Dodgers, is so bad the Braves won't take him for a song. Pudge Rodriguez still considers himself a full-time player and has his heart set on 3,000 hits, but he's not getting much love at age 37.
And Boras's quest to find comfortable landing spots for Ramirez and Jason Varitek has made for a veritable blogger's bonanza. The Varitek negotiations reached a satisfactory conclusion Friday when Boston's catcher reached preliminary agreement on a one-year, $5 million deal with dual option scenarios for 2010. Was it worth the headaches, rancor and breathless Internet updates? Boras would probably say yes, but he's in the minority.
Varitek showed major signs of slippage last season when he slugged .359 and hit .201 from the left side of the plate. The Red Sox offered him salary arbitration with the intent of bringing him back for 2009 at a salary of about $11 million. But Varitek declined the offer, then met with shrugs on the open market from teams who had zero interest surrendering draft picks for a 36-year-old catcher.
The salary arbitration decision was in keeping with Boras' core philosophy. In the past, Boras has accepted arbitration for the likes of Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux, superstar players coming off big seasons, on the theory that the downside risk was nonexistent and he might be able to leverage a one-year deal into a long-term contract. But he's generally averse to saying yes with players coming off bad years because arbitration deals are non-guaranteed.
Which brings us to the "Todd Walker rule.'' Walker, the former big league second baseman, won a $3.95 million salary arbitration award from the Padres in February 2007. San Diego subsequently released him in spring training, saving about $3 million in the process, and Walker filed a grievance against the club.
Boras and Varitek privately said they feared a similar scenario in Boston -- that the Red Sox might take Varitek to camp, then release him and only be responsible for a quarter or a sixth of his salary in "termination pay'' if they were able to swing a deal with Arizona for Miguel Montero or Texas for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden.
In the end, Varitek will remain in Boston for a 13th and possibly 14th season, which is what matters most. And he has $8 million in guaranteed money coming to him. But lots of people in baseball will question whether Boras pushed this thing further than he needed to because of a faulty premise -- that the Red Sox would pull a Todd Walker with their revered team captain.
"The Red Sox are trying to build a team,'' said an American League executive. "They're not going to take a guy who's universally respected by his peers, offer him arbitration, agree to a contract, bring him into camp and then release him in the last week of spring training. Can you imagine Theo Epstein having that conversation with Jason Varitek and then walking through the Red Sox clubhouse? No chance.''
As the celebratory press conference awaits, Varitek can now take comfort in knowing that he's headed to Fort Myers, Fla., in two weeks for the Grapefruit League. Boras' Manny Ramirez talks, in contrast, are a soap opera with no closing credits.
The Dodgers offered Ramirez a two-year, $45 million contract in early November, then withdrew it about 10 days later when Boras declined to respond. The only thing we know for sure is that the two sides continue to talk, and the Dodgers still look like front-runners.
Manny wants $25 million a year? That would get you Pat Burrell and two starting pitchers in this market.
”-- A National League executive
"We've continued to communicate with Scott, and we still have interest in signing Manny," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "We realize what he did for the city and the club, and we'll see if we can make it happen at some point."
In the meantime, there's no evidence to suggest that Boras and Ramirez have strayed from a desired four- or five-year deal at $25 million plus annually. But that can't happen in the absence of competition. While Boras is a proven master at pushing buttons and stirring up rivalry-related paranoia, he's finding it hard to get much traction with Ramirez.
Yes, the Giants are lingering, but general manager Brian Sabean is on record as saying a Ramirez deal would have to be "a perfect fit, year-wise and financially." Mets fans have been clamoring for Ramirez, but if GM Omar Minaya spends $10 million a year on a three-year deal for pitcher Oliver Perez -- another Boras client -- that will swell the payroll to the $140 million area. With that kind of financial outlay, the Mets can live with Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy in left field.
Each day this drags on, somebody new weighs in with an opinion. Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, Mets manager Jerry Manuel and Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa have all said exceedingly nice things about Ramirez in the past week, but all the headlines and hype don't appear to be driving up the price.
There's a perception that Ramirez has that two-year, $45 million offer from the Dodgers in his back pocket as a safety net, but is that really a sure thing? Given the downturn in the economy and the languid free-agent market, an American League assistant general manager said Colletti might be "charitable" to simply resurrect his November offer out of a sense of civility.
As a National League baseball operations man observed, "Manny wants $25 million a year? That would get you Pat Burrell and two starting pitchers in this market."
As the hysteria quotient rises, Boras debunks the notion that Ramirez is getting antsy waiting for a home. That might very well be true, given Ramirez's well-publicized indifference toward spring training.
"Manny is an absolute professional," Boras said. "This guy is working out in Pensacola, Fla., every day, doing his thing. Manny knows what I know: He's a great player, and he's going to have a job."
The questions left to be answered are where, when and for how much, which puts Ramirez in the same boat with Oliver Perez, Pudge Rodriguez, Eric Gagne and several other Boras clients. It's a good thing Boras is adept at multi-tasking, because February is going to be one busy month.