- Phil Rogers
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The gnashing of teeth had barely stopped over Adam Eaton's new contract and the Yankees committing $26 million for the rights to another bottom-of-the-rotation starter, Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa.
Here comes another round of major league executives screaming that timeless question, "Are those guys on crack?"
But there's a reason so many marginal pitchers are commanding such respect. It's simple supply and demand.
Even after the Eaton and Igawa moves, and assuming Daisuke Matsuzaka and Igawa sign with the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively, there are still at least 30 holes remaining in big league rotations. Nine teams need more than one reasonably reliable starter, with the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals somehow short three and four, respectively.
There are perhaps 11 attractive free-agent starters on the market, and that list includes three guys who are essentially unavailable to at least 25 teams (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine). No wonder the White Sox and Rockies wait patiently as the price for starters available in trades, such as Freddy Garcia, Javier Vazquez and Jason Jennings, soars.
Dontrelle Willis? Don't even ask.
For executives with teams finding themselves needing the most -- including the already very active Cubs, who still don't know whom they'll pitch after Carlos Zambrano and Rich Hill -- it's going to be a restless December.
Here's a quick look at six teams that move toward the winter meetings needing to make up for lost ground:
With Barry Bonds among five regulars who could depart as free agents -- along with longtime ace, Jason Schmidt -- this is a year when San Francisco probably should take a deep breath and regroup, with an eye on 2008 and beyond. But the presence of starters Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Matt Morris, along with closer Armando Benitez, encourages ownership that GM Brian Sabean might be able to produce a contender somehow.
Good luck on that.
Sabean wakes up every morning knowing he needs two outfielders, a third baseman, a second baseman, possibly a first baseman and at least one, maybe two, starting pitchers. Manny Ramirez's name is getting bounced around after the Giants unsuccessfully bid for Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr., among others. But how's a team this thin on proven talent going to swing a deal for Ramirez?
Even Mike Stanton slipped away this winter, signing with the Reds instead. "That's the nature of the beast," Sabean told the San Francisco Chronicle. "You fight the fight, and sometimes you don't know where the gravity or the pull comes from. You move on."
The free agents associated with the Giants these days are Ray Durham, Rich Aurilia, Dave Roberts, David Weathers and Mark Loretta. Why don't they just concede, trade veterans such as Omar Vizquel and Benitez, and begin the post-Bonds cleansing?
You either manage your roster well or you don't. Like the Giants, Texas gushed talent onto the free-agent market after 2006, including four regulars and two of the veteran starters in a very thin starting rotation.
Lee, who cost the Rangers closer Francisco Cordero in this summer's trade with Milwaukee, brought only draft-choice compensation on his way out of town (and Texas watered down those benefits by signing Frank Catalanotto, sending the 16th pick overall to Toronto). Texas knew it probably couldn't keep Lee and Matthews Jr., but misjudged the market for Eaton and Mark DeRosa.
As always, the Rangers' biggest problems are assembling a starting rotation and finding a skilled fielder to play center.
Rookie GM Jon Daniels, who inherited a mess from his old boss, John Hart, did a smart thing signing Kevin Millwood a year ago, but now must either sell other free agents on joining Millwood or deal from a solid supply of pitching prospects to add veterans behind him. The White Sox and Rangers have spent months studying a deal for Vazquez or Garcia, but some reports have Texas focused on Jon Garland, who probably is not going anywhere.
As quickly as this franchise gained luster, it is in the process of losing it.
Free-agent investments in Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson have not paid dividends, and the starting rotation is thin behind 20-year-old Felix Hernandez, who had a 4.52 ERA in his first full big league season.
Ichiro Suzuki is approaching his walk year. It's hard to picture the Mariners without him, but you wonder whether the promise of Kenji Johjima, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez will be enough to prompt Suzuki to re-enlist if continued losing remains on the horizon.
Free agent Gil Meche could be departing just as he turns a corner in his career. The Mariners opted not to bid for Matsuzaka, targeting Igawa instead, but were badly outbid by the Yankees. One local guy, Eaton, already has spurned the Mariners to sign elsewhere, and there are mixed reports about the interest level of Schmidt, another Washington product.
The rising cost for free-agent pitching could knock the Mariners out of the market. "The free agency (money) has surprised me," club president Chuck Armstrong told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "It's bad, and from what I hear, it may get worse."
General manager Bill Bavasi, like manager Mike Hargrove under pressure to produce an immediate turnaround, weighs an attempt to reacquire Garcia, whom he traded to the White Sox in 2004.
Although a new stadium eventually could ease the squeeze for this always-strapped franchise, resourceful GM Terry Ryan faces the usual headache trying to fill two spots in the starting rotation.
Brad Radke's retirement gives Ryan some money to spend, but the spiraling pitching market and the projected cost to keep Johan Santana, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau together for the next five years mean the Twins must move carefully.
The injury to Francisco Liriano would seem to open room for internal candidates, but Ryan doesn't believe in giving away big league opportunities, which could leave Matt Garza, Glen Perkins and Scott Baker in Triple-A in April.
What a mess.
You look at this roster, especially the starting rotation and outfield, and there's no explaining why GM Jim Bowden turned down so many offers for Soriano this summer.
The closest thing to a known quantity in the starting rotation is John Patterson, and he's coming off a season when he was limited to eight starts. The next best bet is probably Tim Redding, who spent all of 2006 pitching well for the White Sox's Triple-A team. Suffice it to say Livan Hernandez will be badly missed.
Resources shouldn't be a problem, as Jose Vidro ($7.5 million in 2007), Nick Johnson ($5.5 million) and immovable Cristian Guzman ($4.2 million) are the only players signed to large contracts. But it sure looks as though these guys are just treading water.
The defending World Series champs knew they would have pitching issues this winter, and those remain in full swing after this week's signing of Kip Wells. Before they starred in the Series, the Cardinals hoped to bring back Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver, but both could be beyond the means of a team that has invested heavily in Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds.
Ace Chris Carpenter, like Suppan an incredibly good signing by GM Walt Jocketty, won't be a bargain forever. The Cardinals have some good in-house options in Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes, but -- along with Wells -- those guys combined for only 17 starts this past season.
Pitching coach Dave Duncan and manager Tony La Russa worked miracles in October. They'd like things to be a little easier in 2007, but Jocketty still has his sleeves rolled up with Suppan, Mark Mulder and Jason Marquis all but gone and Weaver also listening to offers from elsewhere.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
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