- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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Happy offseason, everyone. Oxymoronic, I suppose, with the games gone for five long months, but you get the idea.
And still there will be plenty of baseball news to come, with roster moves, executive switches, Hall of Fame voting and more. Here's a quick guide to the upcoming winter:
Ask any general manager and he'll tell you that this year's free-agent class is nothing like those of winters past. There's no Alex Rodriguez or Pedro Martinez or Vladimir Guerrero or Jim Thome to stoke raging hot-stove talk. But that doesn't mean talent isn't available.
The free-spending Yankees blundered by not replacing the aging Bernie Williams the last few years, but they will not repeat that mistake now. Joe Torre has publicly declared his desire for a new starting center fielder. If he does not re-sign with Boston, Johnny Damon has suggested New York wouldn't be his first choice, but agent Scott Boras could make it pretty darned attractive for his last big contract. Preston Wilson is an option, as is Hideki Matsui -- assuming he re-ups with New York, he could move to center, Torre said, allowing a run at a corner free agent like Brian Giles.
It sounds like Paul Konerko plans to stay in Chicago, which is bad news for the Mets, who crave a cleanup-hitting first baseman, and he's about it. The best other infielders are shortstops Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra. Second and third bases are very thin this year, even thinner than catching candidates Bengie Molina, Ramon Hernandez and Brad Ausmus.
As for pitchers, the confounding A.J. Burnett will get a fresh start away from Florida, with Baltimore and the two New York clubs logical suitors, among others who can afford the eight-figure salary he might command. Kevin Millwood will have fun arguing his value after leading the American League in ERA (2.86) with a 9-11 record. Jarrod Washburn, Jeff Weaver and Kenny Rogers might not be aces but can strengthen rotations. (Note: The Giants picked up the $10.5 million option on Jason Schmidt on Thursday.)
Don't be surprised if Wagner winds up with the Mets or Red Sox, with fellow left-hander Ryan being hotly pursued around the majors.
Remember, most teams -- like this year's White Sox -- improve more with mid-level moves than headline-grabbing ones. So when it comes to this year's free-agent class, watch for smaller names to make a bigger difference.
ROOM AT THE TOP
Over the weekend Los Angeles fired Paul DePodesta to join Philadelphia and Tampa Bay among franchises looking for GMs. But New York's Brian Cashman and Boston's Theo Epstein are no longer available. The contracts for both GMs were set to expire Monday. But Cashman re-upped for enough money to cover inevitable Steinbrenner-induced psychiatrist bills (about $5.5 million over three years). Epstein, meanwhile, reportedly agreed to a three-year extension.
The Dodgers plan to interview Pat Gillick, although Tommy Lasorda has reportedly lobbied for his former pitching ace, Orel Hershiser. The industry favorite in Philly is former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker -- who, many years ago, worked with the ousted Ed Wade in Tal Smith's consulting practice. Unfortunately for longtime scouting chief Mike Arbuckle -- the man who has fed the team most of its current talent -- the belief is that image-conscious Philly ownership wants to make a bigger splash.
The Devil Rays might not be looking for a "normal" GM -- industry sources say they're grooming 29-year-old director of baseball development Andrew Friedman -- but according to local press, they are considering Hunsicker as well. Yankees superscout Gene Michael is no longer an option, given how the power play of Cashman, his ally in New York, ended successfully.
Yeah, so Ozzie Guillen said during the season he'd quit if the White Sox won the Series, but something tells us he'll be back -- with a well-leveraged contract extension. Two other managing jobs are actually open. The Dodgers have already interviewed six candidates: Hershiser, Terry Collins, Torey Lovullo, Jerry Royster, Alan Trammell and Ron Wotus. A seventh could be Bobby Valentine, a former Dodger phenom who just managed his Chibe Lotte Marines to the Japan Series title. Whispers have Lasorda wanting Valentine back with the organization -- remember, though, Tommy's the guy who traded Paul Konerko.
As for the Devil Rays' successor to Lou Piniella, they're casting an even wider net. The Tampa Tribune reports that none other than Mike Schmidt, who managed not very happily in Class A ball for the Phillies in 2004, is among nine people who have interviewed for the job. Reports have John McLaren, Piniella's bench coach, and Angels bench coach Joe Maddon as the names to watch there.
Roger McDowell, who was the pitching coach for the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas the past two seasons, was named the Braves' new pitching coach on Saturday, replacing Leo Mazzone. The departure of Mazzone could affect the National League's balance of power more than any manager. The Yankees are also looking for a replacement for pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, with speculation long centered on the White Sox's Don Cooper. The assumption that the Yankees could get him could normally be blamed on New York's flabbergasting self-centeredness, but Cooper is a New York native and (brief) former Yankee who will seriously consider going home.
Dwight Gooden and Hershiser will get some votes out of sentimentality, but there's no way any new candidates will be elected to the Hall of Fame in January. That means a stronger chance for last year's near-misses.
Closers Bruce Sutter (66.7 percent) and Rich Gossage (55.2) came close enough to the required 75 percent that they could make a jump this time around. Why a player can be considered Hall of Fame unworthy one year and then deserving the next remains a mystery. Jim Rice (59.5) has the best chance of any returning hitter.
Also, a special committee on the Negro Leagues will vote in February to select new Hall of Fame members who emerged from a landmark study of African-American baseball before integration. Expect to see several inductees from that group.
BUY ME -- PLEASE
Raise your hand if you still care a whit about who finally ends up buying the Washington Nationals.
Other MLB business is far more interesting. Baseball's long-awaited inner-city academy is expected to open in Los Angeles in early 2006, a major step toward growing urban American interest in the game similar to that of Latin countries. (One note: All the hubbub this October about how the Astros didn't have an African-American player came with a completely unfair hint of racism. Given that only 9 percent of all major-league players this season were African-American, the chances of at least one team having none on a 25-man roster are about 95 percent.)
Don't be surprised if there's a full-fledged Baseball Channel on your cable box next Opening Day. Major League Baseball has been oddly secretive about its plans -- perhaps because they meet deadlines less often than Hunter Thompson did -- but it's in the works, and whenever it shows up it will feature nonstop baseball programming. No word on how they'll actually fill 168 hours a week, but here's hoping we get reruns of Johnny Bench and "The Baseball Bunch."
And lastly, next March will bring us the first World Baseball Classic. You can bet a strong-hammied Roger Clemens will wear the Stars and Stripes and lead a Team USA that will try to fend off the Dominican Republic (with a potentially insane lineup including Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano and Vladimir Guerrero) and a suffocating Venezuelan staff (candidates include Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Zambrano, Felix Hernandez and Francisco Rodriguez). Even before next Opening Day rolls around, we're in for a blast.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.