Free-agent market creeping along

Few, if any, free agents are finding takers in the early stages of this offseason.

Originally Published: December 4, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

For the second straight winter, the free-agent market has moved slower than Henry Blanco. And it's getting more and more obvious that Dec. 7 is turning into as important a date on the baseball calendar as opening day.

That's the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their own free agents. But more realistically, it's also the date when other clubs find out if they have to give up a draft pick as compensation for signing those free agents.

And gee, it sure is funny how, for 25 years of free agency, that draft-pick compensation wasn't much of an issue. But now those draft choices are suddenly being portrayed as if they're more valuable than Bill Gates' software secrets.

"I've never seen people covet those draft picks the way they are now," says one AL executive. "In the past, plenty of quality players used to sign before Dec. 7. Not anymore."

Richie Sexson rumblings
Sexson
Sexson

  • Now that the Brewers have dealt Richie Sexson, their next project is to trade Geoff Jenkins, who will make $8.25 million next year. Despite speculation that no one would take on Jenkins' money after all his injury problems, an official of one club that has spoken with the Brewers says they already have two teams actively interested.

    One of them is almost certainly the Mets, who also are believed to have interest in Magglio Ordonez, despite his $14-million salary next year.

  • How well did the Brewers do in that Sexson deal? Baseball people we've surveyed have given them mixed reviews.

    There was general agreement that Junior Spivey will bounce back. And scouts who have seen Jorge De La Rosa (once described by former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette as "the Mexican John Rocker") think he can be either a power left-handed bullpen force or a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

    But there was major disagreement about Lyle Overbay, who some scouts love but others see as a guy with too little power to be "that classic corner bat you look for." There was division on whether Chad Moeller is "just a No. 2 catcher" or an underrated receiver with "great athleticism" who didn't mesh with Arizona manager Bob Brenly. And while Chris Capuano has a breaking ball that chews up left-handed hitters, one scout says Arizona had "a half-dozen pitching prospects who were ahead of him."

    At least, says one AL executive, the Brewers got players -- in Craig Counsell and Spivey -- they can still turn around and move in July. And it isn't easy to trade for six players who are all legitimate big-league talents. But ultimately, says one NL scout, "I just don't like their lineup, without that power bat in the middle."

  • Then there's Arizona's side of this. The Diamondbacks have never had a right-handed hitter hit 40 home runs in a season. But you can bet the 2001 World Series trophy that Sexson will end that streak.

    The only right-handed hitters with more homers than him over the last three years are A-Rod and Sammy Sosa. Sexson has put up huge numbers in Bank One Ballpark (.378, six HR, 16 RBI in 12 career games). And he was one of those rare Brewers who was actually better on the road (.393 on-base, .574 slugging) than at home (.364 on-base, .521 slugging) last year.

    And by including Spivey ($2.37 million next year) and Counsell ($3.15 million) in the deal, Arizona still comes away with a $9-million savings between the Curt Schilling and Sexson deals.

    But they're now depending on Randy Johnson to come all the way back, at age 40, and on Brandon Webb to take another step up to No. 2 starter, after just 28 career starts.

    "They're putting a lot of weight on Brandon Webb in his second year," says one scout. But another scout says of Webb: "I'd bet on him. He's got good stuff and great makeup. This guy is a winner."
  • Good point. Last year, of 139 free agents who signed over the winter, only six signed by Dec. 6 -- Jim Thome, David Bell, Tom Glavine, Mike Remlinger, Jesse Orosco and Frank Thomas. But at least five of those changed teams. Five got contracts of three years or longer. And Thome, Thomas, Bell and Glavine all got deals averaging more than $4 million a year.

    This winter, however, only four free agents had officially "signed" with a new team through Wednesday -- Kelvim Escobar, LaTroy Hawkins, Raul Ibanez and Pat Hentgen. (Players such as Gary Sheffield, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill have unofficially "agreed" to change teams, but haven't "signed." So they don't count.)

    Seventeen more free agents have re-signed with their old teams. But of those 21 who signed, only Escobar, Hawkins and Ibanez got three-year deals. And Escobar and Ibanez are the only two, among those 21, whose deals average more than $4 million a year.

    So there have actually been more trades for players with big contracts (Javier Vazquez, Curt Schilling, Eric Milton, Billy Wagner) than signings of players to deals that big. Of the 21 signings, 14 are for only one year and 13 are for $2.2 million a year or lower.

    Which tells us that a "slow" market is a synonym for a "lousy" market -- if you're a free agent out there trying to hit the lottery.

    Phillies rumblings

  • Scott Boras continues to tell people he has a five-year deal out there for Kevin Millwood at $15 million a year. But other than the Mets, it's hard to find a team that is actively bidding on him.

    Millwood told three baseball people in the last week that he wanted to return to Philadelphia. But Boras went nearly two weeks without responding to the Phillies' first contract offer (believed to be three years, for about $29 million).

    Then, when Boras was essentially told by Phillies GM Ed Wade on Tuesday, that if Millwood wasn't interested in that offer, the Phillies had other plans, Boras continued to insist Millwood could get a five-year contract elsewhere. Under 24 hours later, the Phillies waved goodbye by making the Milton deal.

  • An executive of another NL team thinks the Phillies did the right thing. Asked about Millwood, he replied: "I'd put my money somewhere else. To me, they've been trying to get him to be something he can't be -- the ace of a staff."

    We also asked an AL scout which pitcher he would rather have for one year -- Milton or Millwood. He voted on Millwood for health reasons, but said: "If you could guarantee me that Milton would be healthy all year, I'd take him. I think he's going to come to the National League and pitch very well. This guy has good stuff. And he was throwing great at the end of the year. He just had no stamina because he hadn't pitched."

  • Incidentally, the two players the Phillies traded for Milton -- Carlos Silva and Nick Punto -- had been offered to Arizona for Curt Schilling, and to Milwaukee as part of a three-way deal involving Schilling and Sexson. Arizona and Milwaukee both said no. But Minnesota will use Punto to replace Denny Hocking as a utility guy and as a presence to push Cristian Guzman. And Silva could be anything from a starting pitcher to a set-up replacement for LaTroy Hawkins.

    "Silva has a great arm," says one scout. "You have to be careful using him against left-handed hitters. And I'm not sure I'd bring him in with men on base. But he's an intriguing guy."

  • The Phillies are now out of the market for established starting pitchers, unless they find someone in the $1-million bargain bins in January. For now, their fifth starter will be someone from the threesome of Amaury Telemaco, Bud Smith or their most advanced pitching prospect, Ryan Madson.

    Twins rumblings

  • When the Twins traded Milton and wiped his $9 million paycheck off the books, it was a clear sign that they're bringing back closer Eddie Guardado, who never wanted to leave. But Shannon Stewart's return isn't so certain.

    It's a reasonable guess that the Twins would offer Stewart arbitration, giving them two more weeks to negotiate. But while the Twins' public posture is that the trade of Milton opened budget room for both Stewart and Jacque Jones, clubs that have spoken with the Twins say they've been told otherwise.

    If Stewart goes back to Minnesota, clubs interested in Jones expect him to be traded. And the Twins then would install Michael Cuddyer in right field.

    Braves rumblings

  • Jones is just one of many Braves outfield options to replace Sheffield. Clubs that have been in touch with the Braves say they're exploring a long list of players. Among them: free agent Reggie Sanders, Juan Encarnacion (if he gets non-tendered), J.D. Drew (as either a trade candidate or a non-tender free agent) and Richard Hidalgo (if Houston pays a chunk of his contract).

    "They've got a long list," says one NL executive. "It depends on how it all comes down."

  • That's because the Braves could take some -- or all -- of the $11 million a year they had earmarked for Sheffield and put it into starting pitching.

    They had interest in Millwood, but not at $15 million a year. They made a run at Sidney Ponson, now a free agent, before the trade deadline. And they were outbid by the Yankees on Vazquez, a pitcher they've been trying to get for two years.

    "They have a lot of different scenarios," says one source who has spoken frequently with the Braves. "They could put their money into one of the big pitchers. Or into offense. Or in a combination of each. As the dominoes start falling, each move leads into the next."

    Marlins rumblings
    Choi
    Choi

  • After dealing Derrek Lee for Hee Seop Choi, the Marlins' best-case scenario is to have Choi win the first-base job. But with Jeff Conine still hanging around as a first-base option, Choi will have to win the job. And there are quite a few scouts out there who aren't sure Choi will ever match his hoopla.

    "I love that deal for the Cubs," says one NL scout. "Hee Seop Choi has gotten a lot of hype, but I'm not convinced he'll ever live up to it. His strength and his power are impressive. But he really struggles against good breaking balls. He's not Derrek Lee. I know that. Derrek Lee might hit 50 home runs playing in Wrigley."

  • If the Marlins don't re-sign Pudge Rodriguez, their first option is to give Ramon Castro a chance to start, assuming his legal difficulties aren't an issue. Castro did hit five homers in only 53 at-bats this season. He crushed left-handers (.409 average, .864 slugging pct.). And several teams have tried to trade for him over the last couple of years.

    But the bigger question, if Rodriguez does bolt, is where he'll land.

    "I hear Baltimore is all over Javy Lopez, so where's his other market?" wonders one NL executive. "The Cubs? That's the only other choice I see. Oakland is looking for a catcher, but not at those dollars. And the Dodgers might be, but only if they move Paul Lo Duca. Otherwise, he's signed at $3.9 million. So where does Pudge go? His best fit is to stay right where he was."
  • One position the Braves aren't looking to invest many dollars in is first base. Their plan is to bring back Julio Franco and mix him in with good-looking rookie Adam LaRoche, who was rated as the ninth-best first-base prospect in baseball by SportsTicker's Howe Sportsdata.

    "I like his swing a lot," says one scout who has seen LaRoche in Puerto Rico this winter. "He needs experience. And he needs to show he can drive the ball. But I see him as a similar type hitter to a Doug Mientkiewicz or Nick Johnson -- line-drive hitter, uses the whole field, but eventually with more power than those guys. To be honest, I think he'll be a better hitter down the road than Nick Johnson."

    More rumblings

  • Among the forgotten players who have surfaced in the Puerto Rican winter league this year: Bobby Chouinard, John Valentin and Olmedo Saenz.

    "Chouinard (1-1, 4.76) still has good stuff," says one scout. "But you're talking about a lot of baggage. Valentin (.309, seven HR in his first 68 AB) can still hit, but I'm not sure where he is physically. He had a play where he didn't slide when he should have. And Saenz (.322, 10 doubles in 90 AB) is still making good contact, but he has a noticeable limp."

  • One scout's nomination for the most impressive young position player in Puerto Rico is Blue Jays center-field prospect Alexis Rios: "Hell of an athlete. Hell of a center fielder. And probably the best-looking young hitter in the league. Reads breaking balls well. Does a lot of things instinctively. Wouldn't surprise me if he shows up in the big leagues at some point this year."

  • The same scout's pick for best young pitcher in Puerto Rico is Angels prospect Bobby Jenks (15 hits, 24 strikeouts in 27 1/3 IP): "Nasty stuff. Throws three pitches that are all above-average -- a split, a hard power curve and a fastball that he gets up to 97-98 mph. He's probably the pitcher here."

  • It's never too early to look forward to the drama of the Rule 5 draft, which looms as the unofficial grand finale of the winter meetings Dec. 15. The Tigers have the No. 1 overall pick and have been looking for a power bat. But scouts we've surveyed wish them luck.

    "I don't see one position player out there," says one scout. "I've seen some defensive players, some pure-shortstop types. But that's about it. There's a smattering of some pitching. That's the way to go."

    There wasn't a single position player in last year's Rule 5 who made a significant impact, although the Brewers still have hope for the first overall pick, shortstop Enrique Cruz. But a bunch of pitchers left their mark -- especially Aquilino Lopez in Toronto, Javier Lopez in Colorado, D.J. Carrasco in Kansas City, Luis Ayala in Montreal and the Wilfredo Ledezma-Matt Roney-Chris Spurling threesome in Detroit.

  • Finally, here's Curt Schilling's all-important review of Theo Epstein's manners at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

    Schilling wouldn't confirm reports that Epstein displayed perfect mechanics while passing the gravy, but did say: "I think he was slightly over-complimentary of the cooking. He wasn't shy at the table, though. And when you're eating with this family, you'd better not be."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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