Free-agent market creeping along
Few, if any, free agents are finding takers in the early stages of this offseason.
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."
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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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
"They've got a long list," says one NL executive. "It depends on how it all comes down."
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."
"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."
"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."
"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.
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."
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