- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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You don't hear the "C" word uttered much nowadays in the wilds of the free-agent jungle.
You hear "delusion." You hear "confusion." You hear "disillusion." But "collusion?" It's amazing how little that one comes up anymore, even among agents with 14 remaining unsigned clients.
And with good reason.
In case you hadn't noticed, several dollars have changed hands this winter. In fact, according to ESPN research maven Mark Simon, the current crop of free agents has signed contracts worth over -- ready for this? -- a billion dollars.
Yeah, you read that right. A billion. Which is even higher than Jose Contreras' ERA.
But it's also a little different from the way the free-agent market worked over the previous couple of years. Let's compare this winter's market with last winter's.
Free agents signing deals of four years or more: This winter -- 12. Last winter -- 3 (not counting Pudge Rodriguez's two voidable years in a four-year contract).
Free-agent pitchers signing four-year deals: This winter -- 4. Last winter -- zero.
Free-agent pitchers signing for longer than two years: This winter -- 10. Last winter -- 7.
Free-agent pitchers who got at least $7 million a year: This winter -- 12 (with Roger Clemens signing for $18 million next season). Last winter -- 5.
Free-agent position players whose deals averaged at least $10 million a year: This winter -- 6 (with Carlos Delgado yet to sign). Last winter -- 4.
So what does all that mean? It means we've seen, essentially, a relatively "normal" market, if there is such a thing.
For every complaint from agents or players about identical offers or teams' stalling tactics, there have been at least as many grumbles from owners, GMs or baseball officials about the "insane" deals handed out by the Mets and Diamondbacks.
And if the finger-pointing on both sides is about even, that's a decent definition of a fair market. Wouldn't you say?
Oh, there were some eyebrows raised on the players' side about all those similar contracts signed by free-agent pitchers. But there were just as many eyebrows arching on the other side about the amount of those contracts.
"If the deals are abnormally low, that's one thing," said one agent. "But when the market opens up and a number of fairly equal pitchers are signing in the same range -- between $6-8 million a year -- that's fair, because one deal plays off the other.
"You can say that some of these salaries are the same. But to me, there's no way you can argue that salaries have been suppressed."
Or predetermined. Over the past couple of winters, it sure was fascinating how many GMs seemed to know what the market was going to look like on certain free agents before it even had a chance to develop. But not this winter.
In fact, maybe the best evidence of how the market developed its own levels was the Yankees, a team that's often accused of not even caring how it spends its money. The Yankees, you see, never saw this one coming.
Numerous Yankees people -- including GM Brian Cashman -- have admitted that, in November, had they known where this market was heading, they would have picked up Jon Lieber's $8-million option for 2005 instead of buying him out.
Their guess, at the time, was that Lieber would wind up getting $5-6 million a year, probably for two years. Nope. After the Mets' Kris Benson deal (three years, $22.5 million) changed everything, Lieber wound up at three years, $21 million -- and in Philadelphia, not New York.
The Yankees, meanwhile, were forced to hand out that same three years, $21 million for Jaret Wright, even though his shaky health history would never have made anyone believe he would get that many years or that many dollars a few months ago.
So why has all this happened? Some people point to the Mets, who have overspent to import stars for their new TV network (even though it's a year away).
Some people point to Scott Boras, who has had a mind-boggling winter.
Some people point to the warning shots fired off by the union last summer, threatening a new blockbuster collusion suit. Eventually, as a result of those warnings, management agreed to circulate a no-collusion memo and agreed that all contract advice from the commissioner's office on free agents would be in writing -- with copies going to the union.
But whatever happened, the result is the veritable disappearance of the "C" word from baseball's offseason vocabulary.
"Yeah," said one AL executive. "I think we've put that one to rest."
We know now that while the Mets may have signed Carlos Beltran, they were actually his third choice (behind the Yankees and Astros). What we don't know, exactly, is why.
But we know it's true because, after talks fell apart with the Astros on Jan. 8, Boras called the Yankees well after midnight and offered them the chance to sign Beltran for one fewer year and nearly $20 million fewer dollars than the Mets wound up giving him.
According to baseball men who have spoken with the Yankees, the theory in the Bronx was that Beltran wanted to play for a team where he wouldn't be the biggest star.
As a Yankee, he could still have blended in beneath the shadows of Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera, etc. As a Met, he's the face of the franchise -- from now until the day they stop writing his name in the lineup.
In Houston, meanwhile, they didn't offer the most dollars. But they offered Beltran a chance to fit into a comfortable clubhouse in which Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman were huge local icons before Beltran ever showed up.
So when one Houston baseball man was asked if he believed Beltran ended up signing with the team where he'll be the happiest, his reply was a flat: "I don't think so."
But when we posed that question to Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, he said: "To be honest, I don't think I can make that call. Certainly, his talents will speak loudly in any city."
Ausmus described Beltran as being quiet, but "not an introvert by any means." He called Beltran "respectful" and "a great teammate." And as much as the Astros will miss him, Ausmus conceded that having "a player with his abilities in New York is not a bad thing for baseball."
But one thing that worried us was when we heard Beltran say, at his New York press conference, that he knew he could handle the New York media blitz because all the attention he got during the postseason never fazed him.
Yep, he dealt with all that just great. He was available. He was quotable. He was articulate. But he also was a guy who hit a home run every day.
If he goes through a stretch in New York like the one he ended the season with in Houston -- 24 straight games with no home runs -- the questions might sound a little different. The headlines will look a lot different. And then we'll really know if Carlos Beltran wound up in the right place.
Do Beltran and Pedro Martinez make the Mets the favorite in the NL East? We haven't found anyone yet who thinks so.
"Their biggest offseason need, to me, was relief pitching -- and they haven't addressed that at all," said one NL assistant GM. "You look at their five starting pitchers. How deep into the game are they going to go? I wouldn't call [Tom] Glavine even a seven-inning guy anymore. Pedro is a six-inning guy. You don't know what you're going to get from Victor Zambrano. Benson has never been a given. [Steve] Trachsel is the only one in the bunch who gives them innings. So even if they have the best one-through-six-inning starters in the league, somebody's got to pitch the seventh and the eighth."
And here's the review from another NL executive: "That team still has some holes. [Mike] Piazza is still the catcher, and that's a defensive nightmare. You've got uncertainty in the middle of the infield. They're moving [Kazuo] Matsui to second base, and that's easier said than done. With [Jose] Reyes, you're not sure if you're even going to get him on the field every day. You don't know what's happening in the outfield besides Beltran. Pedro -- the arrow is pointing down. Glavine -- the arrow is pointing down. Zambrano, Benson -- you don't know what you've got there. . . . That's a lot of holes for a team that's spent that much money."
One Mets development many baseball people will be monitoring is how often they're able to get Pedro an extra day of rest, because the difference in how he pitched last year -- on extra rest vs. normal rest -- was eye-popping.
Starts on four days' rest (counting the postseason): 7-5, 4.99 ERA, 9.4 hits per 9 IP.
Starts on extra rest (counting the postseason): 11-5, 2.91 ERA, 6.6 hits per 9 IP.
More Rumbling and Grumbling
Teams that have spoken with the Phillies report there has been some "tire kicking" from other clubs on Placido Polanco, who reluctantly took the Phillies' arbitration offer after turning down multiyear deals with the Cardinals and Indians.
Polanco got a one-year, $4.6-million contract out of it -- but that just figures to make him the best-paid utility player in baseball. So while Boston and Houston are among the clubs with interest in trading for him -- in combination with other moves -- Charlie Manuel is promising to get Polanco lots of at-bats at second base, third and even short. And the Phillies appear more inclined to use him as trade bait in July than in January.
Despite stories out of Arizona that Javier Vazquez has reassured the Diamondbacks he's cool with sticking around the desert, Vazquez has continued to tell people who have spoken with him that he wants to be traded somewhere on the east coast.
An official of one club that has talked with the Diamondbacks believes they're at least mulling a Baltimore offer of Erik Bedard, Jorge Julio and a prospect. But the Phillies got nowhere dangling a package headed by Randy Wolf. And Florida apparently has decided to hang onto A.J. Burnett and go with the pitching it already has.
Burnett's name has bounced on and off the Rumor Central lists all winter. But one team that has been in touch with the Marlins says Florida was only serious about moving him in a three-way deal to get pieces to send Oakland for Tim Hudson.
One scout's review of left-hander Dan Meyer, the centerpiece chip the A's got from Atlanta in the deal they eventually did make for Hudson: "I love Dan Meyer. I think he'll pitch at the front end of a rotation, and I think he'll do that sooner than later."
Clubs that have asked the Phillies about first-base prospect Ryan Howard, coming off a 48-homer season at three levels, report that the Phillies say trading him isn't even on their radar screen. Howard has two options left.
Carlos Delgado's agent, David Sloane, has patiently allowed the Mets, Marlins and Rangers to work themselves into a major fervor to sign Delgado. But will any of those teams go to the five years, $75 million Delgado has been looking for?
Privately, Mets GM Omar Minaya reportedly has told people he doesn't think he can afford Delgado. But Minaya does believe he can trade either Mike Cameron or Cliff Floyd, which could provide just enough wiggle room.
The Marlins offer Delgado an easy fit into a clubhouse and community with significant Hispanic presence, not to mention the best geographic proximity to his home in Puerto Rico. But while the Marlins apparently are willing to be creative on money, they're firm on not wanting to offer more than three years for a player who turns 33 in June.
Then there's Texas. One source that has spoken with the Rangers predicts they will move Alfonso Soriano -- which would free them for an all-out run at Delgado. And the presence of owner Tom Hicks at Friday's meeting with Delgado in Puerto Rico is a sign no one should count out Texas in this chase.
Magglio Ordonez is supposed to work out for several interested teams in the next week or so. But his price tag could be a major obstacle.
Before he hurt his knee last season, Ordonez turned down a $14-million-a-year offer from the White Sox, then switched agents and hired Boras. So he's clearly going to want to come out of his free-agent journey with a large collection of dollar bills.
But there's so much uncertainty about the true health of his knee, despite Boras' reassurances, that one front-office man says: "I can't imagine he'll get anything but a Nomar [Garciaparra]-type deal" -- i.e., a one-year, incentive-jammed contract to prove he's the Magglio of old.
Boras, on the other hand, will be looking for something longer-term, with clauses that would void the back end of the deal if Ordonez can't stay healthy. Could turn into an intriguing little philosophical tug o'war, not to mention one that easily could drag all the way into spring training.
The Phillies' signing of Jon Lieber hasn't exactly electrified Philadelphia like the local football juggernaut. But one NL executive calls that deal "the best dollar-for-dollar pitching signing in baseball this winter."
"They're paying him less money than they paid [Kevin] Millwood last year, and I'll bet my house he gives them a lot more wins and a lot more innings," the exec said. "I'm a big Jon Lieber fan. He's a winner and a pro."
The Twins have been trying to lure long-time Rangers dynamo Rusty Greer to a spring-training invite. But it appears Greer is leaning toward retirement.
The Astros continue to look into all sorts of outfield options in their post-Beltran era. Two Devil Rays they've expressed interest in: Jose Cruz Jr. and sprint champ Joey Gathright. But Tampa Bay would almost certainly want Jason Lane, and the Astros prefer to keep him.
Meanwhile, according to clubs that have spoken with the Astros, owner Drayton McLane has balked at including local hero Brandon Backe in just about any deal. And it's hard to envision Texas even being willing to discuss Alfonso Soriano unless Backe is part of the package.
Two big reasons the Braves took a chance on Raul Mondesi: 1) Special assistant Jim Fregosi managed Mondesi in Toronto and found him anything but unmanageable. And 2) the Braves are confident in Bobby Cox's magical ability to motivate just about anybody.
Can anyone remember a team that had as many selfless stars as the Braves? John Smoltz has agreed to move from starter to closer, then from closer to starter. Chipper Jones has agreed to move from third base to left field, then from left back to third. So what's next -- Mike Hampton hitting cleanup?
"Bobby's going to play him in left, I think," laughed GM John Schuerholz.
Despite Bob DuPuy's hopeful projection that the Nationals might actually have an owner by Opening Day, one source familiar with the process says: "Not a chance."
"If Jan. 31 is the deadline for submitting bids, then you can't even start doing due diligence (in evaluating bids) until February," the source says. "Then baseball has to decide on a minimum price. Then you have bidding, then haggling, then someone gets picked. Once you identify the new owner, just the background check takes 60 to 90 days. So it's going to take some time."
That means July is probably the best-case scenario. Of course, no one will even know how much to bid until Peter Angelos' deal with MLB gets done. The worth of the Washington franchise will be heavily dependent on potential TV revenue. And a new ownership group will need to know what piece of that pie -- if any -- it has to divide with Angelos.
Transactions of the Month
We missed this blockbuster news during the winter meetings. But it's never too late to revisit a story this good.
There are two pitchers in professional baseball named Dan Kolb. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt reports, the Brewers arrived at the winter meetings with both of them -- then left with neither.
First, they traded the more famous Dan Kolb to the Braves. Then they lost the other, thoroughly unrelated Dan Kolb, to the Nationals in the Rule 5 draft.
"It was a systematic purge of all Dan Kolbs in the organization," quipped assistant GM Gord Ash.
Boxscore Line of the Month
Nobody loves a good comeback story more than us Rumblers and Grumblers -- but that poetic Fernando Valenzuela reincarnation isn't going so hot lately down in the Mexican winter league.
Fernando's painful line for those Mexicali Eagles in a Jan. 7 start against the Obregon Yaquis:
1/3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 2 HR
His numbers for the season, through Wednesday: 2-2, 6.75 ERA, 52 baserunners in 28 innings.
Contract Permutations of the Month
As one of Carlos Beltran's new contractual perks, the Mets will have to lease a Conditioned Ocular Enhancer Machine -- a state-of-the-art pitching machine that launches color-coded and number-coded tennis balls at up to 150 mph. So if he doesn't win an MVP award, maybe he'll win Wimbledon.
The Yankees can void the last year of Jaret Wright's contract (and pay only a $4-million buyout) if he spends 75 days on the disabled list with a rotator-cuff injury over the next two years.
Terry Adams always wanted to be a starter. Apparently, the Phillies haven't completely dismissed that possibility -- because his new contract would pay him an extra $875,000 if he makes 32 starts this year.
Adrian Beltre doesn't just have a clause for making the All-Star team. He has a clause that pays him an extra $75,000 if he gets the most All-Star votes of any player in baseball -- or $50,000 if he gets the most in the American League. So watch that balloting come June for unusual vote surges from the Beltre household.
The Red Sox didn't give Jason Varitek the flat no-trade clause Scott Boras was looking for -- but did give him a clause that would pay him $1 million if he's traded. The Sox then turned around and inserted the same clause in Edgar Renteria's deal.
Don't expect Randy Johnson to move to New York year-round. His new Yankees contract allows him to keep his two courtside tickets to Suns games through the 2007-08 season -- and includes six premium seats to Diamondbacks games for the first five seasons after he retires.
And maybe our favorite contractual clause of the winter was handed out by the Indians to Kevin Millwood. It's one you don't see in many one-year contracts negotiated by American League pitchers -- a $50,000 Silver Slugger clause. Apparently, Millwood is really looking forward to those interleague games.
Humorist of the Month
Finally, here's Jay Leno, on Colin Powell pushing the button to drop the New Year's ball in Times Square:
"Usually, when someone drops the ball in New York, he's wearing a Mets cap."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With this year's free agents raking in $1 billion, it's safe to say collusion is officially dead.