Fat 10 figures for free agents
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.
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."
|Sammy Sosa Rumblings|
From the day Sosa drove out of the parking lot during the final game of the season, the Cubs have made trading him the focal point of their offseason. But the only thing that has changed in all these months is the calendar.
For all the get-Sammy-outa-here frenzy, the Cubs have been adamant about one thing: This guy is not Denny Neagle. It's not so embarrassing to have him around that it's worth paying 16 million bucks just so he'll go away.
Even in an awful year by his standards, Sosa did hit 35 homers. And if he stays, he'd be playing for a new contract. So the Cubs have no plans to dump him for nothing, and no plans to pay all his salary just for the privilege of trading him.
So they're just as stuck now as they were in November.
The Mets haven't ruled anything out, but Sosa never seems to be on Omar Minaya's front burner.
The Orioles haven't given anybody indications they even have a blueprint -- so it's tough to say if Sosa is part of it.
And while Washington might be the team with the most interest, it's also a team that can't take on money and doesn't have a contract to dump back.
So where is Sammy going? Nowhere fast.
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.
"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."
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
With only a few shopping weeks until spring training, it's getting a little lonely on the free-agent shelves. But get out your shopping carts, because, at last look, you could still find all these guys untaken:
Manager -- Jimy Williams
Stadium -- Stade Olympique
Designated crooner -- Garth Brooks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"Bobby's going to play him in left, I think," laughed GM John Schuerholz.
"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
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
Humorist of the Month
"Usually, when someone drops the ball in New York, he's wearing a Mets cap."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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