- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Free agency may be five months away on a calendar near you. But thanks to warped perspectives that even modern medicine apparently can't cure, it's never far from our brains.
So we can't help ourselves. We look ahead. And when we do, we keep finding ourselves zeroing in on a group we would describe as "This Winter's Derek Jeters."
They have two things in common: 1. They're players who embody the personalities of the teams they play for. And 2. They're playing out maybe the most important seasons of their lives because they're all just months away from spinning across that free-agent dance floor.
So which way is the Free Agent Meter pointing for those five guys? Let's take a look:
The scouts who have been following him didn't need his bat-flip homer at Yankee Stadium to know which way Big Papi's meter is pointing: "He's back," one scout said. "He looks as good as he did four or five years ago. He's in better shape. He's running better. He's reading pitches well. He's hanging in there on left-handers. He's on a mission."
Boston Red Sox
And that mission, Ortiz made clear to us earlier this year, is to stay in Boston because, he said, "I don't know anything but this." Oh, he was drafted by the Mariners. And he played parts of six seasons in Minnesota. But in Boston, he became Big Papi.
"So where could he walk and have that kind of impact?" one NL executive wondered. "He's Big Papi in Boston. Could he even be Big Papi in someplace like Seattle? He might not fit somewhere else."
So everyone we surveyed predicted Ortiz won't be going anywhere. He doesn't merely lead the Red Sox in home runs (15), on-base percentage (.394) and OPS (1.006) for the season. He leads the entire American League in homers, extra-base hits and slugging since May 1. When you add in the way he lights up his town and his clubhouse, it's as hard as ever to imagine the Red Sox without him. But that doesn't mean this won't be complicated.
Ortiz will turn 36 in November. And his team has mastered the art of the tough goodbye. If the Red Sox could draw the hard line with Johnny Damon or Pedro Martinez, they could do it with Big Papi. If he wants to keep earning the $13 million or so he's been collecting for the past five years and he wants more than a one- or two-year deal, he should recognize, one AL exec said, that "DHs don't get those contracts anymore."
So how do we read his Free Agent Meter? We think he'll be back. But he might have to do what Jason Varitek did -- accept less money and, more importantly, the reality that he might have to take on a lesser role down the trail if he wants to stay.
His meter isn't just pointing upward. It's pointing waaaaaayyyy upward. No player in baseball has stoked his marketability more than Reyes. And if he keeps this up, said an official of one AL team, "he may be the most coveted free agent out there."
New York Mets
That might come as news to Mets owner Fred Wilpon. But consider all the forces at work. Reyes will hit the market at age 28. He leads his league at the moment in wins above replacement, hits and triples. He could be leading in batting average, doubles, steals, runs and extra-base hits any minute now. And he's doing it at a position where the average shortstop has an OPS more than 200 points lower than he does.
"I think he'll be the No. 1 free agent on the market, except for Albert [Pujols]," the same AL official said. "But Albert's price will be so prohibitive, there won't be many buyers."
Then again, if Reyes' price is the rumored Carl Crawford Money (seven years, $142 million), he won't have two dozen teams chasing him, either. As great as Reyes has played, as upbeat and energetic as he's been, it's amazing how many baseball people we've run across who say stuff like: "I wish I could trust him."
"He should be more consistent than he's been through his career," one exec said. "You compare him to a guy like Prince Fielder. Prince doesn't look like he's a good athlete. But once he's between the lines, he plays hard. He's always into the game. Jose sometimes looks like he's just out there."
The other compelling question with Reyes is how much the mounting WE-HAVE-TO-KEEP-JOSE public pressure that has erupted in New York will force the Mets' hand.
"Their fan base might go berserk if they don't sign him," said an official of one club. "He's got more support there now than David Wright. But [Mets GM] Sandy [Alderson] is a tough guy. If they're going to cut his budget as much as Fred Wilpon says they're going to cut it, I don't know that he's going to want to commit $20 million to one guy."
So which way is Reyes' Free Agent Meter pointing? In a normal year, with a normal franchise, we'd be nuts to predict he'd wind up anywhere but New York. But these are the Mets. So we see him becoming a $100 million man in somebody else's area code.
If you just measure Rollins against the MVP he was at age 28, it's hard to argue his meter is pointing anywhere but down. In his MVP season of 2007, he hit .296 with an .875 OPS and 88 extra-base hits. This year, at 32, he's on pace to hit .265 with a .704 OPS and 41 extra-base hits. And his advanced defensive metrics indicate he isn't the premier leatherworker at short he used to be, either.
But in many ways, he's still the face of the Phillies franchise -- a personable, homegrown star who has been a centerpiece of a golden era and remains an incredibly popular figure with the most rabid fan base in the National League.
So now here he is, about to become a free agent at age 33. And as much as Rollins wants to stay, he's given no indication he'll be offering any hometown discounts to do it. Which leaves his team in a tricky position.
"I don't know that it's tougher to evaluate a player like Jimmy," his GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., told Rumblings. "It's just different. It's different in the sense that you have to think about what happens to your club if that player is no longer with you. And you have to think about the replacements. Who are you going to replace that guy with?"
The Phillies have no big league-ready shortstops in their system. And replacing Rollins with a just-passing-through kind of free agent -- a J.J. Hardy or an Orlando Cabrera -- seems almost incomprehensible. But the Phillies have quietly poked around for potential 2012 shortstops as far back as this past winter, just in case. And although they undoubtedly hope Rollins will take less cash and a shorter deal to stick around, they could be wrong on that.
"The thing they have to remember," one scout said, "is, there just are not enough shortstops to go around. If you see what some of these other clubs -- contending clubs -- are running out there at shortstop, it makes you appreciate what this guy still is. He's still got that reputation of being a winner. We all yell and scream about how great Jose Reyes is, and I'd love to have Jose Reyes myself. But the truth is, I'm still not sure who I'd rather have if you take away the money factor. I think I might say Jimmy Rollins, because he's a winner."
Of all the free-agent sagas on this list, this one might resemble the Jeter soap opera more than any other. But when Amaro was asked whether there were any lessons to be learned from the Jeter negotiations, he deadpanned: "I just want everybody to be happy. I want Jeter to be happy. And I want New York to be happy. That's where I'm at. So I hope at the end of the day, Jimmy's happy and we're happy.
"That," he laughed, "is what we do here in Philadelphia. We spread happiness."
Yeah, right. So we see his team spreading two guaranteed years' worth of happiness in Rollins' direction in the winter, because, like Jeter and the Yankees, these two sides still need each other.
A lot of eyes in this sport have been trained on Fielder since day one to see how he'd handle the walk-year boulder on his shoulder. Well, he's leading the National League in RBIs, extra-base hits and win probability added, and he's second in home runs. Scouts also report he's playing "with a lot more attention to detail defensively." So there's no doubt where his meter is pointing.
"He's making himself some money," one scout said. "It's just not going to be there, in Milwaukee."
Fielder is a Scott Boras client who already has priced himself beyond the Brewers' means. So the only questions on this guy are where he'll fit and whether he can possibly approach the eight-year, $200 million sticker Boras is supposedly ready to slap on his windshield.
If Fielder were chiseled a little more like Julius Peppers than Albert Haynesworth, length of deal might not be as massive an obstacle for a proven masher who will reach the market at age 27. But in Prince's case, "his body is an issue," one NL exec said. "It has been since high school, and it always will be."
So it's tough to see even a desperate team giving this fellow eight years, particularly a National League team. But Boras has worked that sort of inconceivable magic before.
"I think Prince gets [Adrian] Gonzalez or [Mark] Teixeira money," said an official of one club. "And I think he gets it from the Cubs or Orioles."
Had to save Sir Albert for last, just for dramatic effect, especially now that his offensive reign of terror in the past week and a half (six home runs, two walk-off HRs, four doubles, five multihit games in his past 10 games) has reminded us what a unique force he remains in this sport.
St. Louis Cardinals
Before he rediscovered that magic swing, we were hearing talk that he might not find that historic contract he's looking for. Now, all of a sudden, he's the great Albert Pujols again.
"Maybe if he'd had a year where he hit .275, with 15-18 homers, it might have hurt him," one NL exec said. "But now it looks like he's going to hit 15-18 homers this month."
So assuming he'll spend the rest of this season doing his Pujols-esque thing, we're right back where we were when he cut off negotiations with the Cardinals in February: Albert is going to test the market and establish his value. Then he'll sit back and wait (though not forever) for the Cardinals to make a decision.
But although Pujols has made it clear he will get paid, this is a decision that won't just be shaped by money. You could see a fit for the "Best Player in Baseball" in places like Baltimore, Washington, Texas or even Toronto. But could you see him actually signing with one of those teams? That's a whole different story.
"I don't see Albert Pujols going just anywhere, for the money," said one of the execs we surveyed. "If he's going to leave St. Louis, he's like LeBron. He's got to go to a marquee franchise. So to me, the Cubs are the only team he leaves St. Louis for -- unless he's all about the money."
The overwhelming feeling around the game is that in the end, the Cardinals can't be crazy enough to let him leave, because if they did, one NL executive said, "you might see a revolt. This is not just a 'Sorry, we did everything we could' kind of player. He's more than the face of the franchise. He's almost the face of the city."
But we've been saying this same stuff for two years, right? And Pujols still isn't signed, right? So even though we still see his Free Agent Meter pointing toward The Arch, it wouldn't surprise us if we looked up in a few months and it was spinning like a windmill.
Ready to rumble
• The lava might have flowed out of Mount Zambrano again this week. But the Cubs have shown no immediate inclination to use that eruption as an excuse to shop Carlos Zambrano around or to take his temperature on his willingness to waive his no-trade clause. For one thing, the Ricketts family would have to make a call on how much of Zambrano's $18 million salary for next year it would be willing to eat. (The Cubs wouldn't be allowed to pick up any of his $19.25 million 2013 player option.) For another, one source who spoke with the Cubs reports they're "not ready to say they're done."
And even though Zambrano has gotten his act together impressively enough to go 13-2, 2.85 ERA, since his midseason hiatus last year, one NL executive says he'd be no more than a No. 4 starter on a good team. "You know, $18 million doesn't buy what it used to anymore," he quipped.
• Meanwhile, a friend of Kerry Wood tells Rumblings no one should count on Wood waiving his no-trade clause to leave the Cubs and go to a contender at the trading deadline. Wood took a way-below-market $1.5 million deal to return to Chicago for family reasons. And if one of those reasons was that he was looking forward to walking his son to school in September, why would he agree to a trade that pulled him away from home for September and possibly October?
And there might not be enough in it for the Cubs to push Wood to go, anyway, one exec said. Why? "Because it's not saving the club any money because he doesn't make any money," he said. "And is somebody going to trade decent prospects for a guy who's going somewhere for two months just as a setup guy? This isn't like the Yankees' trading for Heath Bell to be their eighth-inning guy, because they'd be paying a much higher price for a ninth-inning guy to go be their eighth-inning guy than they would if they're trading for an eighth-inning guy to be their eighth-inning guy."
• Bud Norris just became the first Astros pitcher in almost five years to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning. So here's the irony in that: If they put every player on their team on the market, they might have as much interest in him as anyone else on the roster -- but as a reliever.
"I'd take him in a second as a bullpen guy," one exec said. "This guy could be a hell of an eighth- or ninth-inning weapon because he punches people out. But there's no reason they should even think about trading a guy like that."
• From our "What Might Have Been" files: Before the Red Sox re-signed Jason Varitek, they made a run at Miguel Olivo. But Olivo asked for two years. The Red Sox offered only one. So he wound up in Seattle (on a one-year, $2 million deal that was exactly what Varitek signed for).
Olivo over the past month: .286/.353/.538, with six homers, five doubles and 20 RBIs, in a tough hitters' park. As it turned out, the Red Sox needed Varitek to help mentor Jarrod Saltalamacchia through some tough times. But Olivo remains one of baseball's most underrated catchers.
• Maybe a month ago, there was a question of whether the Rangers should move Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen when Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman got healthy. But all of a sudden, Ogando ranks in the top two in the league in WHIP, ERA, opponent average and opponent OPS. So the more scouts see of him, the more they think the Rangers would be crazy even to think about taking him out of the rotation.
"He was filthy when I saw him," one scout said. "He actually got stronger as the game went on. And he maintained everything he had. He just keeps coming at you."
• The Rangers are stepping up their hunt for a right-handed setup man. One name clearly on their list: Washington's Todd Coffey.
• Clubs that have spoken with the Tigers say they're starting to look around for a left-handed reliever. Daniel (Son of Mark) Schlereth is their primary left-hander at the moment -- "but I don't think Jim Leyland trusts him yet," one exec said.
• On one hand, Bryce Harper is 18 and would still be a senior in high school if he'd lived a normal life. On the other hand, scouts who cover the South Atlantic League have been raising eyebrows for weeks about his sense of entitlement. Tales of Harper showing up late for team stretching, and occasionally exiting those stretching drills before they were over, have been circulating in the scout community. And as talented as Harper may be, and as fun as he may be to watch on the field, he has often offended outsiders with his what-am-I-doing-in-THIS-league body language. That has to stop.
• Finally, as one of the founding members of the "We'll Believe Bud Selig Will Retire When They Invite Us to his Retirement Party Association," it's always helpful to learn we're not alone in that belief.
So here's to longtime baseball bigwig Stan Kasten for reporting that when he was asked recently at a Sports Business Journal conference about the odds of the commish retiring after 2012, he tossed out the quip of the year. Kasten seconded our motion that not only will our man Bud be commissioner for life, but it's possible he'll find a way to continue in the job beyond that.
"They'll probably just prop him up," Kasten joked, "like 'Weekend at Bernie's.'"
Five astounding facts (Friday edition)
1. Here's our favorite minor league feat of the week, courtesy of Gavin Cox and Pete Intza of the Chattanooga Lookouts: Their still-smoking radar gun recorded back-to-back pitches at 100 miles per hour Tuesday -- by two different pitchers. Chattanooga's Nathan Eovaldi hit 100 with the last pitch in the top of the eighth inning. Then in stomped Aroldis Chapman, on a rehab option from Cincinnati, to pitch the bottom of the eighth for the Carolina Mudcats. And his first pitch was clocked at 100. Ever seen that? We haven't.
2. Believe it or not, that once-fearsome Phillies lineup didn't hit a single home run in June until June 8. And here's what you should make of that: The last time it took any Phillies team that many games (seven) to hit its first homer of any month was June 1995. And the last time the Phillies went that many days before their first homer of any month other than April? Would you believe July 1945 -- when Coaker Triplett, Bitsy Mott and the gang made it all the way to July 22 (20 games) without a trot, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index.
3. Vin Mazzaro just keeps making history. He returned from minor league exile this week for his first appearance since allowing 14 earned runs to the Indians on May 16 -- and gave up six earned runs in a start Tuesday against the Blue Jays. That made Mazzaro only the third pitcher in the past 50 years to give up 20 earned runs in back-to-back appearances. The others: Scott Kazmir (July 5-10, 2010) and Jason Marquis (June 21-26, 2006).
4. It took Tim Lincecum five seasons to join the 1,000-strikeout club. Looking for a little perspective on that feat? Carl Pavano is in his 13th big league season -- and still hasn't reached 1,000 strikeouts (after 271 trips to the mound).
5. The Cubs and Reds just played back-to-back games in which each team had exactly the same line on the old scoreboard: Reds 8-10-0, Cubs 2-10-1. The Elias Sports Bureau reports this is just the fourth time any two teams have pulled off that déjà vu trick in the past 25 years. The others:
July 10-11, 2010: Phillies 1-4-0, Reds 0-6-0
July 4-5, 2001: Expos 9-15-1, Marlins 6-12-0
June 18-19, 1996: Cardinals 3-5-0, Phillies 2-5-0
Tweets of the week
• Great to see that a little financial peril didn't stop the fictitious owner of the Mets, @FakeFredWilpon, from making a fictitious call this week to his fictitious new first-round draft pick:
Just spoke with Brandon Nimmo to congratulate him. Twice called him Brendon by mistake. He didn't correct me. Nice kid.
• And thanks to Late Show tweeting genius @EricStangel for this important historical bulletin on Derek Jeter's march to 3,000 hits:
Headliner of the week
Finally, this just in from the sports-medicine parody beat at Sportspickle.com:
DAISUKE MATSUZAKA RUMORED
TO BE UNDERGOING
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
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