As general managers pull into the Phoenix Biltmore, the first reminder of the theme of their meetings is the fact that each team was restricted to two front office members in the hotel. Any additional personnel have to stay at another hotel, an attempt to restrict the scope, media coverage and, most important, the agent infiltration of the meetings as clubs can begin discussing dollars with free agent players.
As baseball digs out from the inflated contracts of 1998-2000 and a flawed basic agreement signed in 1996, deals with the threats of enforced debt/equity rules and prepares for what could be another boom down the road, there will be trades discussed at these meetings. There will be free agent negotiations. "But," said one NL GM, "those will be slow in developing, because what most of the clubs are discussing is moving payroll to create flexibility and allowing the market to settle -- with the Dec. 20th non-tenders a major factor in that market. So most of the deals discussed in Phoenix will be dollar, not necessarily talent-related."
The D-Backs' asking price for Curt Schilling will be steep.
For instance, if Tampa Bay will put enough into the deal to make it palatable for the Cardinals, Tino Martinez and his $7.5 million could go to the Devil Rays this week. The Yankees, knowing the Diamondbacks have to pare from $95 million to $80 million, will inquire about Curt Schilling, whose cost will include prospects and someone willing to eat Matt Mantei's $7 million. However, Schilling has indicated that if he moves, he prefers Boston and that will be seriously discussed.
The Mets will see if the White Sox will swap Billy Koch's $6.375 million contract for Roger Cedeno and his remaining $10.6 million, split the difference and reunite Koch with pitching coach Rick Peterson. Several teams will talk to the Brewers, who must slash payroll, about Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins, who each make close to $8.5 million on the last year of their deals. The Astros will see if anyone will take Richard Hidalgo's $12 million.
The Orioles will see if Mike Piazza and the Mets are interested in a deal that would allow the future Hall of Famer to catch half the games and DH the other half. The Royals will be talking to anyone and everyone about Carlos Beltran, who will make close to $11 million in arbitration entering his walk year. Paul Konerko, Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew, Odalis Perez, Eric Milton, Mike Lowell, Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia are all players whose names -- and contracts -- will be mentioned.
The Red Sox want to talk to Nomar Garciaparra to see how interested he is in an extension past 2004, and if he isn't, ask one more time whether or not the Rangers are interested in saving $60 million with a Manny Ramirez-Alex Rodriguez trade. On the other hand, barring a ridiculous offer, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd insists he has no intention of trading Todd Helton or Preston Wilson, although there are some clubs who think Colorado could be talked out of Shawn Chacon.
But the one club with names that teams thought they would be lined up to discuss -- the Expos with Javier Vazquez, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera -- will not be open for business. "I'll talk to everyone," GM Omar Minaya said. "But I don't think we'll be making any significant trades before the winter meetings (Dec. 12 in New Orleans). We don't know where we're playing yet, so we don't have a budget. I'd like to be able to keep all our players, because even with Vladimir (Guerrero) gone, I think we can be pretty good and a good buy when the team gets sold. I hope we will be competitors in the National League East."
The Yankees have cash to spend, although now that this will be their second year exceeding the luxury tax trigger, their tax penalties will be considerably greater than 2003. The Orioles have cash, but have made it clear they're not in the $15-17 million a player market. Anaheim has money for a Miguel Tejada or Kaz Matsui and a pitcher.
In the next category, which is having some spending cash, come the Cubs, Red Sox, Mets, Mariners, Giants and Phillies. However, each has some restricting issue. The Mets want to peel back by $20 million, the Cubs don't have a lot of wiggle room, the Red Sox have about $10 million to spend unless they can free payroll, the Mariners have a huge arbitration nut, the Giants would like to cut and the Phillies have already taken on Billy Wagner's contract in what will be one of the most important trades of the entire offseason.
The White Sox, whose three-year, $36 million offer to Bartolo Colon was far less in present day value because of stacked deferrals at no interest, have serious payroll issues. The Braves have to slash. The Rangers want to go from $110 million to under $80 million. Florida has tough choices to make, ballpark or no ballpark. New Dodger owner Frank McCourt is not going to re-run the Kevin Malone follies that left them strapped. Houston is right at its budget, already. The Cardinals have to get to $80 million.
It is now so clear that pitching wins, so Colon, Kevin Millwood, Andy Pettitte (who is likely to return to the Yankees) and Kelvim Escobar will be fine in the free agent market, and if someone trades for Schilling, Vazquez, Garcia or Burnett, they will get handsome extensions.
However, most general managers believe that even the best of the positional player free agents like Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Matsui, Shannon Stewart and Javy Lopez will experience a downshift in the market.
That, in turn, will delay the majority of the signings, and that, in turn, will spawn another round of that baseball Christmas classic, "Collusion Blues." Now, does the Commissioner's Office exchange a little too much information with clubs to make it far from a pure free market? Maybe. Not as much as agents are able to exchange, however. But remember this: those who do the most karaoke cover of "Collusion Blues" the most often will be agents who can't deliver what they promised to players, some of whom they stole from other agents. Maybe they should sing, "you know that you're over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can't fill."
There is a lot of speculation in New York that the Wagner deal clears the payroll for the Astros to sign Pettitte, but that apparently is not the case. The Wagner move simply pays for 2004 raises and arbitration cases. The 'Stros lost close to $15 million in 2003, they have to get closer to the debt/equity percentages and unless Hidalgo goes, Pettitte will probably stay in New York. It should be noted that getting Taylor Buchholz in the Wagner deal with Brandon Duckworth was considered a coup for Gerry Hunsicker. Originally, the Phillies told the Astros that they had four untouchables -- Buckholtz, RHP Gavin Floyd, LHP Cole Hamels and 1B Ryan Howard -- but changed their minds when they thought about getting one of the three most dominant closers in the business. The Phillies organization is loaded, testament to the brilliance of assistant GM Mike Arbuckle.
The Mets appear to be first in line on Mike Cameron, but don't count out the Mariners re-signing him, then moving on after left-handed power. The Mariners hit the second fewest homers in the majors. On Cameron, Bob Melvin said, "He's so great side to side that he makes running catches on his feet that anyone else has to dive for, but, most of all, he's the best going back on the ball of any outfielder I've ever seen."
David Wells needs back surgery to pitch again, but he's expected to have it and sign with the Padres.
The Red Sox were blown away by Terry Francona in his interview for their managerial job, but it will be interesting to see how Anaheim bench coach Joe Maddon -- who comes highly recommended by present and former Angels -- strikes Theo Epstein.
Now that Luis Castillo's agent situation has been resolved by the Players Association, he becomes an early darling in the market because of the large number of teams looking for second basemen. One industry source expects that the Marlins will make Pudge Rodriguez their first priority, Castillo their second, then make an offer to Mike Lowell, and if he doesn't accept, trade him and move Miguel Cabrera to third base.
The Athletics sincerely believe that they have a "better than 50-50 chance" of re-signing Keith Foulke. That isn't expected to change if Billy Beane moves to Los Angeles and Paul DePodesta takes over as Oakland GM, for DePodesta will quickly be one of the best GMs in the business.
The Devil Rays have a little more than $10 million to spend, and after trying to get Martinez, may try to sign Junior Cruz, find a third baseman, a closer and a couple of veteran starters. Meanwhile, their Arizona Fall League talent has wowed scouts, from OF Johnny Gomes to RHP Dewon Brazelton to SS B.J. Upton to, most of all, Delmon Young. "It's scary how good Young is so young," one scout said. "As a hitter, he's Albert Belle." Considering Belle was one of the best hitters of the last 25 years, that's high praise.
We have a new favorite prospect out of the Arizona Fall League -- Jason Szuminski, a 24-year-old reliever who was 7-4, 2.26 ERA with a 45/19 K/BB ratio at West Tennessee. He's a favorite not because one scout says Szuminski "has one of the best sinkers I've seen all year," but because Szuminski went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indeed, he got his BS in aerospace engineering from MIT in 2000. Bet he can start a lot of aerospace engineering conversations in those minor-league bullpens.
Minaya says, "if we can keep our pitching staff together, we can contend for the wild card, no matter where we play. With Vazquez, Hernandez, Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, Claudio Vargas and Tony Armas coming back, we're going to have very good pitching." The fact that Minaya got Luis Ayala in the Rule V draft and Chad Cordero in the June draft deepens his bullpen. Wherever the Expos end up, baseball owes a debt of gratitude to Minaya for holding things together in a very difficult situation. And scouting director Dana Brown deserves a tip of the cap, as well.
Twins GM Terry Ryan says he still doesn't know which of the free agents (Stewart, LaTroy Hawkins, Everyday Eddie Guardado) he can re-sign, or which players he may have to non-tender. "It helps that we have some very good young players who should be ready to step in and help us, like Mike Cuddyer, Mike Restovich, Justin Morneau and Grant Balfour," said Ryan, "but we'd like to keep as much of the team together as possible." When asked if Joe Mauer is ready, Ryan deflects the conversation. "I don't like to talk about Mauer because we have an All-Star catcher named A.J. Pierzynski who's a huge part of the team and our success."
Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty says he has to find two starters -- one might come if he re-signs Chris Carpenter -- and two left-handed relievers. "We'd like to do it without having to move Jim Edmonds or J.D. Drew or any of our regulars," Jocketty said.
Mark Grudzielanek's rehab after surgery on his right shoulder should render him able to do everything in early December. Grudzielanek had the best September average of any player on a contender, but hurt the shoulder diving for a ball in the third game of the NLDS and couldn't lift his shoulder thereafter.
If the Royals do trade Carlos Beltran, they want a catcher and a third baseman, both young, both major-league ready. Center fielder David DeJesus has had a strong AFL and may be ready for the big leagues as a legitimate leadoff hitter.
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