What we can't predict is the impact of franchise shifts and new owners, whether new ownership in Washington will spend to replenish the roster or if they'll even have the team before President's Day. Or whether the Marlins will get their new stadium, which determines whether or not Mike Lowell goes out on the market or whether Jeffrey Loria starts re-evaluating inventory in hopes of relocating in New Jersey.
Adrian Beltre couldn't have picked a better time for a breakout season -- his walk year.
What we do know is that the price for the top free agents isn't going to approach the $17 million-plus numbers enjoyed by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Carlos Delgado and Jason Giambi. We know that no team has won a World Series in the last 20 years with one player accounting for a sixth of his team's payroll. We also know that this winter's signings will be for 2005, with the Players Association chomping at the bit for another labor war in 2006.
But while the market course remains to be determined, it is clear that some of the upcoming free agents have helped their market year; yes, Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew and Jaret Wright found love just in the nick of time. Some had average or off years at the wrong time, like Carlos Delgado and Corey Koskie. And some like Nomar Garciaparra (four years, $60 million) and Magglio Ordonez (four years, $48 million) turned down deals that in the short term can't be recouped because of injuries.
Oh yes, if you're thinking that Beltre or Drew, Jason Varitek or Carlos Beltran will be offering hometown or happiness discounts, think again, because they -- as well as Derek Lowe and Kevin Millwood -- are represented by Scott Boras, so prepare yourself for hearing the word special. A lot.
FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE MOST HELPED THEIR VALUE:
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Los Angeles. On Labor Day weekend, he had gaudy numbers (.338, 44 homers, 101 RBI, fifth in NL OPS at 1.037). He is a superb defender, has played hurt most of the season and will be 25 on Opening Day 2005. There may be flags raised because he'd never had more than 23 homers and he's also been through several serious injuries throughout his career. But if he gets a contract based on this season's numbers, he may be hard-pressed to fulfill expectations. Don't worry, he'll be rich, period.
The Yankees get younger and Carl Pavano gets richer.
Carl Pavano, RHP, Florida. Tied for the NL lead in wins and third in quality-start percentage, Pavano could well be the leader for the NL Cy Young Award. Look at his innings, ERA and strikeouts and you'll see a steady progression from his injury-dotted early career. He'll be 29 next April and in his prime. How ironic is it that the two best pitchers on the market are Pavano and Pedro Martinez, once traded for one another.
J.D. Drew, OF, Atlanta. The guy is a wonderful player. He hits (1.011 OPS, 29 homers). He is a Gold Glove-level outfielder. The knock on him has been that he's been hard to get on the field, averaging 117 games for his first five seasons, so teams may be wary that this top 10 MVP season was based on the market. There's also the question of whether or not he could play in a Northeast market. He's best in Atlanta, but Boras has always guided Drew like a remote-controlled car, and top dollars may not be forthcoming from the Braves.
Jason Varitek, C, Boston. Mike Scioscia says "Varitek is the best defensive catcher in our league." He may also be -- like Derek Jeter, Darin Erstad and Scott Rolen -- one of the game's five or six most exemplary leaders. He's 12th in the AL in OPS and plays so hard all the time that his times to first base have actually gotten quicker, to 4.25 seconds this season. The Red Sox are Varitek's team, and they will try to do whatever necessary to keep him and build around him. Problem is, there is lingering bitterness from the Larry Lucchino negotiations in spring training.
Carlos Beltran, OF, Houston. He will be 27 on Opening Day 2005 and while he is a marvelous skill position player, he isn't going to get the six years, $120 million Boras would like. He is a very good center fielder, has a .944 OPS, can be a 40/40 man and carried the Astros back into the race, proving GM Gerry Hunsicker right for making the deal when he did. The big market questions are out there, i.e. some wonder how he'd react to going to Yankee Stadium labeled the next Mickey Mantle.
Pedro Martinez, RHP, Boston. In spring training, the Red Sox ownership/CEO wondered about Pedro's durability when they negotiated. Hmmm. Martinez could throw more innings than any season since 1997, he's 15-5, his percent quality-start percentage (71) is right near the top and his 197/47 strikeout/walk ratio speaks for itself. If the Yankees do not win it all, this will be one of the biggest war stories of the offseason.
Jaret Wright, RHP, Atlanta. Leo Mazzone's tinkering has brought a healthy Wright to what once was his potential, pounding the strike zone down and using that running fastball to come back over the inside corner against lefties. His delivery is far less violent than in his Cleveland days, and the 14-6, 3.19 record with 70 percent quality-start record is tough to argue with.
Brad Radke, RHP, Minnesota. He is a beacon of consistency and pounding the strike zone (19 walks all season). His 10-7 record is no indication of his performance, and he leads the league in quality-start percentage. The Twins badly want to re-sign him, and might do just that.
Armando Benitez, closer, Florida. By now, we know it was the Mets, not Benitez: 40 saves, 1.06 ERA, 28 hits in 59 1/3 innings, 11 saves against the Mets themselves. He is unquestionably the best closer on the market.
Orlando Cabrera, SS, Boston. Edgar Renteria is the best shortstop on the market, Nomar Garciaparra the biggest name. Cabrera was lost in the fog of Montreal, but while he'll never be an OPS machine, he is a dangerous free-swinger who has played so brilliantly in Boston -- his game is astoundingly quick -- that he has become a huge crowd favorite.
FREE AGENTS WHOSE VALUE HAS BEEN DAMAGED BY PERFORMANCE:
Delgado is making a late push for free agent dollars.
Carlos Delgado, 1B, Toronto. This hasn't been Delgado's best year -- .253, 26 homers -- and some teams felt that he hurt his value by refusing to consider a trade to a contender with a chance to play on a winner for the first time. But if healthy, he can hit 40 home runs and he is a tremendous human being.
Corey Koskie, 3B, Minnesota. He has picked it up down the stretch, but he got to Labor Day under .250 with 22 homers. Healthy, Koskie is a solid, hard-nosed player in a market with several good third basemen.
Derek Lowe, RHP, Boston. OK, Lowe may not get the three years, $27 million he was offered in March. His ERA is 5.15. But since the Red Sox defense was realigned, he's 4-1 with a 30/7 strikeout/walk ratio.
Esteban Loaiza, RHP, New York (AL). It's 9-7, 5.45 ERA vs. 21-9, 2.90. The same people you abused on your way up, you might meet on your way down.
Odalis Perez, LHP, Los Angeles. There's no question about Perez's ability, but the six wins and 44-41, 4.01 lifetime record doesn't indicate the durability of a 1-2 starter.
Matt Morris, RHP, St. Louis. There was a time when he looked like he could get Martinez money. But while his ERA (4.40) is still higher than the past, the 15-8 record indicates his willingness to stay in games, his heart has been shown in previous postseasons and there is every chance his stuff will come back more and more.
Troy Percival, closer, Anaheim. There will never be any question about this man's heart, but the injuries over the years have taken him back from the 97-mph range to 91-92. Any team who wants someone to accept the responsibility of the ninth inning will want Percival.
FREE AGENTS WHOSE VALUE HAS BEEN TARNISHED BY INJURY:
Nomar Garciaparra, SS, Chicago (NL)
Magglio Ordonez, OF, Chicago (AL)
Kevin Millwood, RHP, Philadelphia Troy Glaus, 3B, Anaheim Richie Sexson, 1B, Arizona Scott Williamson, RHP, Boston
FREE AGENTS BY POSITION:
Mike Scioscia on the worth of Erstad, Varitek, et al: "Sometimes your best player isn't the best player, at least statistically. The players all know Erstad is our best player, just as anyone who manages against the Red Sox knows Varitek is their best player, or Jeter is the Yankees' best player. Paul Lo Duca isn't far from that category, as well. People tell me that we'd be better with someone other than Erstad or David Eckstein, and I know otherwise. If they want someone else, fine, find someone else to manage." Not that Scioscia has to worry, because Bill Stoneman gets it.
Scioscia adds that the left side of Boston's infield "may be the best in our league." Bobby Crosby and Eric Chavez might argue, but the fact that Bill Mueller is back to his 2000 defensive form after his knee operation changes things. And then there's Mark Bellhorn's ability to turn the double play, which Dale Sveum claims is the best. "Mark is one of the few second basemen who takes the throw on the first-base side of the bag -- right into the runner -- and makes the throw from there, which is a step or two closer than going across the bag and throwing from the center field side."
It's clear that Lou Piniella's patience with the Devil Rays is running thin, and there may be an attempt to get him to the Mets or Phillies for next season. When someone can explain how or why B.J. Upton was brought up then moved off shortstop, the laughing around baseball may decrease.
And while the Scott Kazmir deal has brought praise to Tampa Bay, Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson is convinced that the alterations Victor Zambrano is making to his delivery will make him a big winner next season. As for Kris Benson, his contract expectations will require that he play out the market before re-signing with the Mets. Which is likely.
"One of the most important things in the game is turning hits into outs," Buck Showalter said. "Why do you think the Twins, Red Sox and A's are playing so well? I think the Twins do it better than anyone, and Henry Blanco is the best in our league calling a game. He's outstanding."
The other sites have dropped out in the Expos sweepstakes, but there are still problems: 1) the D.C. politicians are playing hardball with MLB on the stadium financing, 2) MLB has overpriced the club because of promises made to the 29 owners paying the bills and 3) Peter Angelos believes that Bud Selig promised him that there'd never be a team in the Washington area.
Yes, Yhency Brazoban was throwing 98 mph this week. "I'd take him over (Guillermo) Mota," one GM said. Brazoban was a throw-in from the Yankees in the Jeff Weaver-Kevin Brown deal, and Joaquin Arias -- considered a top shortstop prospect -- was thrown into the Alex Rodriguez-Alfonso Soriano trade. Incidentally, Soriano will be available this winter. He makes $5.4 million and is a fifth-year arbitration case.
Barry Bonds thinks there's an advantage to playing home games in a pitchers' park like Pac Bell or Dodger Stadium. "You have to concentrate on squaring the ball on every swing," Bonds said. "It creates good habits and discipline." Hear that, Pads?
The A's will give the walk/OPS machine Nick Swisher every chance to play in September, although when he reported to the club Friday, he was fined $1,100 by teammates for taking the team bus, bad sideburns, walking so much and being a rookie. That aside, he is a fiery player like Lenny Dykstra and that will make him a huge fan favorite.
From a scout on Phillies rookie Ryan Howard: "He is David Ortiz the second." But scouts were a little disappointed in Gavin Floyd's velocity, although not his curveball.
Tools scouts scoffed at Arizona State SS Dustin Pedroia, although he was a far better college player than Stephen Drew. Boston took him in the second round, and between Augusta and Sarasota, Pedroia hit .357 with 19 extra base hits, 19 walks, seven strikeouts and no errors in his first 42 professional games. Speaking of the Boston organization, one NL club's pro scouting coordinator said "the Red Sox have more good arms with young Latin pitchers than any other organization in the game." Led by 20-year old right-handed fireballer Anabel Sanchez, whose New York-Penn League line in 76 1/3 innings is a 1.77 ERA, 43 hits, 29 walks and 101 strikeouts. The Red Sox like pitchers who pound the strike zone -- Curt Schilling and Martinez are 1-2 in career strikeout/walk ratio -- and their top prospects at Lowell (Sanchez, Andrew Dobies, Thomas Hottovy, Kyle Bono, Scott Shoemaker, Robert Swindle) had a combined 302/57 K/BB ratio.
Look for a war in Baltimore, where the Orioles want to deny Rafael Palmeiro his contract trigger of 140 games played in the field, freeing them from his $4.5 million 2005 contract.