- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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For all the bellyaching about Major League Baseball's weak free-agent crop, no one's ever griped about the center-field menu. Even after Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki signed long-term deals earlier this year, the position was relatively deep and seemingly easy to handicap.
A few months ago, Torii Hunter figured to land in Texas because he has a home in Dallas and a great rapport with Rangers manager Ron Washington. At one point, it looked like a given that Aaron Rowand would leave the Phillies and rejoin his old pals with the White Sox.
Lots of people also assumed that Mike Cameron would remain in San Diego, there would be a nonexistent market for Andruw Jones and Kosuke Fukudome, the Japanese wild card, would sign with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.
So much for conventional wisdom. In the amount of time it takes for a fly ball to land, the landscape has taken a significant turn.
Hunter's surprise decision to sign a five-year, $90 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels opened up a bevy of new possibilities for the players beyond him.
"It changed things for the better," said Craig Landis, Rowand's agent, "because one of the top center fielders is off the market, and he went to a team that wasn't even supposed to be in the hunt. That's helpful to us."
Few of these decisions are made in a vacuum. If the Dodgers give up Matt Kemp in a trade for a frontline pitcher or the Yankees send Melky Cabrera to Minnesota in a Johan Santana deal, those two clubs might be more inclined to acquire a big-name center fielder through free agency. The personnel merry-go-round just keeps spinning.
While the Santana and Miguel Cabrera trade-fests will grab the big headlines in Nashville when the winter meetings begin Monday, the jockeying in center field should be quite entertaining. Here's where things stand for the principals:
The Phillies, for the moment, plan to focus on pitching and third base and go with an outfield of Pat Burrell in left field, Shane Victorino in center and a combination of Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs in right field. They'd love to upgrade in right field, but Geoff Jenkins is too pricey for their tastes. And while they'd like to keep Rowand, even a four-year deal for $10 million-plus annually seems beyond their comfort zone.
The anticipated lovefest between Rowand and the White Sox has hit a few snags. First, the White Sox made Torii Hunter their priority, and Rowand prepared to go in a different direction. The two sides rekindled talks once Hunter signed with the Angels, but they've made zero progress.
The Sox don't want to go beyond four years, and Rowand and his agent, Landis, are seeking a minimum of five. "That was our biggest point of disagreement," Landis said.
As the Rowand camp points out, Juan Pierre, Gary Matthews, J.D. Drew and Hunter are among the outfielders who've signed five-year deals recently. And Carlos Lee, no fitness buff, got six years from Houston. The White Sox also were prepared to give five years and $75 million to Hunter, who's two years older than Rowand.
Contacted by ESPN.com, Chicago GM Kenny Williams declined to comment on the Rowand situation. "I prefer to do things quietly," he said. But the Chicago Sun-Times reported Wednesday that the White Sox have decided the gap with Rowand is too vast, and they've turned the page and will focus on Coco Crisp, Willy Taveras and other trade options.
The question is, have the White Sox really ruled out Rowand? Or is Williams just laying low as a negotiating ploy to get Rowand and his representatives to lower their expectations?
"I think Kenny thinks [Rowand] wants to go back there so badly, he'll give them a hometown discount," said a National League executive. "That sounds like Kenny playing hardball to me."
Meanwhile, according to Landis, "There are some teams interested in Aaron that haven't been written about in any articles I've seen."
The Dodgers, Yankees, Nationals and Twins have all been mentioned as potential Rowand shoppers, and word is that Baltimore dipped a toe in the water on him. While Rowand would be a welcome presence in the Orioles' clubhouse, it's hard to envision GM Andy MacPhail springing for a five-year deal for $60 million-plus. The Orioles seem more interested in ridding themselves of big contracts than taking on another one.
The Padres talked contract with Cameron last spring, and the gap didn't seem unbridgeable. A source said the team was offering three years and $30 million, while Cameron was looking for three years at $36 million.
When Cameron was slapped with a 25-game amphetamine suspension to begin the 2008 season, it appeared to increase the likelihood he would stay in San Diego, because the Padres might face less competition to sign him.
"To me, he's one of the top two or three center fielders on the free-agent market, and we definitely need a center fielder," general manager Kevin Towers said at the GMs meetings three weeks ago.
The Padres recently made an offer, and Cameron's agent, Mike Nicotera, made a counteroffer. Now, he's waiting for a response. In the meantime, Cameron is becoming a popular guy. Texas is definitely interested, and the White Sox and Nationals very well might be.
The Padres plan to offer Cameron salary arbitration by Saturday's deadline to preserve their right to compensatory draft picks if he signs elsewhere. Cameron, who knows a multiyear contract awaits somewhere, probably will decline.
"We'll make that decision at the appropriate time, but it certainly does not seem likely that we would accept arbitration," said Nicotera.
Under the old rules, a player who declined salary arbitration couldn't re-sign with his former club until May 15. But that restriction is no longer in place under the new labor agreement, so it won't affect the chances of Cameron returning to San Diego.
Scott Boras' sales pitch with Jones is clear: Even in the worst year of his career, when he hit .222, Jones won his 10th straight Gold Glove award and put up power numbers (26 homers and 94 RBIs) that were comparable to the other elite center fielders on the market.
There hasn't been much buzz on Jones, but his situation is steadily evolving. Washington was considered a front-runner for Jones, but the Nationals might have filled their center-field void by trading for the Mets' Lastings Milledge on Friday.
It's conceivable the Nationals will go into the 2008 season with an outfield of Milledge in center and Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena at the corner spots. On the other hand, if the Nationals still have interest in Jones, they gave themselves some payroll flexibility by clearing the two years and $9.8 million left on catcher Brian Schneider's contract.
Kansas City, in the market for a run-producing outfielder, is a possibility. The Royals would prefer to sign Jose Guillen to an Eric Byrnes-caliber deal (three years for $30 million) and stick with David DeJesus in center. But general manager Dayton Moore knows Jones from Atlanta, and the Royals have shown they're willing to surprise people.
One other potential dark horse: San Francisco. The Giants have discussed Jones in their meetings. But just because they spent $126 million on Boras client Barry Zito, it doesn't mean they're going to give Jones a Torii Hunter-like deal. The Giants will monitor the Jones market, and jump in late if the going is slow.
While Boras is shooting for five or six years at $15 million-plus annually, two MLB executives said he'll be doing fine if he gets four years and $60 million for Jones. There's an industry-wide perception that Jones is slipping, and lots of people view him as a guy who wears out mediocre pitching.
Of course, Jones could return to Atlanta on a one-year deal if the Braves offer him salary arbitration by Saturday's deadline. But there's a chance he'll accept and the Braves will have a $16 million salary suddenly land in their laps. Since Jones is a Type B free agent, the return in draft pick compensation probably isn't worth the risk to Atlanta.
For a while, the consensus was that Fukudome would stay in Japan. That's no longer the case. Agent Joe Urbon told ESPN.com that he met with Fukudome in Nagoya, Japan, on Wednesday night and went over the "multiple offers" the outfielder had received from MLB clubs.
"Although staying in Japan certainly is an option, it is highly unlikely," Urbon said in an e-mail.
The Giants, Rangers and Cubs are among the clubs interested in Fukudome. After parting company with Cliff Floyd and Jacque Jones, the Cubs are looking for a more athletic left-handed hitting outfielder. And Fukudome's .397 career on-base percentage is certainly appealing.
"He's kind of a poor man's Carlos Beltran," said a National League personnel man. "He's not top of the line, but a pretty good player. He can run, he can drive the ball in the gaps a little bit, and he can go get it pretty well in the outfield."
Kenny Lofton, Corey Patterson, Bobby Kielty, Milton Bradley and Darin Erstad are on the free-agent market. And the list of players available in trades includes Coco Crisp, Ryan Freel and Pittsburgh's Nate McLouth and Chris Duffy.
Kansas City would be willing to listen on David DeJesus or Joey Gathright, but only if the Royals sign Andruw Jones. Otherwise, the Royals are perfectly content with their configuration in center.