- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Is this any way to run a Hot Stove season in the middle of an economic downturn?
From the outset, it appeared that job hunting would be a challenge for major league players this winter. Combine a dip in industry revenues, declining attendance in 21 of the 30 markets and a weak free-agent crop, and you had the makings of what Jerry Maguire called an "up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege" for agents.
But three weeks after the free-agent filing deadline, a different picture is starting to emerge. Although the announcements have come in a trickle, the spigots are wide open and dollars keep gushing out.
"Every market evolves, and there's not nearly the gloom and doom that people prognosticated," said an agent. "This is a business, and teams are going to do what they have to do to compete."
Just ask these guys:
• Chone Figgins received a four-year, $36 million deal from Seattle with a fifth-year option that could increase the total value to $45 million. He might play third base, or shift to second if the Mariners re-sign Adrian Beltre or find another suitable alternative at third.
• The Phillies signed Placido Polanco to a three-year, $18 million deal to play third base. Polanco is respected for his professionalism and team-oriented approach, but he posted a .727 OPS last season and hasn't played third regularly since 2002.
• Relief pitchers are cleaning up, from Brandon Lyon's three-year, $15 million deal with Houston to Billy Wagner's $7 million guaranteed contract with Atlanta. LaTroy Hawkins (Brewers), John Grabow (Cubs) and Takashi Saito (Braves) also have no complaints.
• Brad Penny, who went 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA in Boston last year before salvaging his season in San Francisco, received a $7.5 million guaranteed deal from St. Louis. Rich Harden, a talented-yet-fragile pitcher who's surpassed 150 innings once in seven big league seasons, received $7.5 million from Texas and an option year that could increase his overall payout to more than $20 million.
• Randy Wolf, generally regarded as the second best starter on the market after John Lackey, signed a three-year, $29.75 million contract with Milwaukee. Wolf's agreement includes a $10 million option for 2013.
In several of the aforementioned cases, teams identified pressing needs and made aggressive overtures to players. Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik was intent on locking up Figgins before the winter meetings because, in his estimation, "Once you get here and there are 30 teams [under one roof], a lot of things can happen."
Once Zduriencik made up his mind, it took about 48 hours to negotiate a deal with Figgins' agents, Seth and Sam Levinson. Figgins will combine with Ichiro Suzuki to give the Mariners a dynamic top of the order, and his departure from Anaheim can only serve to weaken a prime Seattle competitor.
"He was a guy we targeted right off the bat," Zduriencik said. "He was a guy we really wanted. When you combined the dollars, our need and his desire to play in Seattle, there was a marriage. That's really what it gets down to."
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin plunged right in on Wolf because he had such an acute need for starting pitching. Milwaukee's staff ranked 27th in the majors with a 4.83 ERA and issued the third most walks in the big leagues in 2009. Before the Brewers acquired Wolf, they were looking at a rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, David Bush and Manny Parra. They knew they would have to pay a premium to entice Wolf, a Southern California native, to relocate to Wisconsin for three years.
Wolf's career has been sidetracked at times by arm trouble, including an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2005. But he threw a career-high 214 1/3 innings this season, and Melvin compares him to another resourceful left-hander who blossomed in his mid-to-late 30s.
Sometimes you have to identify players and say, 'This is a guy we'll be aggressive with,' or, 'This is a guy we'd like to have but we're not going to be aggressive with,' or, 'This is a guy who'd be a nice piece to have at the end.' You evaluate everybody differently.
”-- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin
"I see him a little bit like Kenny Rogers," Melvin said, "except that Randy strikes out more people than Kenny did. He's got the slow curveball. He can pitch inside to right-handed hitters. He fields his position well, swings the bat and competes real well. I think there are a lot of similarities."
With Wolf and Hawkins in the fold, the Brewers will now concentrate on re-signing infielder Craig Counsell. They're also likely to take a flyer on lefty starter Mark Mulder in hopes that improved health and a reunion with his former pitching coach, Rick Peterson, could help revive his career.
With his major priorities addressed, Melvin is perfectly content to tinker around the edges. Some of his colleagues wish they were so fortunate.
"Sometimes you have to identify players and say, 'This is a guy we'll be aggressive with,' or, 'This is a guy we'd like to have but we're not going to be aggressive with,' or, 'This is a guy who'd be a nice piece to have at the end.' You evaluate everybody differently," Melvin said.
Notwithstanding the generous deals so far, 147 of the game's 171 free agents remain unsigned, and the landscape will get even more crowded this weekend when the non-tenders hit the market. And if you assess the 30 teams on a case-by-case basis, there's reason to suspect the euphoria will fade after the New Year.
Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Florida and Cincinnati, to name a few, are either holding the line or shedding payroll. Texas is in the midst of an ownership transition, and the Dodgers' finances will be squeezed by the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce. Even the world champion Yankees are reportedly going to cut payroll.
With the current labor agreement scheduled to expire in 2011, representatives for both the players and owners are staking out their turf. Michael Weiner, the new executive director at the Players Association, fired off a salvo in November when he said the union is monitoring comments from unnamed executives who might be using the media to try to suppress free-agent salaries. Soon after that, Scott Boras and Rob Manfred, MLB's top lawyer, got into a verbal smackdown over the state of baseball economics.
Boras cut quick early deals for Andruw Jones and Alex Cora, but his effusive praise for Matt Holliday, Johnny Damon, Adrian Beltre, Rick Ankiel and some of his other clients is an indication that he's willing to play the waiting game.
"The time frame of these things is predicated more on the clubs," Boras said in Indianapolis. "I don't write checks."
If you think that agents don't critique each others' deals -- just as team officials do -- guess again. Barry Meister, the agent who negotiated Kyle Farnsworth's two-year, $9.5 million contract with Kansas City last year, landed a $15 million guarantee for Lyon. It was great for the company brochure and elicited reactions across the board.
Bloggers vilified Houston GM Ed Wade for his largesse. Other teams in search of relief help wondered about the potential fallout. And Meister's fellow agents, naturally, will try to piggyback off the Lyon signing in cutting their own deals.
"The agents do a great job of taking one big signing and calling it a 'market,'" said a National League assistant GM. "It's not a market. It's one signing, and then you have 18 copycats."
Just as last winter's market was defined by the CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira contracts, this winter's storyline will hinge on the deals struck by the Big Three of Holliday, Jason Bay and Lackey. There's no shortage of intrigue in each negotiation.
Is Bay destined to remain in Boston, no matter how much static emanates from New York, Seattle and other potential suitors? Will the Cardinals pony up enough money to re-sign Holliday and make Albert Pujols a happy guy? And how spirited a competition are the Mariners and Angels prepared to wage to sign Lackey?
December might turn into January until we know the answers to those questions. In the meantime, Internet speculation abounds, baseball executives are grousing about salaries and the agents' commissions are bountiful. It's business as usual on the Hot Stove front.