Weak free-agent market could spell trade fever

Updated: December 4, 2005, 6:28 PM ET
Associated Press

When the winter meetings last were in Dallas five years ago, owners spent nearly $739 million on 24 free agents, giving Alex Rodriguez $252 million and Manny Ramirez $160 million. With many top free agents this offseason already committed, the focus is likely to be on trades rather than signings when teams gather Monday.

Relievers Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan, first baseman Paul Konerko, outfielder Brian Giles and shortstop Rafael Furcal already have agreed to contracts, with Furcal leaving the Atlanta Braves over the weekend to accept a $39 million, three-year offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Top remaining players in a weak free-agent group include center fielder Johnny Damon and pitchers A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood. With a paucity of top talent available to sign, they'll be plenty of trade talk going on at baseball's annual swap session, which had been devoid of big-name deals in recent years.

"This particular free-agent market is difficult," said New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, stymied in his search for a center fielder. "Because of that, it's going to promote a lot more aggressive trade discussions."

Ramirez, unhappy with life in Boston despite winning the World Series MVP award in 2004, is the biggest name available. But he can veto trades and is owed $57 million over the final three years of his contract, complicating efforts to deal him by the Red Sox, the only major league team without a general manager.

"He's still one of the top three or four hitters in baseball," Boston assistant GM Jed Hoyer said, adding that more than a dozen teams have inquired. "They haven't been able to meet the price that we would want for Manny. We're certainly not going in with the expectation that we're going to have to make a trade. Teams would have to step up and beat our expectations.''

Florida has been the most active team in the trade market, dealing 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell to Boston, first baseman Carlos Delgado to the New York Mets and second baseman Luis Castillo to Minnesota.

Catcher Paul Lo Duca could be joining Delgado on the Mets, and center fielder Juan Pierre appears to be available.

"Obviously we have been very active. I would anticipate as we head to Dallas we're going to remain active," said Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest, who has cut about $32 million from a payroll that was $60 million at the start of last season.

Pitchers who could be switching teams include Boston's David Wells, Oakland's Barry Zito, the Mets' Kris Benson and Arizona's Javier Vazquez, who filed a trade demand last month. Texas might part with a pair of All-Stars, second baseman Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Hank Blalock, as it seeks pitching. Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall and Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell could possibly get dealt, as could outfielder Jason Michaels.

"We've had enough dialogue that something could happen, "said new Texas general manager Jon Daniels, at 28 the younger GM in the majors.

Blalock could be a fit for Minnesota, looking for a third baseman and a designated hitter after acquiring Castillo on Friday.

"You can kind of compress exactly who you need to talk to," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "You diminish your needs a little bit, and now you can move on to the next."

Arizona, Baltimore, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Texas head into the meetings with new GMs.

"There are so many people down there, it can be somewhat hectic," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. "We all go into the meetings expecting a lot. Once a guy signs, that speeds up trade talks. With a lot of new GMs in place who are probably looking to do something, there is an atmosphere of anticipation."

Free agents still on the market include pitcher Paul Byrd, designated hitters Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas, relievers Bob Wickman and Trevor Hoffman, catchers Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez, and outfielder Sammy Sosa. Then there's Nomar Garciaparra, who appears willing to play just about any position.

Baseball's big free-agent deadline passes at midnight EST on Wednesday. Free agents not offered salary arbitration by their former clubs before the deadline can't re-sign until May 1. After the deadline, teams won't lose draft picks for signing any free agent not offered arbitration.

"It's quite possible it could be a dog and pony show until after Dec. 7," San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean said late last week. "It's seemingly going slower than I ever could have expected. ... I'm not sure, but my inclination the last day or so is teams are bogged down waiting until Dec. 7 whether for their own free agents or so they don't lose draft picks. Dec. 7 looms larger than other years."

Teams that didn't land their top free-agent choices are trying other paths.

"We were looking at Konerko, but I think now what we're going to have to do is get some alternatives in place," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "If a magic bat isn't added to our lineup, hopefully we'll have some help from in-house."

Cashman said the narrowing of choices forces decisions.

"When people strike out on Plan A, B, C and D," he said, "they go into overdrive for the remaining opportunities. And therefore teams are more willing to do certain things in mid-December an January that they may not have considered doing in early November."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press