These teams are the most likely to get free-agent deals done
Remaining free agents include Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Oliver Perez
The Dodgers and Giants are the favorites to sign Manny Ramirez
There's more to Jason Varitek's arbitration decision than meets the eye
The 100 or so free agents who remain free, including stars (or near stars) like all-time great slugging savant Manny Ramirez plus Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson, Oliver Perez and Ben Sheets, shouldn't fret. Not yet.
Deals can still be made. Teams still have plenty of money to spend. Not all of the teams, perhaps, but some do.
Yes, the economy's bad. And many clubs remain reluctant to open their purse strings. But baseball's revenues aren't expected to be off that much from the record $6.5 billion of a year ago, and holes still need to be filled.
Here is a list of teams that could still have a big deal or two left in them ...
1. Dodgers. Nobody's done a better job of saving than L.A. during this buying season. So far the big purchases for the big-market team are to bring back Rafael Furcal for $30 million over three years (which represents a pay cut for him) and Casey Blake for $17 million over three years, and to add backups Mark Loretta and Brad Ausmus for a combined $2.4 million ($1.4 million for Loretta, $1 million for Ausmus). Meanwhile, gone from the payroll are Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent and Joe Beimel and, for now at least, Ramirez. And, as if that wasn't enough savings, the Dodgers made a deal to defer all but $5 million of Andruw Jones' $22 million 2009 salary, which should make cost-conscious owner Frank McCourt feel a little bit better. There's no evidence yet that they've budged off their bare-bones bid of $45 million over two years for the Manny-child. But they can certainly afford to go to a third year if they're feeling heat from the Giants or elsewhere.
2. Giants. They have fallen down on the field in recent years but are still in an excellent financial position, thanks to a winning TV contract and a stadium deal that has turned out much better than many expected; they have now paid off more than half the debt on beautiful AT&T Park. The Giants historically aren't afraid to go for the gusto, and are in the hunt for Ramirez after signaling a clear intent to try to win now with their signings of grossed shortstop Edgar Renteria ($18.5 million for two years) and even more grizzled pitcher Randy Johnson ($7 million). Signing Joe Crede, who recently got a clean bill of health on his troublesome back, looks like a possibility. But stealing Ramirez from the Dodgers would give them a chance to steal a division that can be had. Another plus: Manny would fit nicely into the free-spirited Bay Area.
3. Mets. They are hoping to land Perez after missing out on Lowe. While they have been looked at as the favorites for Perez, there's still quite a discrepancy in where the sides stand (Perez seeks about $60 million over five years, while the Mets have been thinking more like $30 million over three). Randy Wolf, Jon Garland and Sheets are all part of the backup plan. Some inside the organization are wondering whether one year for Sheets is wiser than five for Perez, though GM Omar Minaya loves Perez (even over Lowe), so the Mets may stretch a little to try to retain Perez.
4. Brewers. Aggressive owner Mark Attanasio has lost CC Sabathia and will likely lose Sheets, as well. But Attanasio still has a fine young team and his inclination remains to try to make it back to October. The Brewers reached the playoffs last year for the first time in 26 years, and it isn't in Attanasio's nature to rest on his laurels. They took a brief look at Lowe before he went to the Braves for $60 million over five years, but a young left-hander like Perez, who's 26, would fit them better, anyway.
5. Braves. They've rebuilt their rotation with Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami and now are looking for an outfielder, with as much as $10 million to spend. They've tried for White Sox star Jermaine Dye ("They're the best fit, but there's nothing happening now with that,'' according to one person familiar with the talks) and have also looked at the Yankees' Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher.
6. A's. Intent on improving their offense and trying to compete, the $40 million they offered to Furcal is still burning a hole in their usually shallow pocket. Abreu or Dunn would make a nice complement for the franchise-boosting star Matt Holliday. Orlando Cabrera and Nick Johnson have been mentioned more prominently as possibilities, though.
7. Cubs. They still have the $63 million they were prepared to use on Padres ace Jake Peavy ("He isn't going anywhere now,'' one NL executive predicts) and could use the loot on another pitcher. The left-handed Perez would nicely complement a strong righty staff. Though it's possible that the sale of the team could complicate any big purchases.
8. Red Sox. They saved most of the $170 million they had set aside for Mark Teixeira, spending a mere fraction of that on worthwhile reclamation projects such as Penny and John Smoltz. They seem pretty well set, though, except for catcher, where the Jason Varitek soap opera continues. (The guess here continues to be that Varitek stays. More on that below.)
9. Angels. Another one of several teams that was willing to spend at least $160 million over eight years for Teixeira (in their case, exactly $160 million), they still need an offensive boost. Supposedly they've sworn off Ramirez.
10. Nationals. Yet another Teixeira also-ran, they've shown some interest in Dunn and Hudson. Ted Lerner is believed to be baseball's richest owner with about $4 billion, and he doesn't like losing.
11. Orioles. The fourth Teixeira also-ran. But the Baltimore native might have been an exception, as team president Andy MacPhail seems to know they're still at least a year away.
12. Yankees. Even after spending $423.5 million on Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Teixeira, they're always a threat to spend, especially if they can find a taker for Nady, or even better, Swisher (who has $21 million to go). One person said it's "less than 50-50'' that they take back Andy Pettitte. But where else is he going to go?
13. Twins. They've dabbled in the free-agent market but still haven't spent on the infielders they've eyed. They considered Blake and recently were looking at Crede. If they don't sign a third baseman they're looking at a platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris.
14. Rangers. It's rare that they sit the winter out. They finally signed someone, 40-something shortstop Omar Vizquel, in case prodigy Elvis Andrus isn't quite ready, and they've been tied to several pitchers, most notably Sheets. It doesn't look like they're going to be players for Ramirez at this point, though they were considering it for a while.
15. Mariners. They're in a rebuilding mode but have money to fill in where needed. So far new GM Jack Zduriencik has concentrated on acquiring multiple pieces for the future, but they can certainly afford to spend a few bucks.
Ramirez is said to be working out in Pensacola, Fla., a few hours north of where he makes his winter home in Miami -- and patiently (yes, that's the word a friend of his used) waiting for a job. The Dodgers and Giants still look like the most logical landing spots, with L.A. still seen as the favorite. The Angels and Mets are still showing no signs of joining the fray, and Yankees partner Hal Steinbrenner is thought to be against signing Ramirez, so it's still possible it'll come down to a battle of West Coast rivals.
One final push from Hall-of-Fame manager Joe Torre could do the trick. Torre just returned from vacation in New Zealand and could certainly stump for Manny. Eventually, the guess here is that the Dodgers get to three years.
Why Varitek and others declined arbitration
A lot has been made about Jason Varitek and some other free agents not accepting arbitration, and it has even been suggested in a few places that Varitek and the others, including Orlando Cabrera, Jon Garland and maybe even Ben Sheets, made a mistake by declining arbitration. But that suggestion may not be right.
In Varitek's case an arbitration award could have meant about $11 million, as he made $10.4 million last year. However, going to arbitration and having a fully guaranteed contract are two different things. To that point the Red Sox had declined to guarantee any offers to Varitek (arbitration deals are not fully guaranteed) and were hinting that Varitek's playing time might be diminished, so Varitek ultimately worried that the Sox only offered arbitration to keep the dialogue going and that ultimately they might release him after going to arbitration with him. Had the Red Sox taken him to arbitration, in reality they were only guaranteeing a little more than $1.5 million (a team that releases a player after arbitration but before the season only has to pay one-sixth of the salary). This is a fairly rare occurrence but it has happened in the case of Todd Walker and several other players.