Beyond the big three free agents, trades may be where the action is
Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey are the cream of the free-agent crop
Roy Halladay, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford head a stellar trade market
The Mariners are sure to get calls on 23-year-old superstar Felix Hernandez
CHICAGO -- No team is going to spend or presumably improve via free agency like the Yankees did last winter, when they doled out $423.5 million to three star players alone. Post-parade, and as the GM meetings get underway here on Monday, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Yankees spent wisely. But with the Yankees far less needy this winter and this year's free-agent list less star-studded -- Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey are the only in-their-prime players who can reasonably aim for $100 million deals and the only ones even sure to crack $50 million -- no team is expected to try to duplicate such a spending spree. Nor would one even be possible this time around.
While there's no pitching rotation transformer of CC Sabathia's ilk, and some baseball people might contend that there's no everyday player to match Mark Teixeira, either (though Holliday's agent, Scott Boras, uses Teixeira -- who's also his client -- as Holliday's main comp), that doesn't mean that the pursuit of this winter's top trio will be anything less than fascinating. The chances for a quick deal for any star with their incumbent team within the 15-day exclusive negotiating period are never great, but they appear to be especially slight in the case of Holliday, who, like his middle-of-the-order running mate Albert Pujols, doesn't appear to be rushing into a deal with the Cardinals.
Though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested that the "framework'' of a contract offer to the 29-year-old Holliday, estimated to be $96 million for six years, has been put forth, Boras said on Sunday that the Cardinals have made no proposals. In cases of star players, Boras won't accept offers below a certain level (with Teixeira it was $160 million just to get into the game), and someone else close to Holliday wondered how such a reported contract bid could reasonably be accepted by Holliday considering that Alfonso Soriano, in some respects a less accomplished and more flawed player, received $136 million for eight years three winters ago from the Cubs. In any case, the chances for Holliday to remain a Cardinal look slim at this point.
Lackey's chances to stay with L.A. don't look all that much better. A source familiar with the Angels' talks with Lackey last spring said they offered less than $40 million over three years as an extension on top of this year's $10 million salary, which would seem to be nowhere near the ballpark that Lackey, 31, seeks now, as by far the best starter in an especially thin crop, and coming off a year in which he demonstrated his usual stuff and toughness. Considering that there are no clear top-of-the-rotation alternatives available via free agency --and that the Yankees are expected to look into pursuing Lackey -- the right-hander is expected to shoot for more than twice that, i.e. a $100 million deal. So for the Angels to re-sign their ace would require a complete rethinking of their original stance.
Of the trio of star free agents, Bay, 31, would seem to have the best chance to return to his incumbent team, as he is on record saying how much he liked playing in Boston, a place that provided a stark contract to Pittsburgh, the perennial also-ran that was his previous stop. Red Sox people believe that Bay wants to stay, too, and they are said to want to try to bring him back on a four-year deal for close to $60 million, according to a source familiar with their thinking. But Bay's agent, Joe Urbon, said in a recent interview with SI.com that he believes his client is the "most complete player on the market.''
If it doesn't work out in Boston, Bay, one of only three sluggers with at least 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs in four of the past five seasons (Pujols and Alex Rodriguez are the others) should have no shortage of suitors. The same goes for Holliday, who, like Bay, is a power-hitting left fielder but with a higher career batting average (.318 to .280) and slightly better playoff pedigree (he was NLCS MVP in 2007, though this year's playoff performance was forgettable). Beyond the Cardinals and Red Sox, the Mets, Giants, Braves, Cubs, Mariners and Yankees could be in the market for either of the two corner outfielders. Some teams have already checked in on Holliday, who is said by a friend to have at least the Yankees, and quite likely the Mets -- who are desperate for a power-hitting outfielder after a disastrous season in which they most often employed possibly the two worst defensive left fielders in baseball (Gary Sheffield and Daniel Murphy) -- high on his list of preferred places, and the Mets are believed to have Holliday higher than Bay on their wish list.
Speculation has been rampant that Lackey would like to go home to Texas to pitch, and while it's believed that Rangers people have appreciated Lackey's attributes from up close, their possible pursuit may depend on the quickness of the sale of the team. MLB has set a tentative Thanksgiving deadline for the sale of the Rangers, but the price tag is expected to be in the $500 million range, and in cases of such big money there are no guarantees that things will go quickly.
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