Offseason, free agency could deliver more surprises
Some dub the free-agent class average overall, but a trio may make $100 million
The trade market could include Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Zack Greinke
The Giants' run to the World Series was a great story and included several heroes
Many of baseball's best young players are locked up early in their career nowadays, limiting free-agent lists to lesser lights in some recent years. But at least this year's free-agent market still contains a trio of players who will be shooting for $100-million deals (two of them should surely get it), at least a half-dozen legitimate difference-makers, a couple of iconic Yankees Hall of Famers-to-be and a number of very solid pieces -- even though it is seen by some big-league executives as only average overall, at best.
Baseball is doing very well, much better than the economy as whole, with revenues up again, to more than $7 billion, and attendance off only about one percent in 2010, despite the obvious boost in 2009 of two new parks in New York City. So competition for free agents could be fierce at the very top of the market -- especially in the cases of Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, and perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree, Jayson Werth.
This coming market also includes a great hitting and fielding third baseman (Adrian Beltre), a consistent slugger in his prime (Adam Dunn) and an elite closer (Rafael Soriano). But further spicing things up is the possibility of at least a couple big stars (Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder more likely than Adrian Gonzalez) being dangled in trades. The season gave us a surprise World Series winner in the band of misfits, outcasts and sterling pitchers of the San Francisco Giants. There could be more surprises in store this winter. Here's an early preview of what we might see.
1. Who's going to win the Lee Sweepstakes? And how high will the bidding go? The Yankees remain the heavy favorite to win the services of one of baseball's best and most clutch pitchers. A so-so World Series performance won't deter them from giving the 32-year-old left-hander at least a $100-million contract, and probably significantly more than that.
Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has presented a confident face that they can keep Lee, and the Rangers' new $80-million-a-year local TV deal puts them in the ballgame at least. However, beating the Yankees at their game still seems like a long shot. Lee wanted to go to New York at midseason, and while he seemed to enjoy his brief time in Texas, and his wife, Kristin, was clearly annoyed by a handful of obnoxious Yankees fans during the ALCS, the reality is that the Yankees have yet to fail to land a big-time free agent they've targeted since the days of Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in the early 1990s. Yes, eons ago.
The asking price is expected to be a repeat of the deal for Lee's good buddy CC Sabathia, who got seven years and $161 million from New York two years ago. And with the aggressive Nationals expected to be in the mix (plus who knows who else? The Angels? Red Sox?) bidding things up, it seems very likely Lee will at least approach Johan Santana's $138-million, six-year contract. Expect him to sign with the Yankees for a deal in that range.
2. How much can Crawford make, and where might he go? The Angels and Red Sox are the early favorites after disappointing seasons by those teams' usual standards. Torii Hunter is pushing hard for Crawford in Los Angeles, and the Red Sox might prefer more power and the higher OPS numbers of Werth. Crawford's hometown Astros don't usually spend this sort of money on free agents, but Crawford is a great local story. The Tigers also have money to spend, and of course, the Yankees can never be counted out. The Giants also love Crawford but may be a bit leery of the free-agent market after overpaying for Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito in recent years.
Crawford, 29, is aiming to beat $100 million, and his speed and youth should make that a fairly easily attainable goal. The guess here is that the Angels, who need table setters after losing Chone Figgins a year earlier, get him for seven years and perhaps $119 million in a repeat of the six-year-old Carlos Beltran deal. And for the record, Hunter said he doesn't mind one bit if Crawford makes a lot more money than him.
3. What about Werth? The Phillies are said by a source to have initially suggested this summer a repeat of the deal Jason Bay got from the Mets last offseason, which would mean $66 million over four years. But that was summarily rejected by Werth, and he is shooting to redo the $120 million, seven-year contract Matt Holliday got from the Cardinals.
Werth has more power than Crawford and has shown a willingness to play center field, which should help him as a free agent, but with Werth being 32 it seems a stretch to think even such a multi-dimensional player will reach the $100 million mark. The Phillies, who have done an excellent job from a business standpoint, apparently haven't come close to giving up. They know they need a right-handed bat, and a person familiar with their thinking said he expects them to try hard for Werth, giving them a decent shot to retain him. The Tigers, who have $50 million coming off the books and seek a middle-of-the-order bat, also could be a possibility. The best guess here is that he goes to Boston or stays in Philly. The haul? Maybe $85 million for five years.
4. Who are the next best free agents? Closer Soriano will be sold as a major difference-maker after seeing the impact he had on the Rays in 2010 (45 saves, 1.73 ERA) and will be seeking to beat the $11-to-13 million-a-year deals signed by closers Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan and get near Mariano Rivera's $15-million salary (which will go up next year, as he, too, is a free agent). The Angels and perhaps the Red Sox or Mets could make sense (if they were to deal Jonathan Papelbon and Rodriguez, respectively).
The fielding-challenged Dunn should really consider the American League (and the White Sox and A's are among teams that may show interest), but he is said by friends to much prefer the NL. The Cubs aren't out of the question for him with his incumbent Nationals more likely to seek a plus-defender for first base, such as Carlos Peña.
Beltre is expected to be very popular after a big year in Boston, and while the Angels, Red Sox and A's are very logical suitors, several other teams could be interested in the all-around star who does a terrific job of timing his better years.
Victor Martinez rejected Boston's two-year offer for about $20 million and is expected to seek at least four years and draw interest from the Tigers, Orioles and Rockies, who know they may be in over their heads.
5. Will the iconic Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera remain the Bronx? The overwhelming belief is that they will. Though, Rivera should be the easier of the two to get signed, by far. The Yankees might like to try to bring him back with a raise from his $15 million salary to perhaps $17 or $18 million on a one-year deal. But if he insists on two years, it might be pretty hard for the Yankees to say no to a player who is almost inarguably the greatest relief pitcher ever, especially after a very typical season for him, even at age 40, that included 33 saves and a 1.80 ERA.
There are early indications the talks with Jeter may take awhile. Some industry sources still say they wouldn't be surprised if he initially sought to obtain a six-year deal to match the expiration age of Alex Rodriguez's contract, which would put Jeter at 42. The Yankees haven't opened talks yet with his agent, Casey Close, and while it's unconfirmed, there are a few early hints that the team may be thinking about a deal of about half that length, perhaps three guaranteed years.
The Yankees need Jeter, as they view him as a legend and wouldn't want him playing elsewhere. But by the same token, Jeter would risk diminishing his legacy by leaving the Bronx. Even in a poor year offensively for him, in which he posted career lows in batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.370), he still scored more than 100 runs, drove in 67 and stole 18 bases, and there aren't many shortstops who provide that kind of production. This may not go as quickly as folks think, though.
6. Will Gonzalez be traded? In a word, no. The Padres only fell short of the eventual world champion Giants in the NL West by one game and have no reason to shop A-Gone, who almost surely will stay, at least to start the season. They could easily wind up dealing him at the summer deadline, but if they're in the race, they probably aren't opposed to keeping him until the end of the year and letting him leave via free agency.
As new Padres owner Jeff Moorad has acknowledged, they are in deep to try to keep him long-term, especially with Gonzalez understandably seeking to repeat Mark Teixeira's $180-million, eight-year deal. The parties will reportedly meet soon, but the Padres aren't believed to be considering a deal anywhere near Teixeira's neighborhood. In any case, following Gonzalez' shoulder surgery, the Padres are expecting even better production from their one major star, who batted .298 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs.
7. Could Fielder be traded? The Brewers appear likely to at least look at their options, although they very much like their everyday nucleus and seem more likely than not to keep Fielder to start the season. That doesn't prevent Milwaukee from weighing its options.
One early trade possibility could be the Mariners, whose GM, Jack Zduriencik, was the scouting director in Milwaukee when the Brewers drafted Fielder and whose own scouting director, Tom McNamara, was the scout who signed him. A package of Justin Smoak and a young pitcher or two might make sense for Fielder, who is seen as having almost no chance to sign long-term with the small-market Brewers when his contract expires after the 2011 season.
8. What are the chances of a Greinke trade? It is possible he could be dealt, but not too likely. The Royals will look into it, though the belief is they'll need to be overwhelmed to seriously entertain trading one of baseball's best pitchers. They might, in fact, want two starting pitchers in return, and that's just for starters. Complicating matters are a limited no-trade clause believed to include most major-market teams (likely the Yankees and Red Sox) and Greinke's desire to play in a small market. He overcame anxiety issues, but those close to him say he enjoys small-city life and wants no part of New York. The Yankees aren't believed to be interested in pursuing him under the circumstances.