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In the winter of the bloated free-agent contract, few teams have proved more eager to shell out cash than losing ones lusting for credibility. Last weekend the Mets, whose sinking popularity can be attributed to three straight sub-.500 seasons and recent failed courtships of marquee free agents, came to terms with former Astros centerfielder Carlos Beltran on a seven-year, $119 million contract less than four weeks after outbidding the Red Sox for ace Pedro Martinez.
"If what [new Mets G.M.] Omar Minaya was seeking were the headlines, then he got them," says a National League general manager. "Losing teams making the biggest signings: It's been an interesting story of the offseason."
The Diamondbacks, who lost a franchise-record 111 games in 2004, and the Mariners, who lost 99, share the Mets' belief that free-agent splurging is the best way to rebound. Those three teams (chart, below) have been responsible for five of this winter's six largest free-agent contracts.
The Mets' and the Diamondbacks' shopping sprees have followed front offices shakeups. In September, Mets owner Fred Wilpon streamlined his franchise's muddled hierarchy when he hired Minaya away from the Expos and assured his new G.M. full autonomy. In recent years the Mets have shied away from signing superstars Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero, and Minaya has thus been praised for his deft touch in landing two big free-agent fish. But despite shelling out close to $200 million this winter, the Mets, who finished 25 games back in the NL East last season and 341/2 games back in '03, still need a first baseman and help for a shaky bullpen.
Meanwhile, the Arizona front office has been unsettled even as the team has been spending freely. CEO Jerry Colangelo was forced out by the team's limited partners in August and replaced by former agent Jeff Moorad, a move that has yet to be approved by the commissioner's office. But the D-Backs still proceeded with the risky signings of 28-year-old third baseman Troy Glaus (four years, $45 million), who hasn't played 100 games in a season since 2002 because of shoulder injuries, and 30-year-old righty Russ Ortiz (four years, $33 million), who has averaged 17 wins a year for the last six seasons but has ranked in the top 10 in walks every year in that span. On Sunday, a few days after dealing ace lefty Randy Johnson to the Yankees for righthander Javier Vazquez, 28, and two minor leaguers, Arizona completed a trade for Dodgers rightfielder Shawn Green, 32, that sent four minor leaguers to L.A. " Arizona isn't a contender," says an NL executive, "and yet they're doing the opposite of getting younger."
Seattle's second-year G.M., Bill Bavasi, directly addressed his team's biggest weakness--an offense that was last in the AL in runs and slugging percentage in '04--in December when he signed third baseman Adrian Beltre (five years, $64 million) to the richest contract in franchise history and acquired first baseman Richie Sexson (four years, $50 million).
"The Mariners weren't as bad as their  record indicated," says the NL executive. "Their pitching underachieved last year. They might have become a contender with their signings. We'll have to see about the other teams."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]