Thoughts in Hot Stove anticipation
Plenty to consider before big free agents make their moves
These free-agent winters have become theater, "Wall Street" to some, "Springtime in Germany with Hitler" to others. Agents for most of the major players on the market believe little or nothing will happen until the Winter Meetings nearly a month from now, so while they try to play the media like cellos and violas, what we are now in is the overture.
"What has to happen is that the serious players for [Cliff] Lee, [Carl] Crawford, [Jayson] Werth, [Adrian] Beltre and [Victor] Martinez have to be identified after dozens of teams have done their due dabbling," says one general manager. "Then the major players have to go to work. Lee is a unique case, but it may take a few weeks before the Yankees and Rangers get into the game to see who'll go to six years. Martinez could be one of those situations where if the Tigers swoop in and offer him four or five years, they might get it done.
"But," says the GM, "the others are related. If the Angels think they cannot get Crawford, will they jump in on Rafael Soriano and Beltre? Will the Yankees jump in on Crawford if they can't sign Lee? Will Boston sign two out of Crawford, Beltre and Werth, or will they hold for Adrian Gonzalez next June, July or October? That takes a long time. And with the way the General Managers Meetings are structured [next week in Orlando], the fact that only GMs and owners are allowed to attend and none of the assistant general managers will be there may further postpone the process."
There are countless theoreticals that will be included in briefs every team will get from players' representatives. Yes, there are three players on the market who in 2010 had at least 25 homers, 35 doubles and 100 RBIs -- Beltre, Adam Dunn and Adam LaRoche, although one could throw in Paul Konerko's 39 homers, 111 RBIs, 30 doubles and .393 on-base percentage. No one can argue Martinez's middle-of-the-order bat, his unselfish handling of pitchers and burning desire to win, juxtaposed with defensive "shortcomings" that are constantly raised, and that blur his worth and raise the question of whether he is an elite offensive catcher or a first baseman/DH.
Lee is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter who is in Olympian condition without any history of elbow or shoulder problems, the only flag raised being minor back issues this past season.
Crawford, Werth and Beltre have the added market value of all being premier defenders, and one agent claims "teams are so conscious of defense these days that a player who hits in the middle of the order and is a Gold Glove defensive player has additional value."
The question on Crawford is whether one wants him to bat first or third, whether one views him as a 70-stolen-base leadoff hitter or a slashing three-hole hitter who might put up 50 doubles, a dozen triples and 15 homers in offensive ballparks.
It is important that Beltre be comfortable, which he was in Los Angeles, was not in Seattle and was after he had a month to become accustomed to the Boston infield and audience; his one issue will be whether his legs hold up to playing ferociously for five years, especially since he wants to play every day so badly he often won't let the medical staff know if he is hurting.
Werth is a fascinating theoretical. Yes, he is past 30 -- 31 to be exact. But because of the hand injury that caused him to miss one full year and parts of two others, his body has not taken the beating of playing 150-plus games for six years. He's essentially played three full seasons as a regular in Philadelphia, during which he put up an OPS of .991 against lefties, .843 against right-handers, and averaged 29 homers while playing half his games in a hitter-friendly environment. He can play all three outfield positions and has a lean frame that shouldn't age quickly, as well as the athletic genes of a mother who holds the world 100-yard-dash record (they went to 100 meters after she set the mark) and whose grandfather played 19 years in the Majors.
We know the Yankees, Angels, Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers and possibly the White Sox, Orioles and Mariners have money to spend. We know the Dodgers, Mets and several of the smaller markets do not, at least for the Crawford/Lee level of free agents. We can pretty much assume that Gonzalez and Prince Fielder are not going to sign long-term deals in San Diego or Milwaukee, which could become side issues.
So, while we wait for the frenzy, here are 10 thoughts:
1. While in Boston there was public support to give David Ortiz the type of extension he sought, the Red Sox took mild criticism across the industry for picking up their $12.5 million option. Ortiz is like the Citgo sign in that market, an icon who has been a huge part of the current ownership's success. But in the same week, the Rangers did not pick up Vladimir Guerrero's $9 million option after he batted .300, knocked in 115 runs and had one of the biggest hits in the AL Championship Series to bring Arlington its first World Series.
The market for pure designated hitters is not what one might think, and while Ortiz did lead all DHs in homers with 32 and posted an .899 OPS, the fact remains that over the past three seasons his average is .257, OPS is .854 and against left-handed pitchers has batted .218, which may force Terry Francona into the uncomfortable position of having to platoon Big Papi in a division that has CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and possibly Lee, Brian Matusz, David Price, Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero.
Jim Thome put up a 1.039 OPS for the Twins for $1.5 million. For $4 million, Luke Scott led all full-time DHs with a .902 OPS. Manny Ramirez, who since returning from his 2009 suspension has batted .284 with an .876 OPS and 22 homers in 525 at-bats (a homer every 23.9 at-bats, a rate half that of his first three-plus months in Los Angeles), will be on the market looking for something in between Scott and Guerrero.
2. One of the lingering memories of the postseason is just how good Buster Posey really is. Teammates readily talked of him as being "the real thing," but aside from his hands, quick feet and arm, being at the park and seeing how his fly balls carry was stunning. He hit fly balls that off the bat appeared to be destined to approach the warning track, only to carry far beyond fences. And he still looks as if he's built like Adam Everett.
3. Scott Boras was at USC last weekend watching his son Shane work out with his Trojans teammates, and while he was there, he looked at the plaque from the 1948 College World Series champions and noticed that the bat boy was George (Sparky) Anderson. And that NBA Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, who got to Triple-A in the Dodgers organization before focusing on basketball, was on that team. Yes, USC beat Yale to win the College World Series, and the Elis' first baseman was George H.W. Bush.
4. If the Athletics sign Hisashi Iwakuma and trade one of their young pitchers for positional help, it will be interesting to see how Iwakuma performs. The Daisuke Matsuzaka signing has raised questions for many teams about Japanese starting pitchers and their transition to the U.S. game, because they start once a week and the baseballs are smaller.
5. When the Mets general manager decision came down to Sandy Alderson or Josh Byrnes, it was a clear message that Jeff Wilpon wanted a strong-willed, highly intelligent leader and that he was tired of being pictured as the man manipulating the chaos from behind the curtain. Alderson's priority is to get the organization in place, with J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta his start. Then comes the manager. Then he must figure out how to put the pieces in place, starting with medical reports on Johan Santana, who will turn 32 during Spring Training.
6. Toronto could not have done better than John Farrell, especially while retaining Brian Butterfield, who may be the single best coach in the business.
7. Puh-leaze. Derek Jeter isn't going anywhere. He needs the Yankees brand, the Yankees need the Jeter brand. It's easy to throw out "overpay" from behind a keyboard, easy to remind people that Marco Scutaro has eight more extra-base hits than Jeter in 2009-10. Jeter is going to open the 2011 season at shortstop.
8. Yes, the Rangers did lead the American League in bullpen innings pitched.
9. The Red Sox seem firmly convinced that Jared Saltalamacchia can be their regular catcher. His throws averaged 1.95 seconds to second base in Pawtucket, and they love his enthusiasm. Bringing Jason Varitek back to hit against left-handed pitchers, work Josh Beckett and John Lackey and provide Salty with a mentor seems to make a lot of sense if Martinez is going to move on.
10. Eleven of the 25 players on Tampa Bay's roster are free agents, including the entire bullpen. It will be fascinating to see what Andrew Friedman does with the challenge of retooling the Rays, and whether or not he trades Jason Bartlett and/or a starting pitcher (James Shields? Matt Garza?).
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.