Dominoes ready to fall at Winter Meetings
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Some issues may be settled before they even see the mouse ears. Derek Jeter's contract finally looks to be done, like Mariano Rivera, and the White Sox and Adam Dunn did the logical without the drama of the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort lobby.
But as baseball executives on every level begin their descent on the Dophin and make their reservations at Todd English's Blue Zoo, there are a myriad of interesting storylines that do not involve the inevitable return of Jeter to the Yankees. It starts with the dream: Could the Yankees ever afford Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, could the Rangers get Lee and Zack Greinke, could the Red Sox still find a way to trade for Adrian Gonzalez and sign Crawford?
Every signing, every deal will be met with the scrutiny of the TSA officials, now that one can find baseball analysts on every tweet and blog from Manhattan to the Yeehaw Junction Daily Ticket. OK, OK, there's outrage at the Rod Barajas signing, and we get it, but before Miguel Olivo beats that, understand that while the analytic media is far more sophisticated than it was when Charlie Finley roamed the earth, understand that the folks who run these baseball operations these days are far from the "one of us" fellas of the early days of free agency.
Just remember: The Angels once signed left-handed-hitting outfielder Rick Miller as a free agent, thinking he was the right-handed-hitting Dwight Evans. And in 1980, Finley went to arbitration with infielder Mike Edwards. The A's filed at $58,000, and Edwards' agent Jerry Kapstein filed at $50,000 (thanks to the brilliant Maury Brown for confirming that).
They settled. You think?
In many ways, the most significant player figure here at Disney will be Lee, deservedly so. While other teams have at least played in the auction, it has long seemed that this comes down to the Yankees and Rangers, with the contrasting tax rates in play. If Lee goes back to Texas, then will the Yankees break the bank for Crawford and weigh the consequences of trading prospects to get Greinke and risk that he can't handle the spotlight? If Lee goes to the Yankees, will the Rangers then unload part of their deep farm system to get Greinke and get in the Crawford sweepstakes?
But unless the Red Sox, Angels or someone else is willing to pony Mark Teixeira cash or even a Jayson Werth-type contract this weekend, why would Crawford sign before Lee? He can think about hitting doubles off the Green Monster and inside-the-parkers into that right-field-corner rotary, and he can think about lockering next to Torii Hunter, but where Lee goes presents him with the combination to another vault.
And what Crawford does impacts Adrian Beltre. They all impact Paul Konerko, and while we believe he will return out of the mutual loyalty with Jerry Reinsdorf, that in turn impacts Mark Reynolds and his potential trade with the Orioles.
Then there is the Gonzalez situation. If the Padres do trade him, the reality of the question is: now or July, and when do the Padres get the most in return and will there be a greater letdown in the middle of the season if they are only five to seven games out of first place?
San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer knows the Red Sox system and Jason McLeod did an extraordinary job building it as scouting director, so they know Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, Reymond Fuentes, et al. If Boston could still pull off a deal, the Red Sox could move Kevin Youkilis back to third, use Gonzalez on a cheap $6.2 million deal in 2011 and sign Crawford, they might be close to the game's best offensive team.
Now, there are concerns about the surgery Gonzalez recently had on his shoulder, but in 2010 he was second in the National League with 22 intentional walks, had a .980 OPS on the road, .937 OPS against lefties and in the last two seasons has led the Majors in opposite-field homers.
"He would be sick in Fenway Park," said Don Mattingly, who knows a thing or two about that park.
Prince Fielder is in an identical situation to that of Gonzalez, but is perceived to be more adamant about taking his power into the market at the end of next season. The D-backs have weighed the market on Justin Upton and the judgment has been that the cost has been too high, although why wouldn't Kevin Towers ask for a huge package for a 23-year-old with Frank Robinson tools?
Shortstops like J.J. Hardy and Jason Bartlett will be bandied about, but while Bobby Jenks is obviously going to find a home, don't expect the middle-reliever market to be determined quickly. Now, there are close to 20 teams looking for bullpen help, but if you are Joe Bick or Mike Milchin and you're representing Matt Guerrier or Jesse Crain, you're going to have to get three years to get a deal done quickly.
A prime example is the three-year, $16.5 million contract the Tigers gave Joaquin Benoit. Granted, Benoit had a great year, with a 1.34 ERA, 30 hits and a 75-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 1/3 innings, but he missed 2009 and went to Port Charlotte, Fla., last spring as a non-roster invitee. In 10 Major League seasons, he has had an ERA of 4.86 or higher six times.
"This is a position where teams are going to have to wait and let the market come back to them," said one NL general manager.
What will be interesting is to watch the evolution of the Jeter-Yankees relationship. This should have been done in August, out of the light of constant reminders that Jeter isn't what he is perceived to be, with a simple three- or four-year deal with a clause similar to the one Alex Rodriguez once had that Jeter's contract would always make him the highest-paid shortstop in the game. Troy Tulowitzki signs in November? Jeter's contract shifts to three years, $51 million ... whatever.
Jeter's value isn't about sabermetrics, it's not an elite player contract, it is a marquee contract, and there are a small circle of players who meet that criteria -- drafted and raised by the same franchise, opening and closing championship eras. Remember, the Yankees got Jeter because they stunk and had the sixth pick in the Draft. The next time they have the sixth pick in the Draft, about 37 employees will have been dismissed.
When team president Randy Levine has his functions for corporate sponsors and Goldman Sachs partners are willing to discuss $850,000 season tickets, Jeter will be there. He will be DiMaggio on 30-something Old-Timers' Days, introduced by the voice of Bob Sheppard. He will be a constant on YES. He and Rivera may be The Last Yankees, five golden rings.
So there was no need for the leaks and smears campaign, which reaked of Levine's days with Rudy Giuliani. This wasn't a highly contested election. They knew a year ago that Jeter's expectations would be high, and had plenty of time to whittle them down. But, let's face it. The Yankees' GNP may be greater than that of Paraguay, so the entire story became Joba Rules, a reality show in which Jeter was taught that their brand is broader than his.
Now it's on to Lee and/or Crawford and watching the Rangers, Angels and Red Sox. Sorry, but the good old days aren't coming back. We don't have anyone who'll sign Melky Cabrera thinking he's Miguel Cabrera.
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.