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12/05/08 10:00 AM EST

Free agent pitching market to be set

Winter Meetings to spark an active offseason for hurlers

The search for top-shelf pitching is international, but starting on Monday it will be centered in Las Vegas, site of the 2008 Winter Meetings.

Barring a spate of signings over the weekend, the big names in the free agent pitching industry will still be at large, so the drama can build nicely toward Nevada. Record spending for pitching contracts could be in the works, but this is all happening against a backdrop of an economic situation that is somewhere between recessionary and frightening.

The first signing of a major free agent pitcher will set the market and could also break the logjam for pitching contracts. By the standards of recent offseasons, regardless of how much money is spent, this is a free agent class with a wealth of pitching talent. And as always when it comes to pitching, the demand exceeds the supply, thus driving the prices even higher.

Will the long-term economic concerns outweigh baseball's recent record-setting prosperity? It remains to be seen how the entire market will shake out, but the initial indications are that, at the high end of free agent pitching talent, there will be very little skimping, scrimping, or cost-cutting.

CC Sabathia stands at the top of the heap, both in professional stature and in potential financial gain. The Yankees are already on the table with a reported $140 million, six-year offer, which would break the current pitching compensation record held by Johan Santana and his employers, the Mets, with $137.5 million over six years.

The question here is, in against Yankees' unbeatable supply of money, how aggressively West Coast suitors will pursue Sabathia. He is a native Californian with a stated preference for the National League. He likes to swing the bat and he is capable of more than occasional success at the plate. His most recent club, the Brewers, made a reported five-year, $100 million offer that represented a truly significant commitment for a small-market franchise, but was still not in the immediate neighborhood of the Yankees' offer.

But there are other pitchers who have windfall potential, even if they won't be setting any records. Derek Lowe, coming off a big second half with the Dodgers, should be in line for a deal exceeded only by Sabathia's. A.J. Burnett, in complete health for a change, had the kind of numbers for the Blue Jays that his imposing talent always suggested. His previous health history might give potential employers pause, but in this market, he is still in for a serious payday.

What about Ben Sheets, with No. 1 starter stuff, but a truly iffy record of availability in recent seasons? Does some team, perhaps frustrated in a bid for Sabathia or Lowe or Burnett or all three, take a long-term, expensive chance that Sheets' ability will count for more than his aches and pains?

And for that matter, can somebody be a suitable trading partner with the Padres for Jake Peavy? His talent is indisputable and at 27 he's younger than anybody else in this talent bracket.

Those are just a few of the starters -- the most expensive starters -- available. Among the free agent relievers are some of the biggest names in the business, primarily at this moment Francisco Rodriguez, who just set the single-season save record (62) with the Angels. He'll be just 27 when the 2009 season starts. From the standpoint of cashing in this winter, he's the CC Sabathia of closers at this point.

Kerry Wood, his career reborn with the Cubs, is on the market. So is the all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, as the Padres head off in a younger direction. Brian Fuentes, himself coming off a resurgent campaign with the Rockies, is not only a successful closer, but that rare and precious commodity, the left-handed reliever.

Typically, more and better left-handed relief is a state of constant yearning for Major League clubs. There are theoretically at least eight veteran lefty non-closing relievers with some record of helping somebody who are still on the market.

Add it all up, and baseball's most fundamental, most necessary commodity, is still out there to be had in numerous cases. In theory, this would make for a frenetic round of wheeling and dealing, not to mention spending, when the clubs gather in Vegas. But predictions for active Winter Meetings, like predictions about what the stock market is going to do next are more easily disposed than cherished.

The very course of the 2009 season for some clubs will be set by the decisions made about and by these pitchers. Whether they happen in a rapid-fire, high-profile fashion in Las Vegas, or occur over a much longer, generally quieter period of time, they will happen at some point. At the very least these Meetings should set the tone for a very active, very expensive winter of the pursuit of pitching.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.