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01/23/09 1:42 PM EST

Agent sees a whole new ballgame

Axelrod explains how this is a decidely different free-agent winter

SAN DIEGO -- For as long as he can remember, agent Barry Axelrod has asked clients to sign and date a baseball for him as a memento to symbolize the consummation of what he considers a "significant contract."

One of his favorites is a ball signed by former Astros second baseman Craig Biggio in the winter of 1995, after he hit the open market for the first time in his career.

Axelrod considers the ball somewhat symbolic, though not because of the four-year, $22 million deal he helped broker between his client and the Astros.

It's more because of the date on the ball: Dec. 14, 1995.

"He was one of the top two or three free agents that year and it was the first time he had been a free agent," Axelrod said. "Craig was really struggling with making a decision. I mean, he really agonized over it.

"I couldn't find him for half a day or something because he was somewhere trying to sort out his decision. I remember that we got a lot of criticism for how long we were taking. Now I'll go and look at that ball and think ... 'things have changed a little.'"

Barely three weeks before the start of Spring Training, Axelrod, who has two notable clients -- Mark Sweeney and Rich Aurilia -- still looking for work, discussed frustration over a slow-moving market that has left many an established player wondering where they'll be next month -- Spring Training or home.

"Who would bet that on Jan. 22 that Manny Ramirez would be unsigned," Axelrod said on Thursday.

Hot Stove

Axelrod, who also represent San Diego pitcher Jake Peavy, who a year ago signed a $52 million extension, thinks this downturn has been in the offing for a while, though maybe not felt quite as much until this offseason.

"This was happening last year, just with not as many big names," Axelrod said. "I went through it last year with Sweeney and also remember commiserating with Sean Casey and Tony Clark who were sitting and waiting. And [Scott Boras client] Kyle Lohse, he didn't sign until deep into Spring Training."

And now, Axelrod is still waiting to find matches for Sweeney and Aurilia. Sweeney is 39 and is a 14-year Major League veteran who has long had a reputation of being one of the top pinch-hitters in the game and a good clubhouse guy. He made $600,000 in 2008, and doesn't figure to break the bank. But he's still looking.

Same with Aurilia, who is 37 and is coming off a season that saw him hit .283 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs in 140 games for the Giants in 2008. Aurilia is a steady player who offers power. He made $4.5 million last season, the second year of a two-year, $8 million deal.

So why are they still waiting? Why is the free-agent market as flooded with players so close to the start of Spring Training?

"I keep hearing how teams 'like these guys,' but I think that teams seem to be expending their assets more on younger players and players still under their control," Axelrod said. "Teams are valuing their 37th, 38th, 39th guys on their 40-man roster. I have never seen that before.

"Before, there were always four or five guys on a [40-man] roster who were expendable. You've got Omar Vizquel, a Hall of Famer, signing a Minor League deal [with Texas]. Teams don't want to drop a guy. It's tough. It's really tough on these guys because they still want to continue playing."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.