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02/13/09 12:47 PM EST

Hot Stove proves to be cold for many

Several established players took pay cuts or remain unsigned

Pitchers and catchers, the smell of freshly mowed grass and sunscreen in the air.

Not a moment too soon, to draw the curtains on this strange and taxing offseason, in which both the Hot Stove and free agents searching for a gig simmered.

With the economy throwing hard and inside, free agents have either downsized their opening requests, or are still Lost on an island as befuddling as that hit TV series.

The brush-off of free agents was arguably the biggest, longest running story of offseason 2008-09.

The most astonishing aspect of the market is a coin flip: That 72 of 220 remain unsigned, including those who became free agents when not tendered a contract by their teams by Dec. 12, but excluding five who have retired (Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Todd Jones, Jeff Kent and Sean Casey); or that 50 who did sign did so to Minor League contracts?

Either way, a cold winter of cold shoulders.

Reasons for the lethargic market were many, but they always got back to the sluggish economy, which most teams expect to impact their cash flow due to the pullback of corporate advertisers.

As Pirates club president Frank Coonelly remarked at the end of January, the free agents were "still asking for prices based on yesterday's market."

The early birds got them. And not just from the Yankees, who signed their $441.5 million holy trinity of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira between Dec. 10-23.

Other key December signings included Francisco Rodriguez (Mets), Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake (Dodgers), Raul Ibanez and Jamie Moyer (Phillies) and closers Kerry Wood (Indians) and Brian Fuentes (Angels).

All made out OK financially, pulling down an aggregate $166,500,000. Although it took the other 29 teams a while to match the Bombers' spending spree. Fifty-eight signings to be exact: Derek Lowe's $60 million agreement on Jan. 13 with the Braves finally put the 29 over the Yankees trio.

Then the money shriveled.

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As if to confirm the call of a shrewd agent, who had said in late November: "The elite 30 or so players will get paid. But the middle class is going to get crushed."

Still, middle class in baseball is a bit different than anywhere else: Through the rash of signings the last couple of days (Bobby Abreu with the Angels, Adam Dunn with the Nationals, Braden Looper with the Brewers and Brian Shouse with the Rays) MLB clubs have committed more than a billion (to be precise, $1,094,250,000) to free agents.

Yet, a number of truly accomplished players remain unsigned as camps from Arizona to Florida spring to life. Among them: Garret Anderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera and, most prominently and curiously, Manny Ramirez.

Advice to players who will be in camp: Train, and play, hard. Lots of eyes are looking over your shoulders.

So the tour map from the end of the season to the dawn of another looks a bit like a Twister mat. We hit some of the key spots:

Brian Cashman's favorite appetizer must be red herring: On Nov. 13, the Yankees GM said, "There has been speculation that we can pull down two or three of the top [free agents], and people are just getting carried away. That is not feasible. That is completely unrealistic." That became completely true.

Scott Boras can be wrong: : Early in the process, the man took naysayers to task, saying, "I think this market will be as aggressive as any. Baseball has long-term contracts with national and local TV networks. ... As I've said all along, the hay is in the barn." But so far, Manny isn't.

It's OPEC's fault: At the end of October, when premium was pumping for $4.50 a gallon, Ramirez famously said, "The [price of] gasoline is up, and so am I." Now, you can get it for half that, but holdout Ramirez still doesn't get it.

What did they talk about, the weather? Padres GM Kevin Towers and Barry Axelrod, the San Diego-based agent of pitcher Jake Peavy, carpooled to Las Vegas, the site of the Winter Meetings, at the height of the Peavy trade talks. Yet, they both claimed to not have mentioned Peavy during the entire ride.

Attention, I-Rod shoppers: "Free-agent bargain is an oxymoron," an anonymous person once said. Ivan Rodriguez may never have heard of that quote, but the veteran catcher is still bent on disproving it. Preparing to catch for Puerto Rico in next month's World Baseball Classic, Rodriguez proclaims, "I'm in great shape. Whoever gets me, it's going to be a lot like hitting the lotto. I'm back in the shape I was in 2004. I'm at 195-200 [pounds], and I'm ready to go."

You can leave home again: Trevor Hoffman and John Smoltz, who had put in a combined 37 seasons with their respective teams, the Padres and the Braves, were lowballed into blazing new trails in Milwaukee and Boston.

Hey, it ain't boxing:: Still, these guys could have used a cutman in their corner. They took the biggest pay slashes of this strange offseason.

• Jason Giambi: cut $15.75 million ($21 million with Yankees to $5.25 million with A's).
• Mike Hampton: $13 million ($15 million with Braves to $2 million with Astros).
• Bobby Abreu: $11 million ($16 million with Yankees to $5 million with Angels).
• Andy Pettitte: $10.5 million ($16 million to $5.5 million with Yankees).
• Carl Pavano: $9.5 million ($11 million with Yankees to $1.5 million with Indians).
• Pat Burrell: $7 million ($14 million with Phillies to $7 million with Rays).
• Adam Dunn: $5 million ($13 million with Reds/D-backs to $8 million with Nats).
• Omar Vizquel: $4.9 million ($5.3 million with Giants to Minor deal with Rangers).
• Jason Varitek: $4 million ($9 million to $5 million with Red Sox).
• Angel Berroa: $3.95 million ($4.75 million with Dodgers to Minor deal with Yankees, valued at $800,000 if on big league roster).
• Juan Uribe: $3.5 million ($4.5 million with White Sox to Minor deal with Giants, valued at $1 million if on big league roster).
• Brad Penny: $3.5 million ($8.5 million with Dodgers to $5 million with Red Sox).

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