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01/17/12 10:00 AM EST
It's late, but there's still talent among free agents
Teams looking for DH or one more piece running out of time
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
A month before the portending equipment trucks roll toward Florida and Arizona, nearly a hundred ballplayers do not yet know what their own destinations will be. They are the free agents remaining on a market about to mobilize with the urgency of approaching Spring Training. Not yet -- the big current shadow is cast by salary arbitration, with clubs eager to sign players with whom they will otherwise exchange figures on Tuesday. Momentum toward that began Monday, when a dozen arbitration-eligible players came off the docket by reaching agreements with their teams on 2012 contracts. But if the free-agent market were anything like the stock market, no doubt bells would be going off somewhere. And in that case, the man pressing the button to set off those bells would fittingly be Prince Fielder. The marquee first baseman is still out there, amid the speculation and the rumors, most of them dog-eared by now. However, the long weekend did bring two news items. One cropped a chronic suitor -- the Cubs -- from the picture; new Chicago manager Dale Sveum said a union with Fielder is "just not going to happen." Another reintroduced a club believed from the get-go to be a natural match -- the Rangers. Club president Nolan Ryan took time out from negotiations with Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish to have a "very preliminary" sit-down with Fielder and agent Scott Boras. However, if Texas strikes a deal with Darvish, it appears unlikely that it will also be able to make payroll space for Fielder -- notwithstanding the signing of Albert Pujols by the division-rival Angels. Two Fielder longshots linger on the periphery, both seemingly outlandish but neither dismissed with any totality: That he would return to Milwaukee on a short-term deal that would allow him to again pursue free agency while in his prime, and that Boras is still intrigued about the timeline of the Dodgers' sale enabling him to do business with the new, presumably well-heeled owners. Pure fantasy, perhaps, but "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" does have a ring to it. Ryan, facing a Wednesday deadline to negotiate Darvish's deal, wasn't the only one at that meeting with divided attention. Boras did place one of his clients -- closer Ryan Madson signed with the Reds -- but retains a full barrel. Johnny Damon, included in Boras' cache, was injected into the speculation triggered by the week's biggest trade -- the Yankees' acquisition of right-hander Michael Pineda from Seattle, in which general manager Brian Cashman parted with young slugger Jesus Montero. Montero had been slotted to be the Yankees' designated hitter, so they immediately cast about for a possible replacement, also making preliminary inquiries on another former Bomber, Hideki Matsui, and Carlos Pena. New York's spending ceiling for a DH supposedly is $2 million. Would Damon, whose salary the previous three years declined from $13 million (Yankees) to $8 million (Tigers) to $5.5 million (Rays), consider another pay cut? Then again, $2 million a year ago got Manny Ramirez (briefly) to Tampa Bay, and he is again available -- though he'd have to first serve a 50-game suspension. Pena, who earned $10 million last season in his "pillow contract" with the Cubs, seems out of the Yankees' price range, but is an interesting temptation. The Yankee Stadium jet stream could be ideal for his lefty swing; he has already hit six homers in 48 at-bats there. And the Yankees did claim Pena last August, before the Cubs pulled him off the waiver list. Other suitors for Pena, who clocked 28 homers in his first National League season, do not appear to have deeper pockets. They include the Indians, whose fall-back option at first base could be Casey Kotchman, and Tampa Bay, where he could step into Damon's role. In their quick double-strike to bolster their rotation, the Yankees also signed free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. Having him off the market doesn't hurt the bargaining power of another Boras client, Edwin Jackson, now unrivaled as the top available right-handed starter. Roy Oswalt is also still on the loose but, after having had his workload cut by back problems, is being evaluated as possible bullpen depth by some suitors. Joe Saunders, who has had a short offseason after being non-tendered by Arizona, is a premium available left-hander. Saunders may be hurt by his image as the traditional "innings-eater," implying he spends much of his starts on the ropes. Yet the 30-year-old has won 54 games over the past four seasons, and in 2011 his ERA of 3.69 tied for sixth-best by a left-hander in the NL.