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October 30, 2003

Breaking Balls

Free Agent Season

by Derek Zumsteg

Ah, free agent filing season, the most exciting time of the baseball season. What sports fan doesn't eagerly check the Web several times a day, an ear to the radio and an eye on ESPNews, hoping to find out if Kenny Lofton beat Marvin Benard in the race to file for the millions their agents have assured them is waiting for each.

Yes, faster than you'll hear someone sing "baby" after tuning into your local pop/R&B station, the long quiet is on us. We're left to looking over the free agent lists and trying to come up with funny teams. Like: How much would you have to pay to lose more games than the Tigers next year? Guys you could pay a lot for their recognizable name and veteran leadership...oh yeah, *veteran goodness...mmmmm...


C:  Brad Ausmus, 35, .229/.303/.291
1B: Eric Karros, 36, .286/.340/.446
2B: Roberto Alomar, 36, .258/.333/.349
SS: Tony Womack, 35, .226/.251/.307
3B: Shane Halter, 34, .217/.269/.342
LF: John Mabry, 34, .212/.328/.356 
CF: Kenny Lofton, 37, .296/.352/.450
RF: Todd Hollandsworth, 31, .254/.317/.421

*Ages WAGed as current age+1.

Ooooh man, that's sweet. These guys mostly can't hit, and almost to a man can't field well as an added bonus. Some tough choices emerged while picking, though: would you pay much more for a little more with Vinny Castilla at third, if he does indeed pick the ball better? If you're making a team of expensive bad free agents and determined to be awful, why not pay Jamey Wright two hundred million to play center field? Besides our desire to put him in the starting rotation, that is.

There's an obvious top tier this year: Gary Sheffield is a free agent again, and agentless. Vladimir Guerrero, Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon, Miguel Tejada...Al Martin.

And then there's a couple of guys, like Rafael Palmeiro, who offer some skills (baseball skills, thank you) and could help some close-to-contention turn a roster gap into a temporary strength.

Ivan Rodriguez, like Carl Everett, hits the market after having a huge rebound season. For all the talk about Everett's return being a product of his move out of center field, Everett started 76 games in center, over twice as many as he did at either corner.

No Alex Rodriguez, though. Luis Castillo, who is rumored to be seeking a lucrative multi-year deal, is 28 and hit .314/.381/.397, which is a nice enough line to have from your second baseman but doesn't make me want to cash in my war bonds so I can bask in his glory for a couple of years. Tejada seems the most likely to get the biggest deal, what with his May 25, 1976 birth date courtesy of the Dominican Republic, where, as I'm sure you're all aware, means there's a significant chance that not only is Tejada not actually 27 today, but there is a fair chance that he doesn't even bat right-handed, and has forged all the documents and footage that show him batting from that side.

The big barrier to Tejada getting huge money is the lack of suckers--I mean, shoppers--out there for him, and some of those bidders are thinking about Kaz Matsui. Early prediction: park-adjusted, Matsui will be the fifth-most-valuable shortstop next year or thereabouts, all facets of his game considered, and will spark another silly round of discussion on why, exactly, first-year players shouldn't count as first-year players if they're Japanese (incidentally, if it's racist to consider Japanese players rookies despite their being rookies, I'd like to know how it was racist for former Negro Leaguers to win Rookie of the Year awards, and how, exactly, we should regard the RoY being named for one of these players--is it really the greatest racist insult baseball's perpetrated in 50 years?). Of the teams with big budgets, the Dodgers most clearly need a shortstop, and even there there are two problems: they're attempting an ownership change, which throws a kink into payroll planning, and if they do spend, they're likely to be in the Matsui bidding.

This just in: I read in the Chicago Sun-Times (and will read in the Chicago Tribune tomorrow) that Bartolo Colon turned down a 3-year, $33-million offer to head for free agency. I think that's likely to be the best offer he sees this off-season.

I think the real reason everyone pays such close attention to the free agent lists is that we all secretly hope that there'll be a filing error and the local albatross will suddenly be declared a free agent, freeing the team from his ill-advised contract. It must be some relief to Orioles fans to finally see Albert Belle's name appear on lists, knowing that no longer will he be lurking on the 40-man roster, as millions flow from team to player (and sucker insurance, company to team). Would it be that we were all so lucky as to see the name we try and skip our eyes past on the roster appear unexpectedly on the day's free agent news recap, perhaps with rumors of interested and gullible division rivals already sniffing around.

On an unrelated note, I understand that Jeff Cirillo has worked out the hitch in his swing and should be expected to return to his early, super-productive form, and will be a bargain at twice the price. Anyone?

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