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December 8, 2009

On the Beat

Day One of the Winter Meetings

by John Perrotto

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It used to be that free agents never accepted their club's offers of salary arbitration over staying out on the open market. However, it also used to be that clubs would open the checkbook wide for even the most average free agents. Things changed last winter when multi-year contracts were the exception rather than the norm on the free-agent market. This year, almost all 30 major-league clubs are saying that their payrolls for 2010 are going to stay the same or go down, and many players and agents are apprehensive about what the market might bear this winter.

Proof of that came Monday night, as three free-agent pitchers agreed to the security of accepting arbitration that, in effect, binds them to their club for next season. Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt, Twins right-hander Carl Pavano, and Braves right-hander Rafael Soriano all went that route before the midnight deadline.

The biggest surprise was Soriano, as he is one of the top relievers in a pitching-thin market. The Braves had no intention of re-signing Soriano, particularly after signing free-agent relievers Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito last week. Well into Monday evening they were certain that Soriano was bluffing.

However, Soriano wasn't bluffing and now appears likely to get a raise over the $6.35 million he made last season while going 1-6 with 27 saves and a 2.97 ERA in 77 relief appearances. He led the Braves and was sixth in the National League with a 3.710 WXRL.

The Braves gave Wagner a one-year, $7 million contract with the idea that he would be their closer in 2010. Now they have their 2009 closer back, too, and a pair of very high-priced relievers. So what are they going to do?

Braves manager Bobby Cox was emphatic during the first day of the Winter Meetings on Monday that the job will be Wagner's, even though he pitched just 15 2/3 innings with the Mets and Red Sox last season after returning from Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

"He pitched his first inning back from his rehab in New York against us and he was lights-out," Cox said. "(General manager) Frank Wren had the scouts on him when he went to Boston and they all had glowing reports. We spent a lot of time with Billy up at his home in Virginia and he's excited to do this again. He definitely wants to close, and we think he's a good one."

Pavano made $4.35 million last season with the Indians and Twins, which included $1.5 million in base salary and $2.85 million in performance bonuses after making 33 starts and pitching 199 1/3 innings. Pavano was 14-12 with a 5.10 ERA and 2.7 SNLVAR. "Carl felt very comfortable in the Twins' clubhouse and feels they have a very good chance to win in 2010," said Tom O'Connell, Pavano's agent.

With Pavano in the fold, the Twins have ended their pursuit of pitching and now focus on finding either a second baseman or third baseman, with Nick Punto starting at whatever position doesn't get filled.

Betancourt was a combined 4-3 with two saves and a 2.73 ERA in 61 games with the Indians and Rockies last season and had 1.790 WXRL. The Rockies had hoped to sign Betancourt to a two-year, $7 million contract, but the two sides were unable to come to terms. He will likely have a salary of at least $5 million next season after making $3.35 million in 2009.

Rockies manager Jim Tracy was glad to have Betancourt back to set up closer Huston Street, who is mulling a three-year contract offer. "Those last nine outs of the game are vitally important, and Rafael helped us get those," Tracy said.

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There were two trades Monday, and both were seemingly minor, as the Yankees dealt right-handed reliever Brian Bruney to the Nationals for the Nationals' Rule 5 pick and the Tigers shipped left-handed reliever Clay Rapada to the Rangers for a player to be named or cash.

However, the Bruney trade might have a big impact on the Nationals, as they are considering making him their closer next season, and not tendering a contract to Mike MacDougal by the midnight Friday deadline, which would make him a free agent. MacDougal was a combined 1-1 with 20 saves, a 4.31 ERA, and a 1.572 WXRL in 57 games with the White Sox and Nationals last season. He figures to get a substantial raise over his $2.65 million salary if the Nationals decide to go to arbitration with him.

Bruney was 5-0 with a 3.92 ERA and 1.367 WXRL in 44 games with the Yankees last season. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman would not commit to who would close next season, though. "I think that's a healthy situation, to have some competition out there and maybe the hot hand takes it," Riggleman said. "Who knows? By the time we leave these meetings or somewhere during the course of the winter, maybe something happens where we identify one person to be a closer, but I think that this gives us another option to look at through spring training to see how it evolves."

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Five-time World Series umpire Doug Harvey and six-time division-winning manager Whitey Herzog were elected to the Hall of Fame on Monday by the Veterans Committee for Managers and Umpires.

Herzog won the World Series in 1982 with the Cardinals, with a team that had Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith playing shortstop. Smith was ecstatic that his former skipper will be joining him in Cooperstown on July 25 as part of the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, NY. "Managing is a very difficult job, and it takes a real special person with a great knack for handling people to be successful because you're blending so many different personalities into one cohesive unit," Smith said. "I don't think there has ever been anybody who has been as good at that as Whitey. He was a unique individual and he was truly a baseball guy through and through. He provided an environment that gave you every opportunity to succeed."

Herzog led the Royals to three straight American League West titles from 1976-78, and then guided the Cardinals to World Series win in '82 and National League pennants in 1985 and 1987.

Harvey was an NL umpire for 31 years and was selected to work six All-Star Games. "Doug's nickname was 'God,'" Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda said. "That pretty much tells you all to need to know about Doug Harvey. He was a great umpire and always in charge of the game."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Tigers insist they are not holding a fire sale, but they have been willing to discuss first baseman Miguel Cabrera, center fielder Curtis Granderson, right-hander Edwin Jackson, and catcher Gerald Laird in trade talks. The Cubs have interest in Padres closer Heath Bell, and they are at work preparing a trade package centered on catcher Geovany Soto. The Mets are backing off the idea of pursuing free-agent left fielder Jason Bay and are instead talking to the Nationals about trading for Josh Willingham. The Orioles are trying to trade for Rangers right-hander Kevin Millwood to serve as an anchor to a young starting rotation and are offering outfielder Felix Pie. The Orioles are also interested in free-agent closer Kevin Gregg.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Carl Pavano,  Rafael Soriano

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