It is always one of the most interesting and nerve-wracking moments of the year. No, I’m not talking about sitting down to Christmas dinner with the in-laws then having my great nephew, likely the loudest 10-year-old in captivity, belt out carols. No, few things are more difficult than filling out a Hall of Fame ballot. I just finished my 12th this past week, a true honor and privilege for those with at least 10 consecutive seasons as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

This year’s ballot contains 26 names, and every one of those players was distinguished as a major leaguer. Voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players, and candidates must be chosen on at least 75 percent of the ballots to gain induction. As I have the past two years in this space, I will reveal my ballot. Please note that I have the right to change my mind, and I have done so on a few players over the years.

Let’s start by working backwards and eliminating those who, in my mind, have no reason to be considered. That list includes Kevin Appier, Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga, Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Eric Karros, Ray Lankford, Shane Reynolds, David Segui, and Todd Zeile.

Next is the list of players who I thought about voting for but eventually didn’t make it past the second round of cuts. On it are Harold Baines, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, and Robin Ventura. All were great players, just not great enough in my mind to be Hall of Famers.

That leaves eight players on my ballot. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Roberto Alomar: I admittedly don’t always appreciate greatness when it is right in front of my nose, and that was the case with Alomar. I knew he was a good player, but I didn’t realize how great until being able to put his career in perspective five years after he retired, as this is his first year on the ballot. He played in 12 consecutive All-Star Games, won 10 Gold Gloves, and ranks 47th all-time in doubles (504), 41st in stolen bases (.474), and 53rd in hits (2,724). That’s a Hall of Fame career.

  • Bert Blyleven: I have voted for Blyleven every since he has been on the ballot, and his percentage of votes has risen from 18 in 1998 to 63 last season. I have argued his case plenty of times in the past, and have nothing new to add. He has two more years on the ballot beyond this one, and it would be a shame if he gets shut out.

  • Andre Dawson: I have wavered on the Hawk throughout his nine years on the ballot. Some years, I see a Hall of Famer. Other years, I don’t. In 2009, he looks like someone deserving of Cooperstown with eight Gold Gloves, eight All-Star Game appearances, 438 home runs, and 314 steals.

  • Barry Larkin: I will be curious to see how the 12-time All-Star fares in his first year on the ballot. Opinion seems to be split by the voters I’ve talked to, but it is hard to ignore a perennial All-Star and long-time face of the Reds‘ franchise who won nine Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves.

  • Edgar Martinez: There is a certain percentage of voters who believe a designated hitter should never gain entry into the Hall of Fame. We will find out if that percentage is large enough to keep Martinez out, as he appears on the ballot for the first time. The DH has been a position for 37 years now, which to my way of thinking makes it a legitimate, established rule, rather than a gimmick. Martinez won two American League batting titles, finished in the top five in on-base percentage 10 times, and had a career OPS of 933. To me, he’s a definite Hall of Famer.

  • Don Mattingly: He is on the ballot for the 10th year, and I quickly dismissed his candidacy in each of the first nine with the thought that he was a good player who became canonized by virtue of spending his entire 14-year career with the Yankees. However, the beauty of the voting process is that a player can stay on the ballot up to 15 years if he gets at least five percent of the vote, and that gives voters a chance to gain more perspective. Donnie Baseball hit .300 seven times, and had three 30-homer seasons and five 100-RBI seasons when those plateaus were more difficult to reach. He also won nine Gold Gloves, something I haven’t given much weight in the past. Considering he got only 12 percent of the vote last year, at least I can’t be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

  • Mark McGwire: I have discussed his candidacy in great detail in past years. I am not part of the steroids police, and I don’t claim to know exactly what he put in his body. I do know his performance was worthy of the Hall of Fame, even if 78 percent of my peers disagreed last year.

  • Dave Parker: As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, my vote for Parker is greatly influenced from having grown up in the Pittsburgh area and watching him closely as the dominant player of the late 1970s. His career numbers might be short of a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but they aren’t that far off.

The Dodgers have been awfully quiet this winter for a team coming off back-to-back appearances in the National League Championship Series, and playing in the one of the nation’s largest markets. In fact, the only bit of news coming from the Dodgers concerning the on-field product has been that manager Joe Torre plans to put off his retirement by at least one season to sign a one-year contract extension for 2011.

Thus, it seems the high-profile and ugly divorce that owner Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie are going through has had an impact on what general manager Ned Colletti is able to do. Club president Dennis Mannion, though, denied that is the case in an interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ Bill Shaikin. “Neither Ned nor I have been asked by anyone to limit long-term liabilities,” Mannion said. “Ned has demonstrated a fantastic ability to read the talent market. We made back-to-back NLCS appearances for the first time in three decades as a result of Ned’s ability to make the right acquisitions at the right time. We want the same thing our fans want, a team that can compete for a world championship year in and year out, and we’ve been in that position for the last two seasons. We expect that to continue.”

Yet the Dodgers have deferred more than $45 million in player salaries over the past two seasons, declined to get in the bidding for most top free agents, did not offer salary arbitration to any of their five free agents this winter, have all but abandoned the international free-agent market, spent the least amount of money on amateur draft bonuses in the last two years of any of the 30 major-league organizations, and laid off more than a dozen employees in the last year.

“I think it’s imperative that, when you look at all those types of things added up, you can bunch a group of them as capital markets-based projects,” Mannion said. “You can bunch a group as staffing. You can bunch yet another group in a very, very chaotic salary period for all four major sports. I think you have to look at the totality. You have to look at that in buckets, and then you have to look at the totality of what this economic disruption has done to the entire country. It’s a factor for every team. Gold Glovers who lead off? They go. Career leaders in home runs for a franchise? They go. Star pitchers for a franchise? They go, and then they go get somebody. Or, a first baseman they let go and he goes and wins the World Series for the Yankees? You have to do what you have to do if you’re a well-run operation. Teams that are well-oiled, well-run operations make very hard decisions, and sometimes it requires you to have restraint in how and when and where you spend your dollars.”

The Dodgers aren’t the only team with Los Angeles in its name that is having a lackluster offseason. The Angels have watched two of their key free agents, right-hander John Lackey and third baseman Chone Figgins, sign with American League powers following three straight AL West titles. Lackey got a five-year, $82.5 million contract from the Red Sox, and Figgins signed with the Mariners for four years and $36 million. The Angels refused to go past four years on Lackey, or three on Figgins.

“We’re trying to conduct business in an objective manner,” Angels GM Tony Reagins told the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna. “We looked at the value we placed on any particular player, and when other clubs exceeded that value, we looked at alternatives.”

The Angels are trying to keep their payroll close to last season’s $113 million. They have agreed to a two-year, $11 milllion contract with free-agent reliever Fernando Rodney, and signed free-agent designated hitter Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $6 million contract. Reagins says his winter’s work is not done, even if it means that it is becoming doubtful he will add any big-ticket free agents despite pleas from the fans. “We value our fans’ opinions, but we feel very strongly that we will put a contending team on the field again, a team that will be in a position to go to the World Series,” Reagins said.

MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Phillies are in hot pursuit of free-agent relievers Danys Baez and Mike MacDougal. … The Pirates also have interest in Baez and MacDougal, along with fellow free-agent relievers Octavio Dotel and Kevin Gregg. … Free-agent outfielder Jason Bay appears to have no chance of topping the four-year, $65 million offer he received from the Mets, but is still hoping to sign the Mariners; returning to the Red Sox is his fallback option. … The Mets are considering pursuing free-agent left fielder Matt Holliday if Bay does not accept their offer soon.