Where past markets left lots of quality on the shelves for post-Christmas shopping, this year's has been characterized by early response and quick solutions. The risk for the players who have remained aloof is obvious—there are only so many jobs to go around, and as the number of interested parties shrinks, so too do the opportunities to avoid ignominies like unpacked bags in February, taking those phone calls from Japan or Korea, or wondering what kind of time serving a few months in the Atlantic League would be: quality, or slow.
Because of this market's dynamics, we might have just two players left on the market with anything like a reasonable expectation to get an eight-figure payout: starting pitcher Carl Pavano, and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But even there, each represents a difficult target for prospective employers.
Long the game's watchword for well-compensated unavailability, Pavano defied low expectations for his post-Yankee career to produce consecutive seasons with 32 starts or more. His full season with the Twins has to be taken as redemption; even setting aside his 17 wins, he's the last man from last season's top 50 in SNLVAR left on the market. However, with a strikeout rate just under 13 percent, he was also next to last among those 50, worsted only by Livan Hernandez—who the Nats locked up for a $1 million, incentive-driven 2011 deal.
All in all, Pavano is a tough proposition, even as the putative “best starting pitcher left.” He's a homer-prone strike-thrower who, upon leaving Target Field, might find life difficult if he isn't pitching in front of a quality defense or accepts the challenge of calling a hitter's park home. Add in his occasional bloody nose suffered off the bats of lefties (.159 ISO in '09, .161 ISO last year), his problems holding runners (allowing 31 steals on 39 attempts), and you have a guy who could use a good-throwing catcher and a park that doesn't do left-handed hitters any favors.
With that many special provisions, does that sound like a guy you want to pay $10 million or more per season? The Greinke trade shouldn't inspire more action for Pavano, it should just send people to Rays-wards, to see if there really is a deal to be done for Matt Garza. Similarly, while the losers in the Lee auction might seem like the obvious suitors, there's little chance of a match—Pavano would be a complete disaster pitching in Texas' bandbox, while the nightmares left from his past association with the Bombers precludes a return to the Bronx. A return to Minnesota on a three-year deal or two-plus-one agreement might be the best for him, but the Nats seem interested enough to provide him with an easy cash-grab, and of a piece with the previous winter's decision to pay Jason Marquis lots to little point.
Beltre's expectations are similarly ambitious. The A's have already reportedly offered five years and $64 million, only to walk away, apparently spurned. The Angels have similarly sallied forth, but apparently $70 million over five wasn't going to get it done either. If the sticking point is getting Beltre a contract through his age-37 season, he may be a long time waiting. There are other teams where Beltre would make sense as a signing, at least in the abstract—putting him in Miami would be a bit of a game-changing development, but that's assuming they're not just shoveling their revenue-sharing monies into their portion of the cost for building their new stadium.
As long as we're talking idly about the things that will not happen, a return to Seattle would have something going for it if they didn't already have Dustin Ackley potentially pushing Chone Figgins back to third base. For that matter, the Rays would also be lovely, with Evan Longoria moving to short. Beltre's seemingly limited selection of suitors essentially leaves him in a game of chicken with the Angels, with the threat of calling the A's back representing little more than a catspaw to get either higher annual average value or a sixth-year option.
The surprise might be that past eight-figure earners like Manny Ramirez or Johnny Damon aren't on the list, but they shouldn't be. At this point, they're just putatively the best in a gaggle of ex-famous corner outfielders who need to think about DH-league gigs to guarantee themselves at-bats. The only AL clubs still definitely shopping for that kind of help are the Angels, Rangers, and the Twins, with the Rays undoubtedly on the fringe of that pack, looking for a bargain. Since Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero are also hoping to wind up in those opportunities, you might think that the four men ought to get together for a round of golf and treat this like a Nash equilibrium, although I expect if somebody decides that the Rangers are the blonde, the Angels might feel hurt. On the other hand, if the teams turn the tables and figure out among themselves to tab Manny as the blonde and bid accordingly, you can bet on two things—he'll sulk, and the MLBPA will summon up the spectre of collusion. That would be bad.
Beyond those famous and expensive options, let's run through the best of the rest, by category:
Starting Pitching: While Pavano's 4.15 SIERA suggests he might at least be useful, that might make former Rockies lefty Jeff Francis (4.08) a relative steal, one that might look better still if he gets to call a pitcher's park home instead of Planet Coors. Most teams willing to consider Pavano might also look at Freddy Garcia and recognize they'll get similar value on a one-year deal at a fraction of the AAV. Towering, fragile Chris Young makes for the interesting high-risk, high-upside play; it's no shock that the Mets have been attached to both Francis and Young as they look for bargains.
The pickings get fairly slim from there. Sure, Justin Duchscherer and Bruce Chen and Brian Bannister, they'll all show up in somebody's camp. The interesting bargain-bin non-name I keep pondering is Alfredo Aceves, assuming he's healed up from both a bad back and a broken collar bone.
Relievers: A pair of former Rays are the class of what's left, with Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour representing the best late-game, swing-and-miss options out there. Lefty Brian Fuentes and veteran righties Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch are well-known vets who have occasionally closed; Rauch's rubber-armed utility and Dotel's situational greatness as a righty killer providing different flavors of useful relief help. But all five have racked up saves at one point or another, and might expect a premium for it.
For relative bargains, the best left might be Chad Durbin (3.91 SIERA, 21.6 percent strikeout rate) and Todd Coffey (3.84 SIERA, 20.4 percent strikeout rate). And for those who like to live dangerously, Kyle Farnsworth is still waiting for your phone call after a fine bounce-back campaign (3.45 SIERA, 22.9 percent strikeout rate). Pickings get especially slim where situational southpaws are concerned now that Pedro Feliciano is a Yankee; you've got the ageless Arthur Rhodes, and Fuentes, and then it's last call on the Will Ohman or Joe Beimel sweepstakes.
First Base: Righties or lefties, something mid-range or cheap, the market is still stocked with choices for first base. The best of the bunch is Derrek Lee, presumably fully healthy after playing hurt through most of 2010, and he remains a mobile defender and fine target at first. On the other hand, if a reliably good lefty bat is a must, then Adam LaRoche is best pick for the risk-averse. On the other hand, somebody's going to choose to live dangerously and give Nick Johnson a shot (while obviously having an alternative at the ready). Russell Branyan seems to have been thoroughly overlooked, again, but after last year's .290 TAv, he'd be a fine choice for a one-year deal; if he barges into the DH quadrille and swipes one of those few remaining jobs, he shouldn't forget his agent this time next year.
Outfielders: Jim Edmonds might be the best bat getting very little attention, but putting him into somebody's outfielder corner would make a lot more sense than, say, picking up Jonny Gomes' option, to just to pick one random example. Andruw Jones and Marcus Thames both represent potent right-handed bats for DH and corner chores, but both can wear down or get over-exposed. If a left-batting placeholder for the top of the order is what's needed, Fred Lewis and Scott Podsednik are probably the most recognizable filler ballplayers left. And if you're one of the last self-confessed Milledge people, your man Lastings is available for a song.
Infielders: Edgar Renteria is the post-season hero and best available shortstop wondering why his phone isn't ringing off the hook, but anyone calling Orlando Cabrera should just lose the latter's number and go after Edgar. Second basemen worthy of the name basically don't exist at this point; Felipe Lopez might be the best available utility regular, and Willy Aybar is worth considering if he can handle second and third base with any kind of regularity.
Men who might man the hot corner are also rare; maybe all Adam LaRoche needed was a change of scenery and a challenge, but he's earned no extra consideration. It takes a heaping helping of faith to assume Jorge Cantu can still play third. Finally, as unloved as Nick Punto seems to be as a matter of course, he'd make a fine utility infielder for most teams, providing walks, steals, and defense—just in smaller doses than the Twins subjected themselves to.
The 25th Man: If you're jonesing for a Brooks Kieschnick/Don Robinson vibe and run a National League team, why not give Micah Owings a shot? He's had to pitch in bandboxes over his entire career, and once dealt to the Reds he got lost in the shuffle, but there are worse swingmen knocking around. Plus, with a .293/.323/.538 line in 198 career at-bats, he's a better hitter than any number of guys getting seven large to hit for a living. Heck, if the Astros signed him, he could be their fifth starter and bat fifth. What's there to lose by giving him a non-roster invite?