The Hot Stove League is in full effect, at its peak period in the month between the opening of the offer period 15 days after the World Series through winter meetings in mid-December. For the past couple of years, the winter Meetings haven’t been the end–or even the center–of the free-agent market. I’m sure Joe Sheehan will blame that on me, since apparently no trades can occur when I’m in the building. Two years ago, the four-team deal centering on Erubiel Durazo happened moments after I escaped Opryland Megahotel for the airport. Last year, Joe and I were grabbing lunch at Riverwalk when J.D. Drew went to the Braves. We’d been sitting a couple tables away from Walt Jocketty and John Schuerholz the night before, but I’ll admit that a Drew deal never crossed my mind.

Free agents have already started making deals. While many are sitting by the phone waiting on their agents, some couldn’t care less, knowing they’ll be rich. Even for that group, there’s still a great deal of angst; moving, uprooting families, changing the workplace with only the hope, not a guarantee, that there will be success. The lesser players and minor leaguers are just hoping for a chance and a paycheck. All of them have just their talent, their agent and their health to bargain with, and health is often a big part of negotiations.

There’s an important distinction to be made between health and risk. The two don’t necessarily move in tandem with injury history, position, age and hundreds of other factors working to make health and risk something like Schroedinger’s Cat. Teams that can accurately assess health and risk can make the best deals. Vladimir Guerrero was headed for Shea Stadium, but the Mets balked at paying top dollar for his bad back. The Angels knew that Guerrero had become a core training fiend and picked him up at a nice price. That one worked out pretty well. It’s just as easy to get the opposite effect. Actually, much easier.

Using ESPN’s rankings of the Top 50 Free Agents, let’s look at the players from the Medhead point of view. The infamous red, yellow and green lights are back and, I hope, self-explanatory. The predictions for where they end up are mine, based on discussions with some sources, but mostly educated guesses.

Powered by my new Dyson Vacuum, on to the free agents …

    Carlos Beltran (GREEN) – There are a lot of adjectives being thrown around with regards to Beltran, enough to make me want to follow Walter Cronkite’s advice on language. There is one adjective, however, that’s critical: insurable. Beltran is not only young, at the top of his game, and coming off an amazing postseason, he has had no significant injury problems at any point in his career. That makes him unlike Guerrero or Ivan Rodriguez last season. Given the marketplace, having an insurable contract may help some teams dig a bit deeper into their wallet. Ten years may seem like a lot, but watching Beltran glide across the outfield or dig for another steal reminds many that he’s the type of player that avoids leg injuries. There’s not a team he couldn’t help, and not a team that wouldn’t kill for an early PECOTA on Beltran. (Angels)

    Adrian Beltre (YELLOW) – Beltre picked the right time to have a career year. Some have speculated that it is only now that he’s fully recovered from a botched appendectomy and a problematic recovery. His chronic ankle problems worry me, though he was certainly able to play through them last year. His body has more wear on it than most 25-year-olds have, so factor that in slightly. (Dodgers)

    Roger Clemens (GREEN) – He’s a freak. Tom House shows a high speed analysis of Clemens’ pitching mechanics that highlights a major flaw. His head comes back, “tick-tocking” as he drives towards home. He’s able to catch up due to his core strength, something I don’t think any other pitcher in baseball could do. Clemens has been doing it for 20 years. I’m not sure if he’ll do it for one more, instead leaving on a high note. (Cooperstown)

    Edgar Renteria (YELLOW) – For someone who plays 150 games every year, Renteria has a lot of injury risk. Back and leg problems for this type of player are career-killers for them and for the GM that signs them. Renteria reminds me a lot of Barry Larkin. I’m just not sure at what point in Larkin’s career Renteria is at. (“Expos”)

    Pedro Martinez (YELLOW) – I could write a book about Pedro Martinez. He’s rebuilt himself after shoulder problems, found a comfortable pitching motion, and looked for all the world like the happiest man on earth when we last saw him. Sure, there are questions about his shoulder, but none about his talent. When he’s the age Curt Schilling is now, he’ll be in Cooperstown. (Red Sox)

    Carlos Delgado (GREEN) – It’s often forgotten that Delgado came up as a catcher. If he’d been able to stay there, would he have had the career he’s had? It’s another of those interesting questions that’s utterly meaningless. As much as the Jays will miss him, the money they save will help them more. Delgado, on the other hand, has a chance to remind everyone that he’s a better player than David Ortiz. (Orioles)

    Magglio Ordonez (RED) – Your guess is as good as mine. Assurances from agents don’t comfort me much, so until I see Ordonez run, I’ll treat him as injured. This is the ultimate risk for a team: a Scott Boras client with an injury that hasn’t been seen in professional sports. Healthy, he’s an elite level player. I think a bold GM will be rewarded by signing Ordonez. (“Expos”)

    Jason Varitek – He’s 32, and that’s really all that matters. Some GM is going to ignore his age and all we know about catchers, betting that “veteran leadership” matters more than common sense. Varitek is a good catcher, is said to be great in the clubhouse, and some team is going to make him rich. It’s likely to be a team looking to “make a statement.” Smart teams don’t make statements; they just win. (Brewers)

    Carl Pavano (GREEN) – Here’s a test case for pitchers. Pavano never pitched more than 136 innings before age 27, then jumped up to the 200-inning mark in his next two seasons. He pitched for a World Series winner, then got better the next season. He has a classic pitcher’s frame, good mechanics, and everything but a strikeout pitch. If BP built a pitcher, Frankenstein-style, there’d be some Pavano parts in the mix. You have to be damned good to dump Alyssa Milano. (Orioles)

    Richie Sexson (YELLOW) – I chose to use ESPN’s rankings, but come on, this is way too high for Sexson. Sure, he hits the ball a long way, but that’s pretty much it. Coming off a lost season and with an injury that recurs even with surgery (just ask J.J. Hardy), he’ll be overpaid even if he’s healthy. (Mariners)

    J.D. Drew (YELLOW) – Drew broke out once he didn’t break down. His career year will make him a lot of money, though the most important factor for him might be comfort. Drew is very comfortable with Bobby Cox and the Braves clubhouse. The Braves would love to shift him to center field, taking some stress off his chronically painful knees. (Braves)

    Nomar Garciaparra (YELLOW) – The injuries to his Achilles and wrist didn’t just cost him speed and power, they caused questions about his heart as well. A messy divorce from Red Sox Nation behind him, Garciaparra is likely to continue his steady decline from the level of the elite shortstops. He’ll likely end up with an incentive-laden one-year deal and surprise many in 2004. (Angels)

    Troy Glaus (YELLOW) – His shoulder injury is well-known, making his planned usage by a new team more important than the injury. His power is back, evidenced by his late-season flurry, so a team with an open first-base or DH slot should have no problems. If Glaus has to go back to third, that’s not as proven a commodity. Like Mark Mulder last season, he’s rumored to be fine. On his first throw across the diamond, we’ll know. (Red Sox)

    Armando Benitez (GREEN) – Wayne Rosenthal may be gone in Florida, but let’s take the chance to give him some credit for Benitez’s excellent season. Benitez may have been the only player who actually listened to Rosenthal, smoothing his mechanics and being handled well. He still throws very hard and seems to be following the Jose Mesa career path. That might not sound good until you realize that Mesa is still cashing large checks. (Tigers)

    Steve Finley (GREEN) – Age is a misunderstood injury factor. The injuries differ, the healing time extends, but there’s also a significant “survivor effect” once a player gets past 35. Most players aren’t good enough to make it this long; the decline for the elite athletes who do is often shallow, especially if the player is also a workout fiend. Finley is the type of player who will choose when he leaves the game. (Padres)

    Troy Percival (RED) – Thirty-three strikeouts in 50 innings is really the only number you need. Percival is no longer the dominant closer he once was due to back, shoulder and elbow injuries. He also has a degenerative hip condition that he’s dealt with most of his career. He’ll likely sign a one-year deal, but that’s probably a year too long. (Cubs)

    Matt Clement (YELLOW) – No one knows which pitcher they’ll get by signing Clement. It could be the breakthrough pitcher of 2002 and 2003…or was his 2004 the workload catching up with him? Clement faded badly, attempting to pitch through a sore shoulder at the end of the season. He’ll gain by leaving Dusty Baker’s death march behind, leaving town with question marks across his flamethrowing right arm. If he gets with a smart team, he’ll likely have a few good years left in him. If he gets thrown back into a pitching woodchipper, he’ll be in Birmingham by season’s end. (Indians)

    Orlando Cabrera (GREEN) – Pitchers may not pitch to the score, though it seems some players may need a pennant chase to keep them focused. It doesn’t say much for someone who needs this–are they mailing it in when things aren’t going well?–but for Cabrera, more will focus on his new ring than on his time in Montreal. Someone will overpay, hoping they’re buying a piece of Theo Epstein’s secret defensive formula. Some teams might remember his back problems from a few years ago, though those have been no problem even on Montreal’s turf. (Cardinals)

    Jeff Kent (GREEN) – Jim Hendry often fixates on players from teams that beat him. Last year, it was Derrek Lee and Luis Castillo. This year, it’s Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent. A reunion with Dusty Baker seems possible. Kent has been healthy even as he’s aged, assuming he can be kept away from “car washes.” (Cubs)

    Moises Alou (YELLOW) – His body looks more like that of a war veteran than a baseball veteran. At 38, Alou had one of his best and healthiest seasons. The two clearly go together. Despite the great 2004, expecting 150 or more games from this slugger is folly. He’d be helped by the chance to DH, and any team with Alou in the lineup needs a strong fourth OF, preferably a left-handed hitter. (White Sox)

Outside the Top 20, let’s look at just the ones with significant injury concerns:

    Odalis Perez (RED) – Young doesn’t seem to be the same across cultures. The route that Latin pitchers take to the minor leagues is often much harder than their American counterparts and some, like Perez, seem to age faster. This isn’t an “agegate” thing at all, just a workload consideration. He’ll be a back of the rotation guy for a few more years before fading. (Orioles)

    Jaret Wright (YELLOW) – In baseball’s past, injured pitchers would occasionally vanish. They’d bump around the minors, head back to their hometowns, then just as suddenly reappear a few years later, back in the show. Modern medicine can’t help every injured pitcher, but time still works for some. Wright is one of a few pitchers who showed that some time off can heal even the most devastating injuries. He’d be stupid to leave Leo Mazzone behind. (Braves)

    Jermaine Dye (RED) – No one in baseball has been more affected by an injury. Dye has simply been unable to recover from his freakish leg fracture a few years ago despite all his best efforts. Dye can be healthy–he played in nearly 140 games in 2004–though his game has changed due to the injury. For the right money, he could be a good signing. The trainer that gets him should get a bonus as well. (Giants)

    Matt Morris (RED) – Morris went 15-10 despite injuries and odd splits. Everyone remains unconvinced that he’s uninjured, but Morris has shifted from thrower to pitcher quickly. His “mound IQ” is often touted, enough so that even if he lost more on his fastball, he could likely succeed in the Jamie Moyer mode. Rumors of his work on a sinker to cut back on home runs would certainly make teams in smaller parks look more closely at him. (Red Sox)

    Jon Lieber (GREEN) – There’s nothing wrong here. Quit thinking about the surgery that cost him 2003 and focus on what he did in 2001 and 2004. That’s the Jon Lieber a team will be getting. If they can manage to reduce his cost by pointing to the scar on his elbow, more power to them. The teams that had an advantage due to their understanding of Tommy John surgery are starting to lose it as the knowledge spreads. (Yankees)

    Corey Koskie (YELLOW) – His salary drive was derailed by a serious ankle injury and an odd sternum strain that sapped his power in the middle of the season. Getting off turf would help Koskie, keeping some of the wear and tear off his legs. He’s a big step down from the elite third basemen at this stage, but will probably be able to show up and beat the league averages for 140 games a year. (Blue Jays)

    Kevin Millwood (RED) – The “workhorse” tag is gone, following “ace” and “multi-year contract” out of town. Millwood’s arm once again gave out at the end of the season, something many blame on Joe Kerrigan. Some will look at his age–29–and see comeback. I see a guy who’ll be out of baseball while George W. Bush is still President. (Marlins)

    Bob Wickman (YELLOW) – Wickman is a big man and fine-looking. At 35, his repaired elbow is probably as good as it gets, meaning he’ll never be an effective closer again. He’s precisely the type that would work well with a Mazzone, Dave Duncan or Don Gullett, slotting in as a great set-up man. Used properly, he’ll be an asset, but many teams will look at his shiny save totals and ruin what’s left of his ability. (Braves)

    Steve Kline (GREEN) – He’ll be back after having surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left index finger, an injury that seems to have no effect on pitchers in the following year. Kline has had a run of small but significant injuries and is likely to continue the pattern. He’ll be effective when healthy, but depth is important for a bullpen counting on him. That GM should stash a lefty in Triple-A. (Yankees)

A couple quick reminders: Not enough interest in a Tampa Feed, but I’ll be back in the spring … The ASMI Injuries in Baseball Course is now taking reservations. I’ll be one of the speakers and for the true medheads, it’s an amazing experience … Yes, we’ll be doing our “Mock Winter Meetings” again this season. More details soon.

Thank you for reading

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