By all accounts, the free-agent crop figures to be weak this winter, especially in the pitching department. However, there will be some interesting hitters finding their way to the open market in November. Let’s take a look at the top 10 potential free agents, according to their 2007 VORP. Players with club options are not included, but those with player options or mutual options are.

  1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees (86.5 VORP): Rodriguez can void the final three years, worth $81 million, left on his contract. Considering Scott Boras is his agent, you can sure A-Rod will test the open market coming off a tremendous season in which he is hitting .317/.424/.669 with 51 home runs in 623 plate appearances.

    The Yankees claim they won’t re-sign Rodriguez if he voids the contract. However, the pressure will be intense for the Yankees to bring A-Rod back after an MVP year, particularly if he gets a big offer from archrival Boston or other potential suitors such as the two Chicago teams or the two Los Angeles teams. San Francisco could also be in the mix.

  2. Jorge Posada, C, Yankees (63.7): Lost in the large shadow cast by Rodriguez, Posada is also having an outstanding season, hitting .334/.418/.546 with 19 home runs in 519 plate appearances. It is hard to imagine Posada leaving the Yankees; he has expressed a great desire to stay in New York. While a switch-hitting catcher with some power and strong on-base skills would normally draw a lot of interest in free agency, many teams will likely shy away from a multi-year deal given that Posada is 36.

  3. Barry Bonds, LF, Giants (54.7): It is generally assumed the Giants will not try to re-sign Bonds now that he has broken the all-time home run record. However, owner Peter Magowan is cognizant of how many fans Bonds puts in the AT&T Park seats.

    Bonds is still a force, as his .276/.480/.577 line with 28 home runs in 458 plate appearances indicates. It will be quite interesting to see how many, if any, other teams bid on a 43-year-old slugger, who needs a significant amount of rest and is being investigated by a third federal grand jury.

  4. Aaron Rowand, CF, Phillies (46.7): While Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter are the potential free-agent center fielders everyone is talking about, it is Rowand who is having the best season. He is hitting .315/.382/.522 with 23 home runs in 588 plate appearances. Rowand’s hard-nosed style of play is a big hit with Phillies’ fans, and it would be a big drop off from him to Michael Bourn in the lineup next season. Look for Philadelphia to do what it can to retain the 30-year-old, though the White Sox might make a play to bring him back to Chicago.

  5. Mike Lowell, 3B, Red Sox (43.4): He has been rejuvenated in the two seasons he has spent with the Red Sox, after looking like a rapidly declining player in Florida. Lowell is hitting .324/.380/.503 with 18 home runs in 574 plate appearances this season. He is 33, however, which is why the Red Sox haven’t made a full-fledged effort to re-sign him. One gets the feeling a team will regret signing Lowell if they give him a four-year or five-year contract.

  6. Torii Hunter, CF, Twins (38.3): Long one of the game’s most exciting players with his over-the-wall catches in center field, Hunter has also had one of his most productive seasons as he is hitting .292/.336/.531 with 28 home runs in 568 plate appearances. He reportedly rejected a three-year, $45-million deal from the Twins last month, and it seems unlikely they will go into the five-year, $70-million territory that the 32-year-old Hunter is likely to occupy.

  7. Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees (38.1): Who would have guessed that he would be the best pitcher ready to hit the market. He has a 5.1 SNLVAR and 3.78 ERA in 192 2/3 innings, making him an effective middle-of-the-rotation starter. Pettitte, 35, is big on being in a comfortable situation, so expect him to stay with the Yankees unless the Astros make a play to bring him back to his hometown of Houston for a second stint.

  8. Matt Stairs, DH/OF, Blue Jays (33.0): Yes, Matt Stairs, believe it or not. At 39, he is having one of his best seasons, hitting .315/.386/.603 with 19 home runs in 332 plate appearances, while being used judiciously by manager John Gibbons. Few players understand their worth or enjoy playing in their home country more than Stairs, so it seems likely he will remain in Toronto.

  9. Tom Glavine, LHP, New York Mets (31.4): Glavine says he is seriously considering retirement now that he has reached 300 wins at age 41 and will make a decision after he has time to decompress following the season. It would be hard to imagine turning down a chance to have another eight-figure salary in 2008, especially if the Mets want him back or the Braves try to lure him back to Atlanta for a second straight winter. Certainly Glavine would still attract plenty of interest as he has a 5.2 SNLVAR and 3.95 ERA in 182 1/3 innings.

  10. Bobby Abreu, RF, Yankees (27.2): He is not having his greatest year, with a .289/.368/.457 line with 16 home runs in 606 plate appearances. Yet the 33-year-old is one of the better players in a weak free-agent class. He is also one of the more interesting cases as it seems likely that the Yankees won’t bring him back and there is no clear indication of who might want to sign him or where he might want to play.

The inevitable happened in Pittsburgh this week when Dave Littlefield was fired as the Pirates‘ general manager. Littlefield took over an awful situation when he replaced Cam Bonifay midway through the 2001 season, but he didn’t make it appreciably better. The Pirates were 442-591 during Litttlefield’s tenure for a dismal .428 winning percentage. “It’s really a cumulative effect, the way we’ve played from the beginning of the season until now,” said Bob Nutting, the Pirates chairman. “We haven’t played up to our expectations this season. It’s been disappointing and I just felt we weren’t making the progress that I think we should.”

Player Development Director Brian Graham was named the interim GM, but there are strong indications the Pirates will go outside the organization for Littlefield’s replacement.

The Pirates are also looking for a chief executive officer, as Kevin McClatchy announced in July that he is leaving at the end of the season and it appears as if the job will go to Frank Coonelly, Major League Baseball’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Labor Relations.

Coonelly, who has been described by the New York Sun‘s Tim Marchman as “the most powerful man in baseball you’ve never heard of,” would be an interesting choice. Coonelly has developed a reputation as being a hard liner in trying to convince clubs to hold the line on player salaries and signing bonuses to draft picks and amateur players from foreign countries.

The hiring of Coonelly would be most ironic in a year when the Pirates created an uproar among their fans by bypassing Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters with the fourth overall pick in the draft to select Clemson left-hander Dan Moskos.
The Pirates gave Moskos a $2,475,000 signing bonus, exactly what Coonelly and the commissioner’s office had slotted for the No. 4 pick. Wieters, meanwhile, got a $6-million bonus, nearly three times the suggested $2.25 million for the fifth selection.

Once Coonelly is in place, probably sometime early this week, the GM search will begin. Chicago White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, said to be a Coonelly favorite, figures to be right at the top of the list.

Nutting had been saying for months that he would wait until the end of the season before evaluating Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy. However, two events of the past week hastened Littlefield’s exit.

Houston began interviewing GM candidates to replace the fired Tim Purpura. That gave the Pirates incentive to make the move now and not potentially be shut out on good candidates. Secondly, the Pirates were routed 16-4 at St. Louis in a game in which three pitching prospects called up from Triple-A Indianapolis in the past week–Bryan Bullington, John Van Benschoten and Dave Davidson–combined to give up 13 runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Littlefield had stressed building the organization around young pitching since taking the job but was gone the day after the debacle against the Cardinals.
“It was not easy to inform Dave that he was being relieved of his duties because he did a lot of good things and was a wonderful ambassador for the organization,” Nutting said. “Ultimately, though, progress is judged by on-field performance and I felt this organization would be best served to move forward if we made a change.”

  • The Astros began their GM search by interviewing Philadelphia assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr., former Montreal and Baltimore GM Jim Beattie, Kansas City special assistant to the GM Muzzy Jackson, Cleveland player personnel director Steve Lubratich, St. Louis assistant GM John Mozeliak, former Philadelphia GM Ed Wade and Los Angeles Dodgers assistant GM/scouting Logan White.

    “All were sharp,” Astros owner Drayton McLane told the Houston Chronicle. “You just don’t know how many e-mails (Astros President) Tal Smith and I have received. We can line up about 30 candidates. They’re excited having these superstars like Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge.”

    The Astros are just two years removed from making the only World Series appearance in the franchise’s 45-year history. However, the Astros slipped to 82-80 last season, finishing second in the NL Central, and are out of contention this year with a 62-80 record.

    Yet, Wade believes there is still something to work with in Houston and it would be a good place for a second chance as GM after being fired in Philadelphia two years when the Phillies missed winning the NL wild-card playoff berth by one game.

    “That’s a key element, to have a core element to build around,” Wade said. “That said, obviously there are things that can be done to improve upon the club. That’s always the case, whether it’s a team that’s struggling or a team that’s coming off a world championship appearance. It’s always a challenge to try to improve the club. There’s a short-term challenge there to try to do that as quickly as we possibly could and at the same time not lose sight of the fact that having a strong farm system and sort of establishing a long history of success is important to me as well.

    “I take a measure of pride, even though I’ve been away from the Phillies’ organization for two years, that the core nucleus of that club right now, by and large, is made up of players we were able to bring through the system while I was there. I’d like to have the same opportunity if I could to try to do the same thing and a little bit better in Houston.”

  • Kansas City and Washington didn’t break out champagne flutes this week when it happened but both clubs felt relief when notching their 63rd wins of the season, ensuring neither would finish with 100 losses.

    The Royals ended their string of three straight triple-digit loss seasons. The Nationals reported to spring training amidst predictions that might lose 110 games with a pitching staff that appeared ragtag at best.

    Of course, a season of less than 100 losses doesn’t exactly excite Royals GM Dayton Moore, used to winning division titles on a yearly basis from his days in Atlanta’s front office. “I think it would be very easy for us to think this is a major accomplishment or successful season,” Moore told the Kansas City Star. “In reality, it’s just not.”

    Moore came into his first full season on the job believing the Royals could still be in contention in the American League Central. That hasn’t happened but the Royals at least have a chance to finish fourth in the five-team division, ahead of the White Sox.

    “Yeah, you gotta be realistic,” Moore said. “But who measures realism? I mean, hell. Nobody’s that smart to predict what’s going to happen in the future. We have talented baseball players on our team.”

    The Nationals had no illusions of contending this year, though, and are pleased to avoid 100 losses. “Since day one, we knew what the expectations were for some people,” right fielder Austin Kearns told the Washington Post. “And we knew we were a lot better than people were saying. There was no reason to believe that we would be that bad.”

    The Nationals would like to edge out Florida for fourth place in the five-team NL East. “It’s something we do think about,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s a step for us. Nobody wants to finish last. I want to play meaningful games in the last month, and we are.”

  • From the rumor mill:

    Nearly everyone around the Yankees is convinced that Roger Clemens will retire for good at the end of this season, though he desperately wants to come back from his recent elbow problems to finish out this season … Minnesota will likely try catcher Joe Mauer at first base and third base next spring but that doesn’t mean he will be moving from behind the plate. Instead, the Twins would like to lighten his catching load by a few extra games while keeping his bat in the lineup … Right-hander Luke Hochevar, taken first overall in the 2006 draft by Kansas City, will almost certainly begin next season in the Royals’ rotation if he shows anything at all during his September call-up … Philadelphia would like to retain right-hander Kyle Lohse, who they acquired from Cincinnati in July, but, like most pitchers, he is not enamored with cozy Great American Ball Park and is likely to leave as a free agent … Washington had hoped to give a start or two down the stretch to left-hander Ross Detwiler, the Nationals’ first-round draft pick this year, but has decided instead to use him only in relief because of the fatigue of a long season.

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