It was bad enough that this was already a weak free-agent class. Now, almost all of the fun has already been taken out of any potential free-market maneuvering this winter. Alex Rodriguez went back to the Yankees once he realized that super agent Scott Boras misread the market for once, recognizing that there was no $350-million pot of gold at the end of any rainbow. Granted, $275 million is a pretty nice consolation prize.

Meanwhile, catcher Jorge Posada has also agreed to re-up with the Yankees, and San Diego’s Greg Maddux and Boston’s Curt Schilling, two of this generation’s greatest pitchers, also re-signed with their teams before listening to offers from other clubs. Furthermore, left-hander Andy Pettitte has reduced most of the suspense surrounding his situation by telling the Yankees he will either return to the Bronx or retire.

And then there is all-time home run king Barry Bonds, indicted by a federal grand jury this past week on four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice. He’s still a free agent, but once lukewarm interest is now nonexistent in the face of the possibility of his next stop being Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn’s old haunt, the California Penal League.

Thus the pickings are slim less than a week after clubs could begin negotiating with free agents. With that in mind, we present the top 10 players left on the market, according to their 2007 VORP. Be warned, it is a list lacking inspiration.

1. CF Aaron Rowand (52.0). Who could have guessed that four days before Thanksgiving he would be the best player left on the market? A wild rumor making the rounds late in the season had Rowand seeking a six-year, $84-million contract, though those who know the outfielder claimed he was looking for a four-year, $40-million deal. Considering the paucity of impact players remaining, he just might get $84 million.

The Dodgers have emerged as the early leaders in the Rowand bidding, as the Phillies are more inclined to add pitching than re-sign their center fielder, and the Chicago White Sox have their sights set on Torii Hunter. It is telling that the Dodgers are chasing a center fielder just a year after giving Juan Pierre his five-year, $44-million contract as a free agent. You can almost picture Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti smacking his forehead in I-could-have-had-a-V-8 fashion.

2. 3B Mike Lowell (46.5). Long a solid major league third baseman, he has somehow morphed into a combination of Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Pie Traynor since being picked as World Series Most Valuable Player (a trophy that should have gone to Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, in my opinion). The Red Sox have reportedly offered three years and $40 million, and GM Theo Epstein is wise enough not to let emotion get in the way and add an extra year to his offer knowing that Lowell is 34 and ready for the decline phase of his career. The Yankees kicked the tires on Lowell as a potential first baseman before backing off, and it now appears that the Dodgers are the leaders in this derby too, as owner Frank McCourt apparently will spare no expense in giving new manager Joe Torre a chance to add to his Cooperstown resume.

3. CF Torii Hunter (39.2). Speaking of six years and $84 million, Hunter could very easily land that kind of deal from either the Rangers or the White Sox despite his weak on-base percentage and the wear and tear on his body from all that wall-banging in the Hump Dome. Hunter is an extremely engaging person, and it is easy to foresee Rangers owner Tom Hicks and GM Jon Daniels being charmed into bringing him to his adopted hometown.

4. Andy Pettitte (36.8). While he and Roger Clemens are portrayed as Siamese twins after being teammates for the past nine seasons, Pettitte figures to be convinced into playing one more season with or without The Rocket now that the Yankees have agreed to terms with Rodriguez and Posada, and seem on the verge of also getting Mariano Rivera back in the fold. The Yankees need a reliable veteran to anchor a very young starting rotation next season, and Pettitte, not Mike Mussina, is the best choice to be that pitcher.

5. RHP Carlos Silva (35.5). A quintessential fourth starter with his ability to throw strikes and eat up innings, Silva is going to land second starter money in this market, because that’s how desperate teams are for starting pitching in today’s game. He seemed headed to Detroit until Kenny Rogers extended an olive branch to the Tigers by firing Boras. Thus, Silva could wind up in any one of a number of locales at a minimum of four years and $44 million, as the vast majority of clubs need pitching.

6. LHP Tom Glavine (28.1). The National League’s version of Pettitte, as his choices seem to be either a return to his original team, Atlanta, or to retire after spending the past five seasons with the Mets. Like Pettitte, the feeling here is that Glavine will pitch one more year, with the Braves, making for a nice ending to a great career.

7. RF Jose Guillen (28.0). He has already played for eight teams despite being just 31 years old, and he’ll be on the move again after Seattle decided to give his at-bats to top prospect Adam Jones in 2008. Guillen has never attained the stardom predicted for him when he reached the major leagues with Pittsburgh as a 20-year-old kid in 1997, and has gained the reputation as a troublemaker. However, all Guillen wants to do is play every day. If he gets that opportunity, he keeps his mouth shut, and is a productive right-handed bat with one of the best right field arms in the game. Look for that opportunity to come with Kansas City, which sees Guillen as the hitting version of Gil Meche, a controversial free-agent signing last winter that nevertheless worked out quite well for the Royals.

8. RHP David Riske (27.7). Nobody on the open market could have been happier to see Philadelphia re-sign J.C. Romero for three years and $12 million. Riske is every bit as valuable a set-up middle reliever as Romero, and will likely command a contract just as lucrative, if not more so. Considering we never miss an opportunity to make a bad pun, let it be known that it would be a low-risk move to sign Riske to a multi-year deal, as he is one of the more consistent bullpen arms around.

9. OF Kenny Lofton (24.2). Despite gaining folk hero status this past season in his third stint with Cleveland, it’s time to call DHL again, because his equipment is going to need to be overnighted. Lofton has played for 11 teams and isn’t what he used to be, but his .367 OBP in 2007 was certainly respectable, and the ultimate gun for hire can should still be able to help a team looking for a starting outfielder against right-handed pitching.

10. RHP Mariano Rivera (22.4). It is assumed Rivera will re-sign with the Yankees for three years and $45 million, which would be the most lucrative contract ever given a reliever in terms of the $15-million average annual value. Rivera, a prideful man, wanted the same four-year deal that Posada is going to get from the Yankees. In the end, though, Rivera is also a smart man, and realizes the deal in front of him is pretty good for a 37-year-old who finally seems to be taking the first steps into the decline phase of his career.

As far as how weak the rest of this class is, here is what free agents 11-20 according to VORP look like: Shawn Chacon (20.9), David Eckstein (20.7), Mike Cameron (20.4), Livan Hernandez (20.4), Milton Bradley (19.0), Francisco Cordero (18.6), Troy Percival (18.2), Jamey Wright (17.1), Kazuo Matsui (16.9), and Shawn Green (16.8).

Cleveland’s C.C. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young Award this past week, and San Diego’s Jake Peavy captured the same honor in the NL. Yet it seemed both pitchers received more questions about their future in the wake of the vote totals being announced.

Sabathia can become a free agent at the end of next season when his two-year, $17.75 million contract extension expires. Sabathia’s next contract figures to be somewhere between the five years and $91.5 million that Carlos Zambrano received to re-sign with the Chicago Cubs this past season and the seven years and $126 million that Barry Zito got from San Francisco as a free agent last winter. Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro would like to have Sabathia’s contract situation resolved before spring training begins in mid-February.

“The underlying facts remain the same. We have the utmost respect and appreciation for C.C. and have a strong desire to keep him here. C.C., I think, shares that desire,” Shapiro said. “The only question is: Can we find a business deal that works for the Indians organization and C.C? We’re going to take the next three months to find that out.”

Sabathia was the Indians’ first-round draft pick in 1998 as a high school senior out of Vallejo, Calif. “I’ve been an Indian my entire career. I grew up here, and I’ve been here since I was 17 years old, so I really can’t see myself leaving the organization,” Sabathia said.

Like Sabathia, Peavy was drafted as a high school senior from Semmes, Alabama, in the 15th round in 1999 and has spent his entire career in the San Diego organization. Peavy’s four-year, $14.5-million contract runs through the end of next season, but the Padres hold an extremely reasonable $11 million club option for 2009, a figure that increased by $3 million because of the Cy Young. However, the Padres are looking to extend Peavy through at least 2011.

Peavy wants to stay with the Padres. However, he also does not want to deflate the market for starting pitchers by taking a below-market deal. “I’m certainly not after a big dollar amount,” Peavy said. “That’s not what it’s about. I want to be here, period. And we’ll see what comes of it. (But) I’ve got to do what the market says I should do, or what’s close to that. I’m certainly not going to drive this market down and do anything to upset the balance where my peers would look down on me.”

The NL Rookie of the Year award came down to the voters taking the offense of Milwaukee third baseman Ryan Braun by the slimmest of margins over the defense of Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Milwaukee scouting director Jack Zduriencik had to make the same decision in 2005 during the first round of the first-year player draft. The Brewers had the fifth pick, and the choice between Braun, then a star at the University of Miami, and Long Beach State’s Tulowitzki.

“I liked Tulowitzki an awful lot. I liked Ryan Braun an awful lot,” Zduriencik told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We, as a staff, felt the same way. We’ve always tried to draft the best player. In that particular case, we really coveted both players. Either one would have been a great choice.”

While Zduriencik has always been a big believer in drafting for talent instead of need, the deciding factor in taking Braun was the Brewers having a rookie shortstop that year in J.J. Hardy. The Brewers also felt Braun would fit perfectly into their infield of the future with Hardy, first baseman Prince Fielder, and second baseman Rickie Weeks. “It made a lot of sense,” Zduriencik said. “We thought Ryan had better power. Tulowitzki played a premium position but with J.J., we felt Ryan could fill out our infield.”

“In my 12 years as a general manager, he had more impact on a ball club than any rookie player I’ve been associated with,” Doug Melvin added about Braun, who set a major league record for a rookie with a .634 slugging percentage.

With the fragile state of starting pitching in baseball, there has been talk that some teams might eventually go to six-man rotations in an effort to keep their starters healthy. Boston is giving serious consideration to that idea after re-signing Schilling and exercising its 2008 club option on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Schilling and Wakefield would join left-hander Jon Lester and right-handers Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz in this potential six-man rotation.

Schilling and Wakefield will both be 41 when next season begins, while Lester will be 24 and Buchholz will be 23. Meanwhile, Matsuzaka was used to pitching once a week in Japan rather than every five days, and Beckett has not pitched more than 204 2/3 innings in his seven major-league seasons.

Schilling is all for the six-man rotation. “I think this is one of the few opportunities that would ever present itself to an organization both talent-wise and depth-wise where it’s a possibility, given that the Red Sox keep the kids on a strict limit to innings pitched,” Schilling said on his weekly radio show on WEEI-AM in Boston. “Simple math tells you if they start out with Lester and Buchholz in the rotation and they make every start of the year, don’t miss a turn, that they won’t be able to pitch in September and October. (Wakefield) and I, Dice-K on a six-man over in Japan, there’s a lot of things that lend itself to this being just about the perfect storm if that’s going to happen.”

Rumors and rumblings: If they don’t sign Lowell, the Dodgers appear to have the best chance of landing Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera in a trade if they are willing to give up three of these five youngsters: right-hander Chad Billingsley, first baseman James Loney, third baseman Andy LaRoche, outfielder Matt Kemp, and left-handed pitching prospect Clayton Kershaw. … Atlanta GM Frank Wren, manager Bobby Cox, and pitching coach Roger McDowell all watched Mike Hampton throw last week at his Arizona home before he took off for winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League. They believe the left-hander, who has missed the last two seasons because of elbow problems, will be able to hold down a rotation spot in 2008. … Minnesota will try to trade for Boston’s Coco Crisp to play center field if Hunter leaves as a free agent as expected. … This past week’s trades of outfielders Jacque Jones and Craig Monroe opens the door for Felix Pie to be the Chicago Cubs’ starting center fielder next season. Omar Infante, acquired from Detroit for Jones and a middle infielder, will likely play center against tough left-handers. … The Twins will try to get Monroe to sign a contract for a 20 percent cut of his 2007 salary of $3,775,000, the biggest reduction allowed under baseball’s rules. If Monroe balks, then the Twins will likely non-tender him next month, making him a free agent. … The infield in Washington’s new ballpark should play slower, as the thicker Kentucky bluegrass will be cut to 1 1/8 inches. The Bermuda grass at RFK Stadium was cut to 5/8 of an inch to accommodate MLS tenant D.C. United, and the Nationals made an NL-worst 81 infield errors last season. … Cincinnati could be the next team to move spring training from Florida to Arizona after voters in Sarasota voted against a $16-million ballot referendum earmarked to improve the Reds‘ facilities. If the Reds stay in Florida, Vero Beach is a possibility, as the Dodgers are leaving there for Arizona in 2009.

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