Now that CC Sabathia is off the board, the big-ticket player on the free-agent market is Mark Teixeira. The slugging first baseman has contract offers of eight years from both the Angels and Nationals, a seven-year deal on the table from the Orioles, and you should never count out the Yankees, whose spending sprees appear to have no limits, as their seven-year, $161 million deal with Sabathia reflects.

Teixeira can go in one of two directions: he can make winning his foremost priority and either return to the Angels or sign with the Red Sox or Yankees, or he can choose to return home to Severna Park, Maryland, where he grew up, and sign with the Orioles or Nationals to spearhead a massive rebuilding effort for one of those downtrodden franchises.

Since Scott Boras is his agent, one can be reasonably sure that Teixeira will end up with whichever club offers him the most money, but he is not the most intriguing player left on the market. That would be another Boras client, left fielder Manny Ramirez, who had hoped to get a six-year contract even though the feared right-handed hitter is 36 years old. It has become fairly apparent that no team is going to go that long on the future Hall of Famer, and there are so many conflicting reports on what Ramirez might be thinking that nobody knows what is going to happen.

Some believe that Ramirez will hold out for the most money; after all, he is Manny, and in Boras’ stable of star players. Others insist Ramirez was so happy after being traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers on July 31 that he will eventually agree to stay on a two-year contract worth around $50 million. There are also some who feel Ramirez will pull a stunner and sign a five-year deal with a club that hasn’t been mentioned as a suitor, and finally, there is a small camp that believes that Ramirez has played his final game and will retire.

Like everyone else, Dodgers manager Joe Torre has no way of predicting exactly what Ramirez will wind up doing, but he definitely wants Ramirez back after seeing him hit .396/.489/.743 in 229 at-bats for a .398 EqA following the trade. “He certainly seemed comfortable playing here, and we certainly loved having him,” Torre said. “He made a huge difference. I don’t think that’s any secret. I think we’re just going to have to wait and see. He’s with one of the elite agents, obviously, who’s going to find out what the value is out there for him. I’m really not looking for that thing to be solved any time soon only because of, well, you know, Manny being Manny. He brings a lot to the table, there’s no question.”

The question that arises is how might Ramirez respond to a second season with the Dodgers. During his seven and a half seasons with the Red Sox, he had a classic love/hate relationship with management, the media, and the fans. When he was producing, he was the most beloved man in Boston, and considered endearingly quirky. When he wasn’t producing, he was vilified and condemned as a bad apple. Red Sox management became so incensed at Ramirez last July that they threatened to suspend him because they felt he was faking a knee injury. The Red Sox then shipped Ramirez to the Dodgers, acquiring left fielder Jason Bay from the Pirates in a three-way trade completed just seconds before the non-waiver trading deadline.

Ramirez went on to play in 53 of the Dodgers’ final 54 regular-season games and all eight post-season games, helping to rally them to the National League West title, sweep the Cubs in the Division Series, and all the way into the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Phillies. Torre believes he would be getting the same Ramirez if he re-signs. “I think I’d get the motivated guy, I really do,” Torre said. “Whatever went on in Boston, evidently it was obviously more than the Red Sox wanted to put up with, and Manny needed to go somewhere else. But Manny is a very proud guy. He spent a long time in Boston doing good things before something cropped up that made that split necessary. I just have a sense Manny enjoyed the LA area. It was that he could basically lose himself and just play the game, and not have to deal with a lot of stuff he had trouble dealing with in Boston.”

The Dodgers scored 4.6 runs per game following the acquisition of Ramirez, after averaging 4.2 in the four months before he came to town. Torre says that wasn’t a coincidence. “If you’re the pitcher on the other team, you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to get this guy out before this guy comes up,’ so it puts a lot of pressure on the opposition knowing there’s one guy they want to stay away from in key situations,” Torre said. “It took us a little time, but when we finally moved Manny to the number three hole it seemed to work best for us. If you’re the opposing manager, he’s a guy you want hitting with no one on base.”

Many managers are coy about which free agents they feel can help their club, usually working under a gag order from the general manager, who prefers not to reveal the team’s strategy. However, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa makes it quite clear that he wants GM John Mozeliak to sign free-agent closer Brian Fuentes. “It seems like he’s the perfect fit,” La Russa said. “I’ve had a couple of All-Star Game experiences with him, and he’s a first-rate guy.”

The Cardinals need late-inning bullpen help as much as any team that fancies itself as a contender in 2009. The Cardinals, who went a surprising 86-76 last season, could not help but wonder if that record might have been better if they had not led the major leagues with 31 blown saves and topped the NL with 31 relief losses. Furthermore, their 17 losses in games in which they held the lead after six innings were the most in the league. “I think it’s the number one priority,” La Russa said of landing a closer. “We’re close to having a good club. We’re close to having enough starting pitching. We’re close to having enough relieving. We’re close to having enough offense. So if you take care of your first priority, you’ve done something significant, and then you keep looking and see if there’s something else you can do.”

While Fuentes is considering the Cardinals, he says that his preference would be to sign with his home-state Angels and replace closer Francisco Rodriguez, who left as a free agent to sign a three-year, $37 million contract with the Mets this past week. The Angels, however, are in a holding pattern until they see if they can re-sign Teixeira, which would likely mean they could not afford Fuentes.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia is not as outwardly excited about signing Fuentes as La Russa. In fact, Scioscia rattled off a list of in-house candidates who could fill the ninth-inning role, including Scot Shields, Jose Arredondo, Kevin Jepsen, Justin Speier, Darren Oliver, and Jason Bulger. “You’re always trying to get better,” Scioscia said. “I know [GM] Tony Reagins is pursuing arms that are out there who can help us, but if we don’t add anybody into our bullpen I don’t think there’s any doubt at our comfort level and the confidence that we have in who is down there now on our club. I don’t know if we’re going to go into the spring just putting one guy in that role, because we’re going to have a lot of power arms in our bullpen.”

Forty-three players entered the free-agent market at midnight on Friday when they were not tendered contracts by their clubs, and a slow and crowded market that began with 171 players who filed for free agency last month has grown substantially. Of the latest crop of free agents, here are the top five in terms of WARP3 during the 2008 season:

  • Third baseman Ty Wigginton (5.2)

    The Astros are having serious budget problems, which is why ace Roy Oswalt was willing to restructure his contract in order to aid in the pursuit of a front-line starting pitcher. Wigginton had a fine 2008, hitting .285/.350/526 with a .291 EqA in 429 plate appearances. The Twins could certainly use a third baseman with power. The Reds also have interest, because they are open to trading third baseman Edwin Encarnacion for a corner outfielder or pitching.

  • Relief pitcher Takashi Saito (4.6)

    The Dodgers were scared off by the elbow problems of their former closer, even though he had 1.961 WRXL and a 2.49 ERA in 47 innings last season with 40 hits allowed, 16 walks, and 60 strikeouts. It had been assumed that the 39-year-old Saito would retire if the Dodgers non-tendered him, but his agent says he wants to continue playing in the United States.

  • Center fielder Willy Taveras (4.5)

    The Rockies are ready to go with Ryan Spilborghs in center after Taveras hit .251/.308/.296 with a .239 EqA in 538 at-bats last season. Despite the meager numbers, the Reds, White Sox, Yankees, and Nationals are all expected to try to sign him.

  • Infielder Aaron Miles (3.6)

    He had a solid 2008 with the Cardinals when pressed into action around the infield a bit more than anticipated, posting a .317/.355/.398 line with a .265 EqA in 408 plate appearances. This is yet another non-tender the Reds have interest in, and he could possibly wind up as their shortstop with Alex Gonzalez remaining a question mark after missing all of last season with a fractured knee.

  • Starting pitcher Tim Redding (3.6)

    He was a mainstay in the Nationals’ rotation last season with 3.2 SNLVAR and a 4.95 ERA in 182 innings. The Rockies tried to trade for him at the Winter Meetings this past week and become the logical frontrunners to sign the journeyman, though there are plenty of other teams that would take a flyer on a pitcher who can eat innings.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen created quite a stir during spring training in 2006 when he called Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez a hypocrite for wavering between playing for the United States or the Dominican Republic in the first World Baseball Classic. “Alex was kissing Latino people’s [behinds],” Guillen told Sports Illustrated after Rodriguez eventually decided to play for the US. “He knew he wasn’t going to play for the Dominicans because he’s not a Dominican.”

Rodriguez said this past week that he will play for the Dominican in the second WBC next March. He was born on the island nation, but was raised and still lives in Miami. Guillen, a Venezuelan, laughed when asked what he thought about Rodriguez deciding to play for his native land, and for once Guillen actually gave an entirely quotable answer. “He wants to play for the Dominican because he feels like he belongs to them, so I don’t see why not,” Guillen said. “I hope he plays for Venezuela in the next one, because Venezuela will be better with him. Any team Alex Rodriguez plays for, that team is going to be better. If that team is the Dominican Republic, they have a great chance to win, because he brings a lot to table.”

Major League Rumors and Rumblings:
The Angels and Yankees are both expected to make plays for Padres ace Jake Peavy after a proposed trade that would have sent him to the Cubs fell through this past week. … The Cubs have stepped up their pursuit of free-agent outfielder Milton Bradley now that the Phillies have signed Raul Ibanez to play left field. … The Reds are making a play for free-agent outfielder Pat Burrell, who won’t return to the Phillies after the Ibanez signing. … The Brewers have interest in signing left-hander Jamie Moyer as a free agent if he does not strike a deal to stay with the Phillies. … Free-agent right-hander Carl Pavano is drawing interest from the Red Sox, Marlins, and Blue Jays, but doesn’t seem close to signing. … The Mets have interest in signing utility infielder Alex Cora as a free agent. … While utility player Jerry Hairston Jr. says he would prefer to re-sign with the Reds as a free agent, he is also drawing interest from the Mariners and Pirates. … The Tigers, Pirates, and Giants are all pursuing free-agent reliever Derrick Turnbow.

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With holes at 2B and 3B that rate somewhere between gaping and interstellar, the Giants seem intent on dropping $10 million or more on relief pitching instead. Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry are already signed, and Derrick Turnbow won\'t come free. I hope Sabean is working on deals for Orlando Hudson and a body at third base warmer than Rich Aurilia\'s corpse, because if the Giants come away from this off-season without having upgraded these offensive basics, the relief corps won\'t have many leads to protect.