Inside Pitch: Lean free agent market
GM's to face an offseason with few marquee players available
The market doesn't open until November but the early indications are this winter's free agent crop is going to be a lean one. Not that last winter was a bumper crop, mind you, but at least there were a few marquee free agents to fuel the Hot Stove like Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Ted Lilly and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
This year the pickings could be even slimmer.
"I haven't seen the list lately other than the center fielders, that's the most attractive group of players (with Torii) Hunter, Andruw Jones, (Mike) Cameron and (Aaron) Rowand," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said.
"The pitching group is not an attractive group. There were a lot of free agent pitchers last year, this year it seems to be less of a list because a lot of teams have tied up a lot of players to long-term contracts, so I don't see where there's going to be impact players that are going to be difference makers on the free agent lists this year."
The Brewers could lose closer Francisco Cordero to free agency, but unlike a lot of teams, Milwaukee is set at most positions and do not figure to be major players in the free agent market.
"I guess in our situation we're pretty fortunate because we've got a lot of key players that are going to come back next year, we're not in the need to shop the free agent market. So it's probably good that it's not a good list, with the situation we're in," Melvin said.
The complete list won't be known until determinations are made on the potential free agents with 2008 options, such as Bobby Abreu, Moises Alou, Adam Dunn, Jeff Kent and Ivan Rodriguez.
In the meantime, the list of position players heading for free agency following the World Series is expected to include such names as Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Brady Clark, Luis Gonzalez, Reggie Sanders, Sammy Sosa, Brad Wilkerson, Sean Casey, Tony Clark, Ryan Klesko, Mark Sweeney, Mike Sweeney, Luis Castillo, Damion Easley, Mark Loretta, Jose Valentin, David Eckstein, Omar Vizquel, Mike Lamb, Mike Lowell, Brad Ausmus, Paul Lo Duca, Jason LaRue, Jason Kendall, Michael Barrett and Jorge Posada.
"I don't think this is going to be near as attractive (group) as we've seen in years, but we'll have to see who files after the World Series," Houston president Tal Smith said. "You can't talk to them until after they file, and even then there's a 15-day moratorium until after the World Series before you can really do anything. It's a long way off, but just looking at the potential free agents I don't think there's going to be a lot of options there.
"It's not that we don't care to participate. (Astros owner) Drayton (McLane), I think, has demonstrated that he'll step up in a big way if there's something we can do. At this time, it's uncertain as to how much can be done that way."
The Astros aren't alone in that regard.
"We know we need to acquire players, there's no mistake about that, we want to add players to this team next year. (But) I don't know how we do it," Nationals president Stan Kasten said. "Perhaps it's free agency, but more likely, I think, it would be through trades, either with veterans on the Major League level or with prospects."
Potential free agent starting pitchers at this point include Bartolo Colon, Josh Fogg, Livan Hernandez, Jason Jennings, Jon Lieber, Kyle Lohse, Rodrigo Lopez, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Carlos Silva and Kip Wells, although many more will certainly be added in the coming weeks.
Teams looking for free agent relievers could have a few dozen choices, including Cordero, Jeremy Affeldt, Rheal Cormier, Todd Jones, Jorge Julio, Joe Kennedy, Scott Linebrink, Ron Mahay, Mariano Rivera, Rudy Seanez, Mike Timlin, Luis Vizcaino, Bob Wickman and Kerry Wood. As with the other positions, there are a number of relievers with 2008 options (Scott Eyre, Trevor Hoffman, Jason Isringhausen, Joe Nathan) that if aren't exercised could significantly upgrade this group.
"There aren't a lot of marquee names there in comparison to other years but that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities," Houston GM Ed Wade said. "In our case, when you've got a core group that accomplishes the middle of your lineup and the top of the rotation and certain aspects of the bullpen you've got some pretty good elements to build around, even in a market that doesn't present a lot of opportunities."
This year's market could get a boost if Alex Rodriguez elects to opt out of his contract and become a free agent or options on other significant players are not picked up. The thin market could trigger more trades than typically seen at the Winter Meetings, though that wasn't the case last year.
"Some of the trades that were made in July didn't have much of an impact on the teams, a few of them did," Melvin said. "There's always trades that will take place, I just don't see the same free agent activity as in the past. Because you look at teams like the Red Sox-Yankees, they're doing it with some young players too for a change. With more teams doing it with younger players and giving them more of a thorough look than the free agents, I just think the free agent market is going to be pretty slow."
Painting the corners
The Astros will be looking for pitching but admit their best options may be in-house.
"It would be good to add a No. 2 starting pitcher, but I don't think that's realistic," Smith said. "I don't think the free agent market is going to present us with an opportunity to add quality starting pitching ,and I think that it is going to be difficult to trade for it."
C.C. Sabathia has always been one of the better starters in baseball, but Cleveland's lefty Cy Young Award candidate has elevated his game this year, and the single biggest difference may be his slider.
"He's always had the big fastball," one scout said. "But his slider is much sharper this year than I've ever seen it, and he can throw it for strikes at any time. When you have a lefty with that slider to go with a mid-90s fastball, it's no surprise he's having a great year."
The thin free agent market isn't the only reason teams needing catchers are taking a hard look at their own prospects in September.
"You want to make sure you don't have a Chris Snyder waiting in the wings," one team official said.
Snyder, 26, is in his fourth year with Arizona though he appeared in only 29 games in 2004, 115 in 2005 and 61 last year. Valued more for his defense than his offensive skills, Snyder has put it all together this year. Since the break he is batting .311 (through Sunday's game) with 30 RBIs and a .936 OPS in 47 games.
"Give them credit for sticking with him," the official said. "They could have dealt him for pitching at the break, and he's really come through for them."
A few other 20-something backstops are making a case for more playing time in the future.
Geovany Soto is batting .395 in 43 at bats for the Cubs, Colorado's Chris Iannetta is hitting .349 in his last 15 games and Houston's J.R. Towles set a franchise record with eight runs batted in against the Cardinals Thursday night. Towles is batting .417 with an 1.181 OPS in nine games since he was called up.
After right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. suffered a season-ending groin injury slipping on the outfield turf at Wrigley Field, Cincinnati left fielder Adam Dunn made it clear what he thought of the playing surface.
"That outfield is dangerous, I'm surprised more people don't get injured out there," Dunn said. "It's as bad as there is. It's worse than playing in a parking lot."
Dunn wasn't surprised to learn two rock concerts had been held at Wrigley this summer.
"They must have had a monster-truck rally out there," Dunn said. "It's not safe."
The Pirates had similar complaints.
"The outfield is horrendous to play on -- the worst I've ever seen," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said after Friday's game. "It's not a Major League-caliber outfield. It's really bad."
Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth said "it looks like a dozen cows were grazing out there the past week."
If the Cubs hold on and win the National League Central Division title, expect improvements before the playoffs.
"There are a lot of holes and sometimes when someone hits a ground ball, you have to be careful," said Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano.
Assuming the Yankees, who have a magic number of one to clinch a playoff spot entering Tuesday, make the playoffs, don't be surprised if manager Joe Torre puts rookie Ian Kennedy in the bullpen for the playoffs and goes with a rotation of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina.
Kevin Frandsen is hitting .420 in September, including a 5-for-5 game against Cincinnati on Friday. Frandsen is getting a long look at second base this month and could push Ray Durham for more playing time next season. Durham, who is making $7 million this year, is signed through 2008 and as a 10-and-5 player can't be traded without his permission.
Minnesota's Kevin Slowey has been a different pitcher since he was recalled from the Minor Leagues at the beginning of the month.
Slowey was 3-0 in seven starts with the Twins earlier this season, but had given up 24 earned runs, 13 homers and 62 baserunners in 37 innings, so the Twins sent him back to Triple-A Rochester.
In five games since his return the right-hander is 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA. He's allowed just two homers and has strikeouts while walking only two in 24.0 innings.
"He's more aggressive with his fastball and his control is better," one scout said of the improvement.
Don't be surprised if the Marlins trade left-hander Dontrelle Willis this winter. Florida has rebuffed all suitors for Willis in the past, but as he is having the worst season of his career (9-15, 5.32 ERA) and stands to earn more than the $6.45 million this season, the Marlins may change their minds. With pitching scarce Willis would command a hefty package, even coming off an off year.
"I never think about that, but from what I'm hearing, it could be very likely," said Willis, referring to being traded. "If that's the case, I will be making my last start as a Marlin here in this stadium [on Tuesday]. We'll see. But if that's the case, I've loved being here. This is my family. They know that. This is all I know."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.