The champagne-soaked carpets in the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse had not yet dried out, the vanquished Detroit Tigers had barely landed back in the snowy Motor City and the Weaver brothers — Jeff and Jered — had scarcely pried themselves apart after their tearful, lengthy hug on the Busch Stadium field, when the bell rang Saturday morning to signal the start of baseball's free agent market, jolting back into reality everyone who forgot momentarily that the game was not only about the thrill of victory.
With the sport awash in cash, fortified by a new labor deal that came to pass with scarcely a hint of rancor and emboldened by an era of parity that has seen seven different World Series winners in the last seven years, this offseason promises to see money flying around in huge quantities, from more directions than ever.
While there is no player coveted enough this winter to approach the record contracts signed after the 2000 season, when Alex Rodriguez grabbed $252 million of the Texas Rangers' money, most within the industry believe that, for the majority of players, there has never been a better time to be a free agent.
"Our industry is thriving," Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. "And when that happens, you're going to see the results" in the player market.
Here, then, are the three most compelling Hot Stove League story lines to fill the days until the national media lines up in Lakeland, Fla., in mid-February to chronicle the first spring training fielding drills for the Tigers' error-prone pitching staff:
- Will the Yankees trade A-Rod? The Yankees and agent Scott Boras say no. Other baseball executives who have spoken to the Yankees say maybe. And common sense says, emphatically, yes.
The reason this story persists even in the face of the Yankees' official "No" is that a trade of Rodriguez still appears to make sense for everyone involved -- from the Yankees, who tried everything (up to and including batting him eighth in their final playoff loss) to smack him out of his mental funk and who desperately need pitching, to Rodriguez himself, who would stand to gain by going somewhere else in an effort to rehabilitate his image as an angst-ridden narcissist.
If the Yankees decide to deal him, there would be no shortage of teams at the intersection of need, interest and wherewithal, including, potentially, the Orioles, Cubs, White Sox, Angels and Padres.
- In what uniform will Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron's record? Bud Selig & Co. might wish Bonds, sitting on 734 career homers, would just disappear into the San Francisco fog. But that is not going to happen. Bonds was one of the first to file for free agency on Saturday, and his agent, Jeff Borris, has already charted an aggressive course to get his man signed.
Because the new labor agreement does away with the free agent deadlines that, for example, prevented Roger Clemens from re-signing with the Houston Astros this season until after May 1, the Giants are under no time pressure to re-sign Bonds. But it is impossible to interpret their lack of effort in that regard as anything less than lack of interest.
If not the Giants, then who would take a chance on a 42-year-old left fielder with a bum knee and a load of baggage that includes a potential federal indictment?
How about the Tigers? They have extra cash on hand, both from the surge in attendance during their pennant drive and their lengthy stay in the postseason. They have a need for a left-handed-hitting left fielder-designated hitter. And they have, in Jim Leyland, a manager who still speaks fondly of Bonds from their days in Pittsburgh.
- Is someone going to pay $100 million for a pitcher with no big league experience? In the case of Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka, it could happen. It might take $30 million, in blind bidding, just to win the right to negotiate a contract with Matsuzaka from the Seibu Lions, for whom he went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA in 2006.
"This is a very special pitcher," Bobby Valentine, former Rangers and Mets manager, now managing Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines, said in an e-mail. "He throws his fastball between 90 and 95 mph and has three breaking balls he is able to throw for a strike in any count. He's as good as anyone I saw pitch in the World Series."
Matsuzaka is said to favor the Seattle Mariners, whose roster includes Japanese stars Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima. But the fact he hired Boras as his agent is an indication he wants top dollar. One baseball executive said during the World Series that Matsuzaka could be looking for a "Roy Oswalt-type of deal."
That would be five years, $73 million. Add in the potential $30 million payment to the Lions, and that's a hundred mil for a rookie. What a game.