The most important part of baseball's year, the postseason, ended two weeks ago when the Red Sox won the World Series. Now, in a blink, the second most vital part of the sport's calendar is upon us, beginning today. Free agency has arrived.
Carlos Beltran, who hit eight playoff homers, Pedro Martinez, with a Series ring to wear into Cooperstown someday and Adrian Beltre, who led the majors with 48 homers, are free men at last! So are Carl Pavano, Carlos Delgado, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Armando Benitez, J.D. Drew, Magglio Ordoñez and Troy Glaus. More than 200 free agents are on the loose at this very minute, including 16 Red Sox. Will George Steinbrenner sign them all, then order them to spend the summer at parade rest in Yankee Stadium's Memorial Park? Why, even Roger Clemens, fresh off his seventh Cy Young Award, has added his name to the free agent list. That must be giving the Boss heart palpitations.
With baseball's winter meetings in early December, the game's blockbuster trades are approaching, too. If Alex Rodriguez and Curt Schilling could both be dealt last year, anything is possible. This winter's prize could be Randy Johnson, who was in the running for his fifth Cy Young Award. At 41, he will play somewhere next season but probably not for 111-loss Arizona.
Since the introduction of wild cards a decade ago, the very rhythm of the baseball year has changed. Now, after three straight wild-card teams have won the World Series, the transformation is clear. It's no longer essential to win 100 games or capture your division title to end up as world champion. With a well-constructed team that gets hot at the right time, you can run the table. The Red Sox, as good as dead, suddenly won eight straight games and have gone directly to the top echelon of American sports legend.
In spring and summer, baseball is still our favorite leisurely game, unfolding over six deliberate months. One night we have a Big Unit perfect game or a Barry Bonds landmark. But autumn and winter have become the game's most frenetic and decisive periods. Baseball has become a sport that grabs headlines 12 months a year as teams trade and spend themselves into amazing reconfigurations of themselves.
Winter after winter, we see the same basic old-fashioned baseball truism played out time and again. Yet few seem to learn. Adding pitching, especially great pitching, always matters. Adding more hitting, even great hitting, seldom closes the deal.
Last year Boston added Schilling and Keith Foulke and won. The Yankees added Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, but neglected their rotation, and didn't. The Yankee goats? Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, the replacement starters who failed. The Astros, who added Roger Clemens, missed the Series by one game. With a healthy Andy Pettitte, who knows?
Just watch. The free agency bell has barely rung and everybody is already chasing exactly the wrong players. No better example could exist than Beltran, the current object of obsession. If baseball is lucky, the Yankees will fixate on Beltran, sign him for between $150 and $200 million and find out, too late, that he is exactly the player they don't need -- a flashy five-tool switch-hitting centerfielder coming off a spectacular October hot streak who, in cold statistical reality, is as good an offensive player as Boston journeyman Kevin Millar.
That got your attention. Beltran has played six full seasons. They've been virtual duplicates. Five times he's had between 100 and 108 RBI, including 104 in '04. But Manny Ramirez once had 165. In the age of "Moneyball," head straight to composite offensive stats. Start with OPS (on-base-percentage-plus-slugging-percentage) as a decent approximation of offensive ability. Beltran's career OPS is .843. That would rank him eighth on the current Yankees roster. Yes, eighth.
Rodriguez, Sheffield and Jason Giambi are all between .927 and .955 -- a world away from .843, which is 14 points below Millar's career mark. Beltran hit .267 last year, seldom walks much and has only hit 30 homers once, aided by the Astros bandbox.
Those who aren't in love with Beltran adore Beltre. Good luck to them, too. In his first five full seasons, his OPS only once climbed over .800. Last season, it jumped to 1.017. Was it a breakout season at 25 or a career year? Tough choice.
Instead of shopping for such one-year flashes whose price is at the top of the market, teams should be shopping for truly great players -- like Schilling last year or Johnson now. Or they should look for slightly tarnished high quality goods. Last year, Vlad Guerrero had his normal numbers when he played, but had back problems. The Angels took a minor chance on him and almost ended up with the AL MVP. This year, there's no Guerrero, but both Ordoñez and Glaus are prime sluggers, coming off injuries, who have been just as good offensive players throughout their careers -- not as pretty to watch but just as good -- as Beltran.
The steal of the winter will be closer Armando Benitez, 32. After a career of trying to strike out every hitter, he finally put control before "K's" last season in Florida. Not only did both his walks and strikeouts drop, but he suddenly became almost untouchable, allowing 36 hits in 69 2/3nnings with a 1.29 ERA. What Keith Foulke did to stabilize the entire Red Sox bullpen, Benitez may do for a '05 pennant winner. Benitez has had his postseason embarrassments. But his turn in an October mosh pit will come.
The influence of watching the last-game celebrations of the Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins and Red Sox the last four years has been intoxicating for the whole sport. Watching the ultimate underdogs, the Red Sox, come back from three games down to end an 86-year curse has given the whole sport a buzz heading into the sign-and-swap season.
So, if you're the boss of any of 20 major league teams, you woke up this morning and said, "With the right offseason moves, good health and some luck, we can be in the World Series. And once you're in it, you can win it."
Doubtless, tons of self-delusion lies behind such powerfully optimistic feelings. But no sport, or its fans, could ask for more. Games feed on hope. At the moment, any team -- even the Cubs -- that doesn't feeling lucky just isn't paying attention.
Here's how wonderfully crazy baseball has become. A team in Washington, that doesn't even have a nickname yet, will play for the next three years in RFK Stadium. Last year, these Ex-Expos had two corner infielders (Tony Batista and Brad Wilkerson) who each hit 32 homers. The second baseman (Jose Vidro) is a career .300-hitter and perennial all-star candidate. The right fielder (Juan Rivera) hit .307 and the centerfielder (Endy Chavez) stole 32 bases. The staff ace (Livan Hernandez) led the league in innings and the closer's (Chad Cordero) ERA was under 3.00. They're not good. But they're not bad, either.
Before this nameless team leaves RFK, if its new owners spend and trade wisely, and its players get some breaks, it could sneak into a wild card spot before it ever reaches its new stadium. Okay, probably not. But maybe.
Because that's how fast and unpredictably baseball moves these days. The race starts in the offseason. The gun went off at midnight.