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Early signings bolster open market

WashPost: Movement expected to pick up at winter meetings
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This time of year in baseball, there is nothing quite so dangerous as a franchise or a general manager with a thirst for headlines and big splashes. It is a psychological advantage agents have been exploiting for years. Every new owner wants to send the signal that he is willing to spend to win. Every GM wants to show his bosses he can land the big names. And every agent in baseball can sniff out those wild-eyed money-throwers from miles away.

You can already see this dynamic in action with the deals handed out to shortstop Cristian Guzman last month (four years, $17 million) by new Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden and to third baseman Troy Glaus on Thursday (four years, $45 million) by the Arizona Diamondbacks' new ownership -- neither of which is going to earn Bowden or the Diamondbacks' officials any warm greetings from their peers in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott.

"I've heard rumors the agents think there's a lot of money, [and] some of the early signings may have spurred that," said Jim Beattie, the Baltimore Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations. "But I think it's going to be a long process."

While the World Series champion Boston Red Sox are seemingly in the hunt for every player (that is what happens when nearly two-thirds of your 25-man roster are free agents), many of the other usual suspects who typically drive baseball's free agent market -- the New York Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, etc. -- are either absent from the front lines or taking notably subdued stances.

The Yankees, for instance, are talking about second-tier pitchers (Jaret Wright, Eric Milton) and second-tier hitters (Tino Martinez, Tony Womack) -- although everyone expects them to go after big-prize center fielder Carlos Beltran and to revisit their recently aborted talks with the Diamondbacks over ace lefty Randy Johnson, whenever owner George Steinbrenner gets that whim.

"I've said all along our focus is going to be on pitching," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, "and that's going to remain our priority for now."

So, as baseball's annual winter meetings open for business Friday -- with deals already flying around, even as most executives were arriving Thursday afternoon and evening -- it is useful to ask which teams and which GMs are most eager to make some noise this weekend. And with that in mind, here are the teams and the GMs to watch:

The Anaheim Angels. The hosts for the weekend are seeking nothing less than to conquer the very soul of the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area -- witness their ongoing attempt to re-christen the franchise the "Los Angeles Angels." Owner Arte Moreno -- whose haul last winter included Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar -- sees the chance to unseat the financially strapped Dodgers as the preeminent team in the market, and he appears ready to pounce.

The Angels will be all over Beltran, regarded as the grand prize of this year's free-agent market, although Beltran is unlikely to sign until after the New Year -- or until agent Scott Boras comes down on his reported asking price of 10 years and $200 million, whichever comes first. They could also enter into the running for right-hander Pedro Martinez, whose agent, Fernando Cuza, is wisely waiting to see if anyone will join the Red Sox and New York Mets in the bidding.

Omar Minaya. In only two months on the job, the Mets' new GM already has made serious runs at the most intriguing pitcher on the free-agent market (Martinez) and the most intriguing hitter on the trade market (the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa). He has also shown a stunning disregard for the old guard in Queens, alienating veteran lefty Al Leiter, who stormed off to the Florida Marlins this week, and dangling likely future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza to anyone who would listen.

Minaya's Mets also will be major players in the running for one of the trio of slugging corner infielders still on the market -- Adrian Beltre, Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson.

"It's not like we have to do something right away," Minaya said this week, sounding like a man who was reminding himself of that. "But we're far along in some discussions with agents and clubs, and we hope to get something accomplished."

The Orioles. True, the Orioles have neither a new owner nor a new GM, but the importance of winning over fans has never been greater for this franchise, which faces competition in its region -- with the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington -- for the first time in 34 years.

Having taken a small step toward returning to contention last season -- when the signings of Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson allowed them to rise above fourth place for the first time in seven years -- the Orioles are looking to sign one more big hitter (with Delgado and Sexson in their sights) and one front-line starting pitcher (perhaps Carl Pavano or Derek Lowe).

The Orioles are also expected to be near the front of the line that is sure to form outside the suite of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who is prepared to deal one of his "Big Three" starting pitchers -- Mark Mulder, Barry Zito or Tim Hudson. Hudson appears the most likely to go, and the Orioles, perhaps more than any other team, have the mix of young position players and young pitchers the A's are seeking.

However, for now the Orioles are moving slowly -- as the meetings get set to open, they have yet to have their first conversation with Boras, who not only represents Beltran, but also Beltre, Lowe, Magglio Ordoñez and J.D. Drew.

"This year . . . rather than being an end to some potential contracts," Beattie said, "the winter meetings will probably be more of a start for a lot of teams."