Used to be, I'd return to work around this time of year, after some time off, and not have much to do at all. Teams had completed their transactions in time to sell tickets as holiday gifts, with both the gift-givers and recipients knowing exactly what sort of team in which they were investing.
That lull in baseball's calendar doesn't exist anymore. Sure, some teams - the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, for instance - appear to be largely done with their offseason shopping. But others, most notably the Mets and Dodgers, are absolutely not done.
That's because, a few years back, many owners realized, "Hey, if we use the clock to our advantage, the way Scott Boras always has, players might get nervous with spring training approaching. And we might save a few bucks!"
So now, at a time when arbitration submissions used to dominate the baseball buzz, there is plenty of more work to be done by both teams and players. By my count on this MLB Trade Rumors list, 172 free agents remain, although some appear all but signed (Colby Lewis with Texas, ) and others (Jason Isringhausen, Troy Percival) seem all but officially retired.
Here's my All-Intriguing Team of remaining free agents:
Catcher: Rod Barajas. I confess, I would've guessed that his 2009 numbers were better than they actually were. A .258 on-base percentage? Yeesh. Nevertheless, considering how much less guaranteed money he's likely to get than Bengie Molina (who, you'd still think, will eventually sign with the Mets), I'm curious to see how he does, on a likely one-year deal. Once the Mets and Molina agree to terms, San Francisco and Texas are expected to pursue the remaining catchers most aggressively.
First baseman: Russelll Branyan.A tease of a big-league career hit a new high in 2009, in Branyan's age-34 season. But if you look at the breakdown, you'll see that he slowed down considerably in the second half, after a terrific first half. The Mets expressed an interest back around the time of the winter meetings. With Carlos Delgado reportedly not unimpressive in winter ball, would it make sense for the Mets to take a flyer on Branyan?
Second baseman: Orlando Hudson. Respected and beloved throughout the industry...except when it's time to pay him. Amazingly, Hudson appears in line to sign his second straight, under-market contract, unless the Mets somehow find a taker for Luis Castillo (extremely unlikely, it appears) and then sign Hudson. The Nationals appear to be Hudson's most likely landing spot.
Shortstop: Orlando Cabrera. Like his fellow Orlando, he's in his second straight year of waiting out a good offer. But also like his fellow Orlando, he doesn't have the "draft-pick compensation issue hovering over him, as it did for both him and Hudson last year. Cabrera isn't that good anymore, but that he always seems to be in the playoffs - yes, of course he has benefited from some luck - makes him one to watch.
Third baseman: Miguel Tejada. It seems inevitable that he's going to switch from his longtime position of shortstop, but even such open-mindedness isn't exactly burning up Tejada's phone line, as ESPN's Jorge Arangure notes. The Cardinals, with one last medium-sized purchase in their budget, seem like the best candidate.
Leftfield: Johnny Damon. Who else? He is the slam-dunk candidate to be this year's Bobby Abreu, although the Yankees didn't want Abreu back a year ago the way they wanted Damon back back in December. People of course still think that Damon and the Yankees will wind up back together, and never say never. Yet I think that the Yankees, while they would have gladly taken Damon back for the right terms, are partially relieved that they have one less aging player on their roster. I know the Braves are saying they'll pass, but this potential marriage, given Atlatna's potential offensive problems and Damon's living so close to the Braves' spring-training site, makes so much sense.
Centerfield: Jim Edmonds. He is loudly proclaming that he wants to play again, after no one gave him a chance last year. Based on how well he played with the Cubs in 2008, you'd think that someone would at least give him a minor-league contract.
Rightfield: Xavier Nady. We know the deal with pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery. With outfielders? Not as customary. Nady would be a perfect complement to Brett Gardner on the Yankees, but I don't think Brian Cashman, with his eye on next year's free-agent crop, will spend a penny over his 2010 budget, so that Hal Steinbrenner will let him go to town for 2011.
Designated hitter: Jim Thome. While he turns the big 4-0 in August, there's little reason to think he's done producing runs. According to this MLB.com story, Tampa Bay has made contact with Thome. For certain, Thome has a severe pay cut coming from last year's $13 million.
Starting pitcher: Pedro Martinez and Ben Sheets. What the heck, we could use two starting pitchers, especially when neither is particularly reliable. Sheets will throw today for scouts of interested clubs, including the Mets, but I don't think the Mets have the mental fortitude at the moment to offer any sort of serious money to another injury risk. What makes him so intriguing is his upside - higher than the more dependable types like Doug Davis, Jon Garland or even Joel Pineiro.
What makes Martinez so intriguing is that he's Pedro Martinez.
Relief pitcher: David Weathers. He might be close to finished, looking at his '09, and he was never great in the first place. So what makes him so special? A little quirk: He's the last remaining, active player from the 1996 Yankees who isn't currently playing for the Yankees themselves.
OK, I'm back on the clock this week and next, and to reiterate: Should be active, particularly on the Mets' front. So stop by repeatedly.