Happy and healthy 2011 to everyone. Should be a fun week here, with Wednesday's announcement of the Hall of Fame selections (here's my ballot, again) and the resulting debates/discussion. Speaking of which, Bob Tufts has been killing it over at his space on this topic.
But maybe we'll also get some movement on the free-agent front, which has been notably slow since Cliff Lee rocked the baseball world by going to the Phillies.
If you look at my top free-agent rankings from early November, you'll see that 21 of my top 30 have signed with a club - 18 of those before Lee committed to the Phillies on the night of Dec. 13, and only two since (Orlando Hudson to San Diego and Derrek Lee to Baltimore).
The new year is of course a symbolic turn of the calendar for many of us, and in baseball, too, it has its own specific vibe. It at least feels like the teams gain the upper hand at this point. Spring training is now just six weeks or so away, and many clubs claim to be out of money.
It works out just fine for many, of course; Matt Holliday signed the biggest deal of last offseason, with the Cardinals, and it didn't happen until Jan. 6. For many, however, the waiting doesn't pay off. Think of Johnny Damon a year ago, who turned down two years and $20 million from the Yankees and wound up with one year and $8 million from Detroit.
The high-risk, high-reward free-agency adventure reminds me of Kramer and the car salesman -- whose actual name is Rick but whom Kramer calls Stan -- driving the dealership car on an empty tank of gas, linked above, from this episode of "Seinfeld." (Watch the video embedded at the bottom of this post.) And within this sequence, Stan (Rick) references "Thelma and Louise."
Thelma and Louise do appear to experience some sort of liberation at the end of their adventure, but they also, you know (spoiler alert), die. So that wasn't good. Whereas Kramer and Stan (Rick) achieve their goal and attain new spiritual height, even though they push their luck and run out of gas after the fact.
So looking at our eight remaining, top ranked free agents, which will be like Kramer and Stan (Rick), which like Thelma and Louise (by which we mean significant professional disappointment - we won't predict anyone's actual death. That's a little dark so early in the new year) and which somewhere in between?
The rankings here are based on where they ranked relative to each other in my Nov. 7rankings
1. Adrian Beltre. He appears to be in excellent shape, with everyone in the American League West besides Seattle, the one team for which he already has played, expressing significant interest. The Rangers are interested even though they already have an established starting third baseman in Michael Young; not surprising, given Jon Daniels' willingness to shake things up (Young presumably would become a first baseman-DH if this actually occurs), and the new ownership's desire to build on the great 2010, after missing out on Lee.
The Angels need Beltre the most, but we'll see if Arte Moreno extends the budget in a way he wouldn't for Carl Crawford. And the A's are reportedly out, although they surely would jump right back in if Beltre expressed a willingness to play for them.
So Beltre is like Kramer and Stan (Rick).
2. Carl Pavano. It's surprising that the big lug is still out there, but his obvious suitors - Minnesota and Washington - still want him, and never rule Texas out of anything, especially with Lee elsewhere. Rule the Yankees out, of course.
The Twins have to be favored, as they have been all along. They've had a very quiet winter while their rivals have loaded up (the Tigers with Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, the White Sox with Adam Dunn, the Twins' Jesse Crain and the re-signings of Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski).
Pavano is like George Costanza from this episode. It takes him a while to get what he wants - a candy bar - and he goes through some trials and tribulations. Yet he eventually gets the candy bar.
3. Johnny Damon. We discussed him at length two weeks ago, when I reported that Damon was speaking with the Rays, Angels and Yankees about a deal. It appears that Damon will eventually have to relent on something. The Rays aren't paying enough, the Angels play and train far from his Orlando-area home; and the Yankees don't have enough playing time for him.
Damon, therefore, is like Jerry from this episode. Just as Jerry doesn't get what he wants because he refuses to give David Puddy a high-five, Damon will wind up at least partially dissatisfied. Damon, however, is pretty good about quickly moving past such disappointment.
4. Andy Pettitte. He's in the best position of all. He has interest in pitching for only one team, and that team (the Yankees, of course) will basically write him a blank check to return. At the moment, however, Pettitte seems perfectly content not pitching at all.
He's obviously like Kramer and Stan (Rick).
5. Jim Thome. The "veteran DH" market, of which Damon is also a part, fascinates me more every year. These guys continue to get devalued, as clubs get increasingly concerned about position players (more than pitchers, it seems) aging very quickly.
Thome is coming off a marvelous year with the Twins, and like Pavano, he appears to have a job waiting for him in Minnesota. Hence his similarity to Costanza.
6. Manny Ramirez. Man oh Manny, you don't hear anything about this guy, do you? As you can see from my rankings and predictions link, I had him going to Detroit, but that's not happening now with Magglio Ordonez back and Martinez there, too.
Given how his 2010 went down, first with injury issues with the Dodgers and then with a very quiet last month with the White Sox (yes, small sample size, and yes, he got on base a lot, but part of Manny's Magic always had been his ability to turn it on when he knew the world was watching), we're clearly not going to see any team put itself out there for Ramirez.
If and when he signs, it'll surely be for a low base plus incentives. And while it's difficult to read Manny's mind, a simple look at his history has to make you wonder how long it'll be before he grows dissatisfied in his new environment.
Yes, for now, Manny is Thelma and Louise.
7. Rafael Soriano. I see that I wrote, "Soriano picked the perfect time to have a breakout season," and to that, I say, "Whoops!" Not so much. There simply aren't many contenders who have a clear void at closer. The White Sox let Bobby Jenks go, but they spent on Crain, as well as the other guys mentioned, and they're saying out of money.
As I've written previously, I think the Yankees should sign Soriano as a setup man to Mariano Rivera and try to shorten their games, since their starting rotation figures to be lacking at the outset of the season. But even if that happened, Soriano wouldn't fully be getting what he wants. It's in his best financial interests, looking toward his next contract, to remain a closer.
Through no fault of his own, Soriano is Thelma and Louise. If he defies the odds and gets a huge contract to close somewhere, then it'll be yet another notch in Scott Boras' belt.
8. Kevin Millwood. Another Boras client, as are Beltre, Damon and Ramirez; Boras is notorious for being methodical in free agency. Millwood's market will clear up once Pavano makes his decision.
Millwood didn't enter this winter expecting much. So he's like Elaine from this episode, as she once again breaks up with Puddy and reconciles with him. Business as usual.
9. Adam LaRoche. He was a Thelma and Louise last year, signing a one-year deal with Arizona after turning down a multi-year offer from San Francisco. This year, at this point, you'd think he and Washington could find common ground, since they have mutual interest and Baltimore and Lee just agreed to terms.
So what should we call LaRoche? Let's make him a Costanza. He'll get something resembling his initial hopes.
--I'll check in later with the day's developments.