Cautious climate predicted for Meetings
Recession could make for sober assessments in Las Vegas
High-end merchandising will meet the slumping economy next week in the place where gambling is a way of life.
There will be some bargain hunting, for sure, but the question is how well the product will move at the four-day Winter Meetings, which begin on Monday at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Grabbing the headlines will be the big rumored deals that are expected to stretch into nine figures for such free agents as CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, while Manny Ramirez also stands the possibility of getting matching numbers, if not in years then in average annual salary.
But there will not be a general manager, team executive or agent who will be able to get too far from the current fiscal news that has rocked global markets.
"The economy will affect everybody and everything," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "I don't know anybody that hasn't been affected. There's a lot of uncertainty."
Those thoughts were echoed last week by Paul Beeston, Toronto's interim president and chief executive, as he addressed a group of reporters.
"The last three weeks has changed a lot of thinking," Beeston said. "If you're not aware of it, I don't think you're being realistic."
So despite the location, which mixes ancient Rome with the New York skyline and tosses in nearly every other cultural icon at its disposal, sober assessment will likely need to rule over an all-in mentality as teams address their needs at the Winter Meetings.
Sabathia, Teixeira and Ramirez do not stand alone as free agents who will command big money. Francisco Rodriguez heads a crowded group of closers that also includes Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood and Trevor Hoffman.
Among starting pitchers, A.J. Burnett has received nearly the amount of attention showered on Sabathia, while Derek Lowe is also in search of a lucrative, multiyear deal. They're joined by a group that includes Ben Sheets, Oliver Perez, Andy Pettitte, John Smoltz, Jon Garland, Pedro Martinez, Paul Byrd, Brad Penny and Randy Johnson.
Shortstops Rafael Furcal and Edgar Renteria have generated considerable interest, and Furcal's agent, Paul Kinzer, said last week that negotiations for his clients, Rodriguez included, won't begin in earnest until next week.
Those who could possibly see the most action in Vegas, though, are left-handed relievers.
The market has already seen Jeremy Affeldt go to the Giants for $8 million over two years. The Reds, Rockies, Cardinals, Braves, Diamondbacks and Rangers are all actively seeking lefty relievers, while the Cubs and A's could be in the market for left-handed relief help as well.
Reds GM Walt Jocketty referred to the market for left-handed relievers as "inflated," but it remains to be seen if the supply eventually outstrips the demand. Currently available are southpaws Joe Beimel, Alan Embree, Will Ohman, Darren Oliver, Eddie Guardado, Trever Miller, Mike Maroth and Ron Villone.
Jocketty has also posited that high-priced free agents may help spur the trade market as teams rein in their budgets.
One who has stood above the others, though, is Sabathia, who could be the first of the biggies to go. He's already received two known offers.
The first, from the Brewers, is believed to be worth $100 million over five years, though Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin has not confirmed the numbers. Also in are the Yankees, with an offer to Sabathia that is reportedly worth $140 million for six years.
The Sabathia camp has been quiet about a decision-making timetable, but the involvement of some teams out west is likely to kick negotiations into a higher gear.
Sabathia has indicated a desire to return to his native California, and he also prefers the National League. The Dodgers and Giants both satisfy those prerequisites, but a more viable partner could be found in Anaheim.
|"We know that we've got some weaknesses, and we're going to fix the problems as best we can. If that means spending money, obviously, that means spending money. The philosophy has not changed."|
-- Yankees co-chairman|
Considering that owner Arte Moreno is a serious competitor, if the Angels do enter the bidding for Sabathia, the Yankees will likely counter as they strive to upgrade their rotation.
"We're going to do what we do every year, and that's try to field a championship team," Yankees co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner said recently. "That's not going to change. We know that we've got some weaknesses, and we're going to fix the problems as best we can. If that means spending money, obviously, that means spending money. The philosophy has not changed."
If the past is any indication, Teixeira will not sign during the Winter Meetings, though the first baseman told an ESPN reporter a couple of weeks back that he'd like to be through with the process by Christmas.
Agent Scott Boras, who represents both Teixeira and Ramirez, is reportedly seeking a 10-year deal worth an average annual salary of $20 million for Teixeira. Boras was in a similar position with Carlos Beltran at the Winter Meetings four years ago, but the center fielder did not sign with the Mets until that January, and for less than the initial asking price.
The Nationals, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees are all expected to compete with the Angels for Teixeira.
If the market slows for Teixeira, the play for Ramirez could also be thrown into a holding pattern, a condition that could also affect the signings of pitchers Burnett and Lowe.
Teixeira and Ramirez are the two coveted middle-of-the-order bats this winter, and both delivered after their midseason moves in July -- Teixeira to the Angels and Ramirez to the Dodgers. Teixeira is the younger option by eight years, but Ramirez put on one of the best offensive shows in recent memory by hitting .396 with 17 homers, 53 RBIs and a 1.232 OPS in 53 games with Los Angeles.
Teams may wait for Teixeira to sign and set the market before chasing Ramirez, who should command fewer years.
The situation with Lowe and Burnett is similar. The Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles and Braves are all in the hunt for Burnett, but they may wait for Lowe, who is reportedly seeking a deal in the neighborhood of Barry Zito's $126 million, seven-year contract, signed in 2006. The Yankees are also in the market for Lowe.
That may not be the case in the closers department, though. Rodriguez is reportedly after $15 million for as many as five years. The Mets are interested, but not for five years, and will also be taking a look at Fuentes.
Sabathia, Ramirez, Teixeira, Burnett, Lowe and Rodriguez have all been offered salary arbitration, though, and would cost first-round Draft picks if they sign with a new team that finished with one of the 15 best records in baseball in 2008.
"Everybody is waiting to see what happens," one agent told MLB.com on Monday. "Let the big guys fall, and then we'll take it from there. We'll just wait it out, there's no hurry."
The economics of the time can be downright scary for the average American, and though baseball isn't in line for a bailout, the climate is calling for prudent decision-making.
"It's worldwide. We're taking it step by step. We'll learn more," Colletti said. "Things will become clearer, although they may not be better, as the days go on."
Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.