Ramirez remains top free-agent hitter
Veteran slugger heads large group of unsigned position players
With little more than two weeks to go before Spring Training camps open in Florida and Arizona, there is one dominant position player remaining among a still-rich group of free agents: Manny Ramirez.But like neat bookends to this strange offseason, the free agency signing period began with little talk about anyone except Ramirez and should end on the same note, whether he re-signs with the Dodgers or not. In between, the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira, the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez, the Cubs signed Milton Bradley and the Rays signed Pat Burrell. Still out there is a veritable who's who of former All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers: Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, Garret Anderson, Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Hudson, Jason Varitek, Ken Griffey Jr., Ivan Rodriguez and Frank Thomas. But the big surprise? "Well, Manny, of course," said agent Barry Axelrod, who represents the Padres' Jake Peavy and unsigned free agents Rich Aurilia and Mark Sweeney. "But that's a whole different scenario with Manny and who he is and the way he handles things. "Manny was going to be a circus no matter what. That's the way Manny is and who he is. Yeah, I am surprised he isn't signed. But then again, as they say, that's just 'Manny being Manny.'" While the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a seven-year deal worth $161 million (a record for a pitcher), Teixeira took home what was by far the biggest bag of loot for any position player this offseason when he inked an eight-year deal for $180 million. From there, the drop-off was precipitous, with Ibanez and Bradley each signing for three years at $30 million and Burrell taking two years at $16 million. Abreu, another Type A free agent corner outfielder, may have to be content with a similar deal. "If you're used to making -- and I'll just use $10 million as an example -- and then all of a sudden the market's only $5 million, you're not usually jumping on those things," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager. "It takes a while for that to sink in. Now in some cases, some players have done very well, too. But what's happened is the star players have received their dollars, and then there are a lot of other guys who are still available." Despite the focus on the economy, a change in free agency actually began to take shape last year, when a number of older free agent position players still were on the market as Spring Training started. That group included Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Kenny Lofton. None of them ever signed, and Piazza retired before the season was out. A significant alteration of the rules governed by the latest Basic Agreement led to this sea change in the free-agent climate. Until last year, teams had until Jan. 7 to re-sign their own free agents, or they couldn't negotiate with them again until May 1. That resulted in a flurry of signings in December and just after the New Year. Now, in the Basic Agreement that was collectively bargained prior to the 2007 season, there is no such deadline. Thus, teams can continue to talk to their own free agents. That change alone has led to some players making mistaken judgments. "You could go back and look at the Kenny Lofton scenario from a year ago," said Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' new GM and a special assistant to Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin for the past two seasons. "Kenny had offers and didn't sign, and he didn't play. As we move forward in the next few weeks, players might have to settle for something. Not that they necessarily want to, but that might be the reality we're in."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.