© 2012 New York Times News Service
When spring training opened in February, the free-agent class for this offseason seemed tantalizing. Three National League superstars, difference-making players in their primes, were unsigned past this season. Then the Los Angeles Dodgers sold for $2.15 billion.
Other teams reacted swiftly. The bankrupt Dodgers were back and flush with cash, ready to poach from their rivals. Before the middle of April, the San Francisco Giants had re-signed starter Matt Cain and the Cincinnati Reds had done the same with first baseman Joey Votto. In July, the Philadelphia Phillies re-signed starter Cole Hamels.
Those deals, worth $496.5 million combined, removed from the market a former NL most valuable player (Votto), a former World Series MVP (Hamels) and a pitcher who has now tossed a perfect game and won two championships (Cain). However the contracts work out, those players will not be wearing Dodger blue anytime soon.
The Dodgers' threat was real. Itching to spend, they took on the bloated contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in an industry-rattling trade with Boston in August. On Tuesday, the Dodgers signed their closer, Brandon League, to a three-year, $22.5 million contract.
But the Dodgers — in theory, anyway — cannot sign everybody. The remaining headliners on the market include some intriguing names, but they may be less likely to command such lavish deals.
Josh Hamilton, the former American League MVP for the Texas Rangers, was probably the biggest star in his prime to file for free agency last week. A former Cy Young Award winner, Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Angels, is also on the market. Their talented teammates — Rangers catcher Mike Napoli and Angels outfielder Torii Hunter — are also up for bidding.
Hamilton, an All-Star in each of the last five seasons, set a career high in home runs this season, with 43. He faded down the stretch and looked lost in the Rangers' wild-card game defeat, but he said he wanted to return.
“I always would love to stay here,” Hamilton said that night. “They understand that, and they know that. We talked earlier in the year, didn't get things worked out, so we said we'd wait till the year was over and I told them I'd give them first shot at the end of the year. We'll see what happens. I've enjoyed the last five years here, playing with these guys. Most fun I've ever had in my life playing baseball.”
Yet Hamilton also sounded resigned to the idea that the home fans might have sent him off with boos, and he has shown no interest in a discounted deal from Texas. He has a tangled past, with a well-chronicled history of substance abuse, relapse and injury. But he is such a good hitter that, chances are, some team will put aside those factors and focus on his positives.
It is never wise to doubt the ability of a superstar and his agent to convince just one owner that he is worth a major investment. Prince Fielder and his agent, Scott Boras, showed that last offseason, when a $214 million contract from the Detroit Tigers sprouted from a seemingly barren market. Hamilton will not make that much, but it is easy to imagine a team's believing it is one big slugger away from the pennant. The Baltimore Orioles, who knocked Texas from the playoffs, seem to fit that description.
Greinke is probably the only ace starter among free agents, although Kyle Lohse pitched like one for much of last season with St. Louis, and Anibal Sanchez pitched well for Detroit in October. Texas' Ryan Dempster, Baltimore's Joe Saunders and Oakland's Brandon McCarthy are among the other reliable rotation options.
The Nationals' fourth starter, the well-traveled Edwin Jackson, is also available as a free agent. But a more pressing issue for Washington is re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche and the left-handed setup man Sean Burnett.
The Yankees have tried to cultivate consistent, dependable young starters in recent years, with disappointing results. As a result, they will try to wrest more production from Andy Pettitte, who turns 41 in June, and Hiroki Kuroda, who turns 38 in February. Both pitched admirably last season and would be safe bets on one-year deals.
The Yankees have several other free agents, including outfielders Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez and Ichiro Suzuki; catcher Russell Martin; infielder Eric Chavez; and closers Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano. Rivera, like Pettitte, will surely return if he wants to, which on Friday he indicated he would.
The Giants, who swept Detroit in the World Series, also face the loss of several important contributors, including outfielder Angel Pagan, second baseman Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt, who has been one of baseball's best left-handed setup men for the last several years. The Giants are especially interested in keeping Scutaro, who hit .500 in the NL Championship Series and drove in the winning run in the World Series clincher.
Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, who never returned after his drug suspension in August, will be a compelling case. He is coming off two strong seasons, but evaluators do not know how much was real and how much was artificial. At 28, though, Cabrera will get another chance.
The market for outfielders extends well beyond Cabrera. Teams can choose from a group that includes Hamilton, Hunter, Pagan, Michael Bourn, Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and Delmon Young.
The outfielders embody the free-agent class as a whole: deep on solid, veteran talent, but short on superstars.