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Free-agent market could be frenzied

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but at least one prominent agent believes that the free-agent market will erupt if a labor agreement is reached by the start of the offseason.

The agent cites the overall weakness of this year’s class, which includes a number of high-end stars – Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, Jonathan Papelbon and potentially CC Sabathia – but little depth.

The agent also notes history.

Baseball announced its last labor agreement during the 2006 World Series. The owners, flush with security, responded with one of their most embarrassing spending sprees ever. In fact, many of the top 15 free-agent contracts signed that offseason rank among the worst in history.

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Check out this near-comical list:

Alfonso Soriano: 8 years, $136 million, Cubs.
Barry Zito: 7 years, $126 million, Giants.
Carlos Lee: 6 years, $100 million, Astros.
Aramis Ramirez: 5 years, $75 million, Cubs.
J.D. Drew: 5 years, $70 million, Red Sox.
Gil Meche: 5 years, $55 million, Royals.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: 5 years, $52 million, Red Sox.
Gary Matthews Jr: 5 years, $50 million, Angels.
Jason Schmidt: 3 years, $47 million, Dodgers.
Juan Pierre: 5 years, $44 million, Dodgers.
Jeff Suppan: 4 years, $42 million, Brewers.
Ted Lilly: 4 years, $40 million, Cubs.
Julio Lugo: 4 years, $36 million Red Sox.
Vicente Padilla: 3 years, $33.75 million, Rangers.
Miguel Batista: 3 years, $25 million, Mariners.
Adam Eaton: 3 years, $24 million, Phillies.

Bring back Jim Hendry! Lilly and Ramirez probably produced the best performances of that group, with Drew in the conversation.

I half-wonder if commissioner Bud Selig will slow down the labor discussions just to keep the teams from acting stupid again. While the national economy is poor, the baseball economy is not.

The current deal expires Dec. 11. The longer the talks extend, the greater the chances of the market being disrupted, or at least delayed.

 

THE TIGERS: NOT A ONE-SHOT DEAL

 

Predicting the future in baseball is dangerous, but the Tigers are in position to remain quite competitive for the next several years.

The trade for Doug Fister, who is 5-1 with a 2.28 ERA in eight starts for Detroit, was arguably the best deadline move of 2011, setting up the Tigers both for the rest of this season and beyond.

With Fister, the Tigers now have four right-handed starting pitchers who are all under 30 and under long-term control: Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer will be with the team at least three more seasons, Fister and Rick Porcello at least four more.

The Tigers also have a number of prospects who could compete for the fifth spot next season, including righty Jacob Turner, the team’s No. 1 prospect, plus lefties Duane Below, Drew Smyly and Andy Oliver.

Meanwhile, first baseman Miguel Cabrera and catcher Alex Avila are under club control through 2015, designated hitter Victor Martinez through ’14 and shortstop Jhonny Peralta and reliever Joaquin Benoit through ’13.

The Tigers hold a $9 million option on closer Jose Valverde for next season and also can bring back left fielder Delmon Young for his final year of arbitration. Considering that owner Mike Ilitch rarely is reluctant to spend, the Tigers could be good for quite a while.

 

OZZIE: GOING, GOING . . .

 

A few weeks back, a source familiar with Ozzie Guillen’s thinking predicted that it was 95 percent certain that Guillen would remain the White Sox’s manager.

The source has now dropped the odds to 50-50, and says Guillen’s chances of staying are that good only because owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been loyal to him before.

Guillen wants a contract extension, and so far the White Sox are cool to the idea. Something has to give: The return of Guillen as a lame duck would be potentially explosive for both sides.

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The Sox do not figure to be much better next season, if at all. Left-hander Mark Buehrle and left fielder Juan Pierre are eligible for free agency. Right fielder Carlos Quentin and left-hander John Danks, one year away from hitting the open market, are candidates to be traded.

 

A THOUGHT FOR J-ROLL

 

There are mixed signals on whether the Nationals will spend big this offseason; they overreached with Jayson Werth last winter and at some point need to extend third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who only is under contract through 2013.

The Nats could sign Prince Fielder and move Michael Morse back to the outfield, or sign Jose Reyes and make a decision on Ian Desmond, either trading him or making him a super-utility man (though Desmond, after a horrible start, has batted .286/.358/.433 since July 5).

Then again, if the Nationals set their sights lower, perhaps Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins would be a target. Rollins, who turns 33 on Nov. 27, has bounced back offensively and figures to remain with the Phillies, who lack an internal replacement. But the Nats would benefit from Rollins’ defense and leadership, too.

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REDS’ CORDERO: BETTER THAN YOU THINK

 

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the team is considering a contract extension for closer Francisco Cordero – a move that, at first glance, would seem unnecessarily risky.

Well, maybe not.

Cordero turns 37 next May, but he’s allowing approximately the same number of baserunners per nine innings as Mariano Rivera. He also is the all-time saves leader among pitchers from the Dominican Republic despite spending almost his entire career pitching in hitter-friendly parks – Texas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati.

In fact, Cordero fares quite well in ERA-plus, a statistic that adjusts a pitcher’s ERA to his league and ballpark. The average ERA-plus is 100. Cordero’s career mark is 145. The PadresHeath Bell, who pitches in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, is well below that at 126.

Rivera is the all-time leader in the statistic, minimum 1,000 innings pitched, with a career mark of 205. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon isn’t far behind, though he has pitched only 422 2/3 career innings. His career mark is 201.

 

WANTED: QUALITY STARTING PITCHERS

 

The Marlins, who will move into their new ballpark next season, plan to discuss every available starting pitcher this winter, right up to free-agent lefty C.J. Wilson.

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Wilson, who turns 31 on Nov. 18, likely will be out of the Marlins’ price range – his ERA-plus in two years as a starter ranks 10th in the majors, ahead of pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, David Price and Dan Haren.

CC Sabathia, another potential free agent, is expected to re-sign with the Yankees if he opts out of his contract. A big question, then, is whether the scarcity of quality starting pitching will tempt the Rays into moving righty James Shields, who is fourth in the AL in ERA.

Shields’ affordability – the Rays hold club options of $7 million, $9 million and $12 million for the next three seasons – would make him attractive even to low- and mid-revenue teams.

The Marlins aren’t the only such club that would love to acquire such a pitcher. The Royals, Pirates, Blue Jays, Rockies and Nationals also figure to look for top-of-the-rotation presence this winter.

Shields, of course, also would be a logical target for bigger spenders as well. Take the Braves, for example. They refused to part with high-end arms for an offensive rental such as Carlos Beltran. But they might be more willing for a proven starting pitcher under long-term control, particularly with right-handers Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe potentially in the final years of their contracts.

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CHECK IT OUT!

 

This week’s gems from STATS LLC:

• The Mets’ Jose Reyes and Brewers’ Ryan Braun could be the first players from their respective franchises to win batting titles.

Braun, though, also could be the fifth Brewer to finish second.

The other Brewers who finished second – George Scott in 1973, Cecil Cooper in ’80, Robin Yount in ’82 and Paul Molitor in ’87 – all did it during the team’s AL days.

Cooper batted .352 in ‘80, only to lose out to the Royals’ George Brett, who hit .390.

• Three Phillies starters have ERAs under 2.70 – Roy Halladay (2.44), Cliff Lee (2.44) and Cole Hamels (2.60).

The last major-league team that had three starting pitchers each finish a season under 2.70 was the 1985 Dodgers – Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch and Fernando Valenzuela.

• The Orioles are on the verge of pulling off a dubious feat that no team has “accomplished” in more than half a century.

The O’s have allowed 187 homers, 29 more than any other AL club. It would be the fourth straight season that the team has led the AL in home runs allowed.

 

TIGERS-TWINS LEFTOVERS

 

Bonus notes from Saturday’s MLB on Fox broadcast of the Twins-Tigers game from Comerica Park:

• The amazing thing about the Tigers’ Delmon Young is that he went from an also-ran to a contender and assumed a far greater role.

Since joining the Tigers, Young only has batted third. He hit seventh or eighth in 21 of his last 24 games with the Twins.

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has made in-season deals for hitters before – he acquired Sean Casey in July 2006 and Aubrey Huff in Aug. ‘09.

Young, 25, is far younger than either of those players were when they joined the Tigers, and under club control for one more year.

• The Tigers’ ERA was 4.39 when Jeff Jones moved from the bullpen to replace Rick Knapp on July 3; since then, it’s 3.68.

Knapp had joined the Tigers in 2009 after serving for 12 seasons as the Twins’ minor-league pitching coordinator. Jones was in his fifth stint as the Tigers’ bullpen coach, so he knew all of the team’s pitchers well.

The difference, according to people around the Tigers, is that Jones is a better communicator than Knapp with a better feel for doing the job at the major-league level.

• The Twins’ rotation, even when healthy, is mostly a collection of fourth and fifth starters. The team’s top pitching prospect, right-hander Kyle Gibson, recently underwent Tommy John surgery.

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The talent void could create an opening for right-hander Anthony Swarzak, who rededicated himself last offseason, spending three months pitching in Venezuela and losing 25 pounds.

Swarzak, 26, reached the majors in 2009 but spent all of 2010 in the minors.

“You get hungry. You learn what you’re all about. You think deep down inside, ‘I need to start showing what I can do,’” Swarzak said. “I said, ‘I used to be good. I used to throw hard. I’ve got to figure this out, and I’ve got to figure it out quick.’”

 

AROUND THE HORN

 

• Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos recently scouted Yu Darvish, and some in the industry speculate that the Jays could be major players for the Japanese right-hander.

But Anthopoulos, judging from his brief history as a GM, isn’t likely to make a high, pre-emptive bid for Darvish in the posting process.

The Jays surely could use another veteran starter, but they’re excited by the progress of their kids – righty Henderson Alvarez, who has a 3.09 ERA after seven starts, and a Double A rotation that now includes righty Deck McGuire, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2010.

• The Indians might not be all that active this offseason; they’ve already made their big move, acquiring right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez at the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

A payroll increase of up to $20 million might be required simply to keep the Tribe intact; the team has nine potential arbitration cases, including three promiment second-time eligibles – outfielder Shin Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez.

The Indians also must decide on center fielder Grady Sizemore’s $8.5 million club option; perhaps they could sign him to an extension. The money otherwise coming off their payroll is minimal.

• It’s only 69 plate appearances, but Reds rookie left fielder Yonder Alonso is batting .403/.464/.661.

The Reds want to keep Alonso’s bat in their lineup, and some with the club believe that he will improve defensively as he gains experience.

Still, the team’s No. 1 goal is to add a middle-of-the-order hitter. A left fielder would be one possibility, but the Reds also could seek a third baseman, shortstop or center fielder.

Third baseman Scott Rolen is expected to return from left-shoulder surgery before the end of the season. Shortstop Zack Cozart will be back from left-elbow surgery in ’12. Drew Stubbs, who has regressed this season, is the incumbent in center.

• The Rockies believe that center fielder Dexter Fowler is turning the corner offensively.

Fowler, 25, has batted .304/.397/.547 since returning from the minors July 15, and now has 50 extra-base hits in 424 at-bats. He and the Phillies’ Shane Victorino each have 15 triples, one behind Jose Reyes, the major-league leader.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Giants, Rockies, Marlins, Rays, Derek Lowe, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Lee, CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran, Ted Lilly, Tim Hudson, Francisco Cordero, Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins, J.D. Drew, Juan Pierre, Jose Reyes, Jose Valverde, Miguel Cabrera, Dan Haren, Delmon Young, Carlos Quentin, Prince Fielder, Jonathan Papelbon, James Shields, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Braun, Anthony Swarzak, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, Drew Stubbs

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