Thursday, January 24, 2008
Large number of players still seeking employment
By Jerry Crasnick
With the exception of the Johan Santana and Erik Bedard trade talks and another round of congressional steroid hearings, baseball's hot stove season appears to be on a straight shot toward pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training camps.
There's just one issue left to be resolved: the game's rampant unemployment problem.
The old Kenny Lofton routine -- waiting until after the New Year for an opportunity to present itself -- is suddenly an epidemic. Check the list of major league baseball job seekers, and you'll find dozens of familiar names still out there for the taking.
The ESPN.com free agent tracker includes more than 90 players without jobs. The list includes future Hall of Fame candidates (Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa), respected veterans (Reggie Sanders, Luis Gonzalez and Trot Nixon), former hot prospects (Corey Patterson and Dallas McPherson), a pair of Millers (Trever and Damian) and Sweeneys in stereo (Mike from the right side of the plate and Mark from the left).
Oh yeah, Lofton is still out there, too.
"Nothing is happening,'' one agent said. "Everybody's kind of frozen. It's a little bit baffling. I think teams are going to just wait until spring training and start cherry-picking guys.''
How did we reach this point? In recent years, more clubs have decided to save money and give prospects a chance rather than overpay for mediocre veterans. And while some free agents were spurning opportunities this winter in hopes the price would go up, lots of teams were filling needs through trades.
Don't be surprised to see a few retirement announcements mixed in with the signings over the next few weeks.
"Look at Shawn Green,'' one American League assistant GM said. "He's made $100 million in his career. Does he really want to take $850,000 and a minor league invite to go to camp and try to win a job?''
While unemployed players fret and their agents call front offices to beg, we devote this hot stove edition of "Starting 9'' to some players who have no clue where they'll be when the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues get under way.
Kyle Lohse (2007)
If not for his ongoing legal troubles, Bonds might actually enjoy the opportunity to sit back and watch Roger Clemens play the role of human steroid pinata this winter.
The news on the employment front isn't so promising. Agent Jeff Borris issued a "no comment'' when asked about Bonds' job prospects, and that's not a good sign. Borris spent last winter talking up a storm about his client, and it was still mid-February before Bonds hooked on with San Francisco.
Way back in November, Oakland looked like the only potential fit for Bonds. Then the home run champ was indicted for perjury. And now that Billy Beane has traded Dan Haren and Nick Swisher and gone with a youth movement, it's hard to see Bonds coming in and playing the role of veteran "mentor'' to the kids.
True, Oakland's depth chart consists of Emil Brown, Travis Buck, Chris Denorfia and Ryan Sweeney. But the A's think Carlos Gonzalez could arrive by midseason, and there are a lot of other cheaper, more headache-free alternatives than Bonds.
Here's one more thing to consider: Oakland owner Lew Wolff is good buddies with Bud Selig. Does he really want to bring Bonds back for another season and risk antagonizing his friend the commissioner when the A's are pushing for a new ballpark? Just a thought.
The longer Lohse fails to find a suitor to meet his asking price, the more it looks as if the Seattle Mariners panicked and overpaid when they signed Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million deal in December.
Amid speculation that Lohse's price continues to drop, an official with one big league club said that agent Scott Boras still wants three years and $33 million. Given Lohse's 63-74 record, 4.82 career ERA and reputation for underachieving, that looks like a pipe dream at this point.
If the Mets fail to pull off a Santana trade, indications are that Lohse -- not Livan Hernandez -- is their top free agent fallback. But that November buzz about Lohse seeking Gil Meche-caliber money seems like a long ways away.
Hernandez and fellow free agent Josh Fogg, the "Dragon Slayer,'' have a perception problem: Nobody thinks they have the stuff to survive in the American League. That narrows the field of suitors considerably.
Still, Hernandez has averaged 33 starts and 227 innings per year over the past 10 seasons. His durability and professionalism should help allay concerns about his weight, age and declining strikeout ratio.
So what are the possibilities for Hernandez? The Mets, for starters. Among other NL clubs, Houston and Washington also need a pitching upgrade. But the Nationals have already invited 36 pitchers to major league camp, and management has shown no inclination to stray from its plan of building from within.
Houston's projected rotation consists of Roy Oswalt, Woody Williams, Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez and either Chris Sampson or Felipe Paulino in the fifth spot, but the Astros are in a mood to economize after adding Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde to the payroll. If Hernandez is still jobless in mid-February, maybe owner Drayton McLane Jr. will give GM Ed Wade a few extra bucks to fortify the rotation.
The Phillies, Reds and Braves are among the other clubs that could use some back-of-the-rotation insurance, but are near their budget limit.
Clark is so revered in the clubhouse, Derek Jeter calls him "Mr. Clark.'' He also provides a valuable commodity: the ability to come off the bench and put a charge into the ball. Last season he hit 17 homers in 221 at-bats, for an average of one homer every 13.0 at-bats. Only five major league regulars (Carlos Pena, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder) had better ratios.
Clark's .279 and .310 on base percentages the past two seasons don't help his cause. But he's nimble around the bag and provides flexibility as a switch-hitter. According to his agent, John Boggs, he's also willing to grab an outfielder's glove and contribute that way, if necessary.
While Arizona is looking in other directions, Seattle and San Francisco keep coming up as potential Clark suitors. The Giants ranked last in the majors in slugging percentage last season and could use the power, but they appear ready to go with Dan Ortmeier at first base with Rich Aurilia as the fallback. San Francisco management is trying to wean itself off the habit of signing a veteran security blanket for each new prospect who comes along.
Casey's lack of power clearly works against him. He's posted slugging percentages of .433, .388 and .393 in his past three stops. But he knows how to work a count, and he has a higher career batting average than Lance Berkman and Bobby Abreu. And when Sports Illustrated surveys 464 players and they overwhelmingly anoint you the "friendliest player in the game,'' that's worth a few bonus points, right?
Casey lost his first base job in Detroit when the Tigers acquired Edgar Renteria in a trade and moved Carlos Guillen across the diamond. He has since watched Darin Erstad sign with Houston, Ben Broussard land in Texas and Robert Fick and Andy Phillips sign minor league deals with San Diego and Cincinnati, respectively.
Meanwhile, Casey, Clark, Brad Wilkerson, Mike Sweeney, Eric Hinske, Doug Mientkiewicz and Ryan Klesko are still available. Shake a tree, and chances are an unemployed first baseman will fall out.
Casey's name has been mentioned in Boston, where the Red Sox are looking for a left-handed corner bat. His inability to play third base or the outfield could work against him. But can you imagine how popular "The Mayor'' would be in Boston?
Sweeney ranks second to Lenny Harris with 163 career pinch hits, and he hasn't lost his touch. Last season he led the majors with 24 pinch hits and posted an impressive .896 OPS in 76 at-bats in the role.
Sweeney can play first base and the corner outfield spots and has never earned more than $900,000 in a season, so he's budget-friendly. Arizona, which is also considering Hinske and Wilkerson in its search for a lefty bat off the bench, is one possibility. But the Diamondbacks might choose to stand pat if they're convinced Chad Tracy is healthy in his return from knee surgery.
Atlanta spoke with Sweeney's agent, Barry Axelrod, early in the offseason. The talks went nowhere, but the Braves could take another look at Sweeney if he's still around as spring training approaches.
Sweeney, a Massachusetts native, is also among the slew of left-handed options on Boston's radar.
Several injury rehab guys -- Jon Lieber, Matt Clement and Jason Jennings -- have found gainful employment in recent weeks. In the meantime, Benson and Bartolo Colon are still waiting for a call.
It's been five weeks since Benson auditioned for eight or nine clubs in Arizona, and not much has transpired since. That tells you something about Benson's workout.
"His arm worked all right, but he wasn't anywhere close to far enough along to make an evaluation,'' said a National League executive whose club scouted Benson. "He was throwing at 60-70 percent. Even at a low base salary, you hate to waste money on a guy until you can see him throw at 100 percent.''
The Astros, Giants, Yankees, Phillies, Indians and Nationals were among the teams monitoring Benson in December. Maybe someone jumps back in if it's close to spring training and Benson starts airing it out more readily.
As for Colon, his velocity and stuff were so-so in winter ball, and the questions linger about his health. One NL front office man said the medical reports on Colon are "terrible,'' while another referred to the "significant risk'' in signing him.
The White Sox, Mets and Indians are among the teams that have looked at Colon this winter. The White Sox went in a different direction this week, signing reliever Octavio Dotel for $11 million in an effort to shorten games and take some pressure off its rotation.
Feliz remains the top available free agent third baseman, but he scared off some clubs by looking for three years in the $20 million range. The Giants, who initially wanted to re-sign him for one year, tried to meet him halfway. But Feliz's side rejected the deal, and as general manager Brian Sabean told the San Jose Mercury News, "We've moved on. I don't see us doing business.''
If Feliz is, indeed, finished in San Francisco, the Giants will either pursue trade opportunities or go with a combination of Kevin Frandsen and Rich Aurilia at third base. In the meantime, Feliz's options are dissipating. Minnesota filled its third base void with Mike Lamb, and Philadelphia decided to sign outfielder Geoff Jenkins and stick with the combination of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs at third base. Among the other third baseman on the market, Morgan Ensberg, Jeff Cirillo and Russell Branyan are still looking for work.
There's some puzzlement in front office circles why Stewart hasn't found a home yet. He recovered from plantar fasciitis to hit .290 with a .345 on-base percentage for Oakland, and he held up well enough physically to make 630 plate appearances. Not bad for a $2.5 million investment.
Stewart can't throw a lick. But as one scout observed, "He never could.''
Oakland, which is getting flooded with calls from agents frantically trying to place outfielders, hasn't ruled out bringing back Stewart for a return engagement. The Padres, who have Scott Hairston in left field and are pursuing a trade for Matt Murton, have contacted Reggie Sanders as a Plan B. But they have no interest in Stewart.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.