Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Pounding the pavement
By Jerry Crasnick
As Major League Baseball continues its love affair with players so young they don't even need a Red Bull to get up for a game, a corresponding fraternity of veterans is feeling unloved, unwanted and -- let's be frank -- unemployed.
It was the wrong winter to be 35-plus and unattached, as MLB teams cut corners, pledged allegiance to player development and forced a lot of veterans to grovel for roster spots.
In recognition of the nation's 8.5 percent jobless rate, this week's installment of Starting 9 catches up with some familiar faces who failed to hook on through free agency. Two or three will return to play this season, a couple more are coin flips, and the rest might want to give serious thought to that hitting school or car wash they've always dreamed about opening.
In the meantime, these guys will maintain regular contact with their agents and make sure they consistently follow their Twitter accounts, just in case.
Agent Fernando Cuza recently told the Boston Herald that Martinez is in no particular rush to make a decision and is waiting for the "perfect opportunity" to sign with a new club. Martinez garnered some positive reviews for his performance in the World Baseball Classic in March, and the consensus is he'll find a comfortable landing spot soon enough.
But Martinez's alleged $5 million to $8 million price tag didn't appeal to anyone in spring training, and the market for his services could depend on injuries and some other factors beyond his control.
"At this point I think Pedro is strictly a National League pitcher, so you're eliminating half his market there," an American League executive said. "And if he still wants $5 million in this economy, you're eliminating a bunch of other teams. It's a big story because it's Pedro Martinez, but I'm not sure the 2009 version of Pedro is that much of an upgrade over what teams have to run out there right now."
The Dodgers are a case in point. They were intrigued by Martinez in March, but preliminary discussions never led to a deal. Now the Dodgers are 10-4 and leading the NL West, and their starters rank seventh in the majors in ERA (3.66).
When Hiroki Kuroda went on the disabled list with an oblique strain, the Dodgers summoned Eric Stults from Triple-A ball as a replacement. Stults, who's making $402,000 this season, is 2-0 with a 2.61 ERA. At least for the moment, the Dodgers look smart for having waited.
Martinez pitched a total of 270 innings from 2006 through 2008, so it might be in his best interests to save his bullets and return in, say, June for the stretch run. The big mystery is whether he'll benefit from the rest or suffer from the inactivity.
"That's the huge question," a National League executive said. "I don't think anybody knows the answer to that."
Sheets stands apart from everybody else on this list. He's still a pup at age 30, and he has a lot of productive years ahead of him provided he can stay off the operating table.
At the moment, Sheets is rehabbing in Texas from February surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. He's still "several weeks away" from beginning a throwing program, said agent Casey Close, who is leaving Sheets' timetable for a return open-ended at this point.
Let's begin with the assumption that Sheets' rehab goes well. He'll be a more attractive commodity when the first-year player draft passes in June. After that, any team that signs Sheets will no longer have to surrender draft-pick compensation in exchange for Milwaukee's offering him salary arbitration in December.
Sheets is a potential front-of-the-rotation talent who won't require a team to give up half its farm system in a trade, as Roy Halladay and Jake Peavy would, so a short-term investment in him could have significant upside. Most executives look for the Sheets sweepstakes to be a more competitive, flashy version of Freddy Garcia's free-agent adventure this past summer.
The consensus is that Close will be looking for a 10-to-12-start audition that Sheets can use as a springboard into the offseason. If Sheets shows he's healthy and helps pitch a team into the playoffs, he'll be in a strong position to hit the financial mother lode in the winter.
The market for aging, righty-hitting, first base-DH types wasn't exactly brisk this offseason. Mike Sweeney landed a spot on Seattle's 25-man roster after signing a minor league contract, and Kevin Millar did the same with Toronto.
Thomas, meanwhile, generated almost no interest despite a desire to return for a 20th season.
"He said he had one offer, and it was a laughable offer," Ray Durham, Thomas' friend and former teammate, told ESPN.com in February.
If this is it for the Big Hurt, he'll finish his career with 521 homers and 1,667 walks, ninth-most in history. With a .974 career OPS, he ranks 15th on baseball's career list -- right behind Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial.
Thomas also has two MVP awards and a history of speaking out against performance-enhancing drugs dating back to the mid-1990s, before most people acknowledged it was an issue for baseball. Regardless of how deep the Hall of Fame field is in five years, Thomas will have a strong case as a first-ballot candidate.
Gonzalez has enough to keep him busy, with a set of 10-year-old triplets at home. He also has an offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks to work in the team's front office. But he's having a hard time coming to grips with the idea of retirement after 19 seasons and 2,591 big league games.
Gonzalez got caught up in the Dodgers' intragenerational spat a couple of years ago, but he showed a willingness to accept a supporting role off the bench in Florida in 2008. He posted a .749 OPS in 341 at-bats and made lots of friends in the clubhouse as a veteran mentor type.
Gonzalez took the entire team on a field trip to Napa when the Marlins visited San Francisco, and he bought a Harley-Davidson for the club's strength and conditioning coach as a token of appreciation. Tampa Bay reliever Joe Nelson recently described Gonzalez as perhaps the best teammate he has ever had.
"I've been a ballpark rat my whole life, and that's the hard part -- not going to the stadium and being around the clubhouse guys, the attendants and everybody else at the park," Gonzalez said. "The friendships you make with those people last your whole life."
If this is indeed the end of the line for Gonzalez, he'll finish his career with 596 doubles. He needs only 10 more to pass Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Paul Waner and Paul Molitor and move into 11th place on baseball's career list.
Gonzalez hit 57 home runs for Arizona eight years ago -- prompting the inevitable steroid rumors, which he has denied. But he remains an icon in the Valley of the Sun for his climactic RBI single off Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
"You want to get to a team where you feel can make a difference," Gonzalez said. "A lot of different things weigh on your mind. But what can you do? You just take it day-by-day and hope something good happens. This is obviously not the way most players want to go out."
What does a guy have to do to stay relevant? Edmonds slugged .568 in 250 at-bats with the Cubs, then fell through the cracks in the free-agent market. Fellow left-handed-hitting outfielders Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez, Ken Griffey Jr., Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson and Cliff Floyd all found homes, but Edmonds waited for a call that never came.
The word from agent Paul Cohen is Edmonds still wants to play. Between traveling to St. Louis to tend to some business ventures and welcoming a new baby girl, Edmonds has been working out with a personal trainer in Southern California and is still hoping to hook on with a club by May. Edmonds thinks he could be ready to play within two or three weeks after signing.
"Jimmy has watched a bunch of games the last week, and his juices are flowing pretty good right now," Cohen said. "Now that it's two weeks into the season and teams are looking at some their production -- what they thought they might have and where they are -- we're starting to hear a little bit out there."
Several times during the offseason, Grudzielanek appeared ready to catch a break. He looked like a possibility in Philadelphia when Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz both underwent surgery and in New York when Alex Rodriguez went down with a hip injury.
St. Louis seemed like a fit before the Cardinals chose to go with Skip Schumaker at second base, and the White Sox looked like a potential match before they committed to rookie Chris Getz at second.
"If something was going to happen with him, I think it would have happened by now," an AL assistant general manager said of Grudzielanek.
Don't tell that to Grudzielanek, who is home in San Diego hitting, running and throwing on a daily basis, and approaching his workouts with the conviction of a player who's determined to land a job somewhere.
Grudzielanek has told friends he could be ready in a week, and based on his track record, he's not a man to doubt. In 2007, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in spring training, surprised everyone by returning by Opening Day, and wound up hitting .302 to win Kansas City's player of the year award.
Grudzielanek is approaching $40 million in career earnings, so the opportunity to play for a contender ranks well above finances on his list of priorities. But it probably will take an injury or some other plot twist to open a door for him.
In a 2007 Sports Illustrated player survey, Roberts was voted the fourth-friendliest player in the game behind Sean Casey, Jim Thome and Mike Sweeney. He has emerged as a budding media star since the Giants released him in March and ate his $6.5 million in salary this season.
Roberts has done some radio work in San Diego with former Padres pitcher Randy Jones, and he appeared on pregame and postgame San Francisco Giants shows for Comcast. He also has received several feelers for potential national TV gigs.
Although Roberts hasn't officially retired as a player, he's interested in returning this summer only for a Southern California team or a pennant contender. Roberts' surgically repaired left knee was still balky in the Cactus League, so the chances of his playing again are remote at best.
"That's why I'm at peace with my situation," Roberts said. "If the Giants had released me and my knee felt great, then I'd be champing at the bit to play. As it stands now, I'm very limited."
During the height of the hot stove season, Byrd told Fox Sports he wanted to spend the first half of the season at home with his family, then do the Roger Clemens thing and hook on with a team for the stretch drive.
That game plan remains in place. Byrd is staying busy with family barbecues and Little League games at home in Atlanta this spring. If an opportunity arises in a month or two, he'll take the plunge.
"In Paul's perfect world, we'll get to July and a contender will need somebody, and he'll be able to hop in there and help out," agent Bo McKinnis said.
As one general manager put it, Byrd "can fall out of bed and throw strikes." And he hasn't cracked the upper 80s for an eternity, so lack of velocity was never an impediment.
Payton, who was hoping to land an outfield bench job during the winter, failed to attract more than a nibble or two as a free agent. Then came the bad news.
Payton was home in North Carolina working out in late March when he hurt his shoulder lifting weights. He underwent arthroscopic surgery earlier this month, and it will take him several months to recover.
Agent Craig Landis said Payton still wants to play, so he might give independent ball a whirl later this summer or try to re-establish himself in winter ball. But Payton will turn 37 in November, and he posted back-to-back OPSes of .668 and .637 in Baltimore before getting hurt, so he's a major long shot to play in the big leagues again.
Payton has a business degree from Georgia Tech and was an Academic All-American on a team that also included Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek, so he shouldn't have too much difficulty acclimating to the real world.
Others of note
Jon Lieber: Feel free to cross Lieber's name off the potential comeback list. Agent Rex Gary said the pitcher has gone home to Mobile, Ala., and retired from baseball to spend more time with his wife and four young children. Lieber never actively sought work during the winter.
Lieber finished his career with a 131-124 record, an All-Star Game appearance and a 20-win season with the Cubs in 2001. "He had a great run," Gary said.
Jacque Jones: After being released by Cincinnati in spring training, Jones recently traveled to Las Vegas for a one-on-one tutorial with the "Hit Man," Mike Easler. Jones hit .091 in 44 Grapefruit League at-bats with the Reds, so he has some work to do to get back on the radar.
Geoff Jenkins: The Phillies released Jenkins in March despite owing him $8 million this season. Damon Lapa, the agent for both Jenkins and Jones, said Jenkins has been working out in Arizona and is taking grounders at first base in an effort to enhance his versatility and his prospects of landing a job somewhere.
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.