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Stop us if you've heard this one before: Spring training is fast approaching. Scott Boras has several big-name clients who are still unemployed, and he's hurtling to Earth while the parachute stubbornly refuses to open. Meanwhile, as he projects an air of patience and calm, assorted columnists and front-office people enjoy watching him squirm. They predict the market for his players has dried up, and this will be the winter he finally gets his comeuppance.
In reality, Jeff Weaver, Jason Varitek, Ryan Madson and a few other Boras clients have gotten burned through the years by aiming too high, waiting too long or some other unforeseen glitch. But things usually turn out alright for Boras' guys in the end. Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Adrian Beltre and others fared well in January and February, and Prince Fielder signed a $214 million deal with Detroit on Jan. 26 last year -- although it took a serious knee injury to Victor Martinez to facilitate it.
People call me all the time and say, 'Man, your players aren't signed yet.' Well, it doesn't really matter what time dinner is when you're the steak." -- Scott Boras
This winter, Boras and his fellow agents are working under a new set of bargaining rules, which required teams to make $13.3 million qualifying offers to pending free agents in November if they had any interest in keeping them. Under the revamped system, a new team that signs an elite free agent will be required to surrender both a draft pick and a chunk of its allotted draft bonus pool money. As a result, the player hits the open market with a double whammy that makes him less attractive to potential suitors.
As the Players Association points out, the new system has achieved one major objective by reducing the number of free agents whose job search is hindered by the anchor of compensation. Two years ago, 31 players went on the market with a draft pick attached. Last year it was 23, and this year the number dwindled to nine.
Three of those players, David Ortiz, Hiroki Kuroda and Adam LaRoche, have re-signed with their former teams. Three more, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher, signed with new clubs. And the other three, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano, are still waiting to hear where they'll report to spring training. They're all represented by Scott Boras.
Has the system finally caught up to Boras? It's too soon to cast a verdict. But you won't hear Boras complain about a stacked deck -- at least not yet. He would rather talk about how so many teams have lagged with their offseason spending even though industry revenues are in the $8 billion range and a new TV deal is pumping lots of cash into the mix. He has always subscribed to the notion that talent will win out once owners and executives take a serious look at their rosters and it becomes readily apparent that they have major holes left to fill.
"People call me all the time and say, 'Man, your players aren't signed yet,'" Boras said. "Well, it doesn't really matter what time dinner is when you're the steak."
Recent history shows that the Boras-is-doomed scenario ranks up there with the Bud Selig-is-retiring story as an ongoing baseball urban myth. As to the question of where Bourn, Lohse and Soriano will land, we should have a pretty good idea by Valentine's Day.
Pluses: He's a great clubhouse guy, leads the majors with 257 stolen bases since 2008 and is a forehead-slappingly good defender. In two of the past three seasons, Bourn has led center fielders in the Fielding Bible runs-saved rankings. His plus-37 score in 2012 even surpassed the hallowed Mike Trout.
"He's a good player, and that leadoff-guy catalyst role is hard to fill," said an AL scout.
Question marks: Bourn is a 30-year-old speed guy, and it's tough when you're looking for a long-term deal and people keeping mentioning Carl Crawford (i.e., a bust) as a precedent. Bourn tied Jay Bruce for 15th in the majors last year with 155 strikeouts, and he hit .225 after the All-Star break. "I don't know if the contract was playing on his mind or what," the scout said. "But he was brutal in the second half."
Several appealing options for Bourn have dropped off the board. Washington (Denard Span), Philadelphia (Ben Revere) and Cincinnati (Shin-Soo Choo) acquired center fielders through trades. Upton signed with Atlanta, Angel Pagan returned to San Francisco and Shane Victorino signed a three-year deal with Boston. He'll play right field this year but could always move to center if Jacoby Ellsbury gets hurt again.
As a result, Bourn's options are limited. Even with Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp coming back from injuries, the Dodgers have a full outfield complement, a boat-load of money committed and only so many at-bats to go around. (And for those who are wondering, they are not shopping Andre Ethier). Seattle needs a serious offensive upgrade after ranking last in the AL and runs and OPS. But as the aborted Justin Upton trade showed, GM Jack Zduriencik is looking for more of an impact bat than Bourn would provide. The Mariners already have a terrific defensive center fielder in Franklin Gutierrez, and you have to wonder if the Chone Figgins experience has left Zduriencik gun-shy about acquiring a high-priced free agent who's the pesky, slap-hitting type.
When asked about Bourn for this story, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik replied, "We have had a lot of dialogue regarding offense, but we would be open to anything." That's as far as he'll go for now.
Texas makes more sense on paper. If the season began today, the Rangers would run out a center-field combo of Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin. Gentry is 29 years old and has 423 major league at-bats, and scouts have mixed opinions on Martin. Bourn would allow the Rangers to keep Elvis Andrus in the No. 2 hole, where manager Ron Washington likes him most, and slide Ian Kinsler down to a run-producing spot.
Sources said the Rangers have done some legwork on Bourn, but questions remain. They're not going to surrender a draft pick to sign him to a one-year deal. But with Matt Harrison looking for an extension and Nelson Cruz and David Murphy due to hit the free-agent market in November, GM Jon Daniels has only so many resources to go around.
The Braves also haven't shut the door on Bourn, as GM Frank Wren made clear last week. But Bourn would have to be desperate to return to Atlanta on a one-year deal, and the Braves probably wouldn't mind seeing him sign elsewhere so they could recoup the draft pick they surrendered for signing Upton.
Lohse has already been through this debilitating waiting routine once in his career. He signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with St. Louis in March 2008 before Boras landed him a $41 million extension the following September. Last week, Lohse told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he hasn't received a single offer other than St. Louis' $13.3 million qualifying offer in November.
Where are the fits? The Rockies and Mets are still looking for starters but prefer them on the cheap. Some people think the Angels can do better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but general manager Jerry Dipoto might not share that opinion. And Boston and Washington are among the teams that have scouted Javier Vazquez, but that doesn't mean they're interested in Lohse.
Milwaukee makes some sense at first glance. The Brewers have reason to think they can be competitive in the NL Central, and right now the rotation consists of Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada, with a bunch of kids in competition for the back-end spots until Chris Narveson returns from a shoulder injury. But GM Doug Melvin said he doesn't expect to make any free-agent splashes. The Milwaukee staff led the majors last season with 1,402 strikeouts, two short of the major league record held by the 2003 Kerry Wood-Mark Prior Cubs.
"We've decided this is the year we're probably going to go with some of our younger guys," Melvin said. "We need to find out about them. We liked our pitching staff last year. The only question we have about them is their durability over the course of the year."
Which leads us, again, to Texas. The Rangers could use another starter. But they just tried Ryan Dempster, a 35-year-old pitch-to-contact righty with a National League portfolio and a fastball that averaged 89.7 mph last season. His 5.09 ERA and 1.43 WHIP weren't exactly inspiring after the Rangers acquired him in July. How enthused would Daniels be about a multiyear deal for Lohse, a pitch-to-contact righty with a primarily National League portfolio, a fastball that averaged 89.5 mph and a penchant for throwing more fly balls than Dempster?
The Rangers might just prefer to keep things internal and let Martin Perez, Justin Grimm and Robbie Ross compete for the No. 5 spot in the rotation and bide their time until Colby Lewis returns from a torn flexor tendon in June.
Soriano opted out of the final year of his contract with the Yankees, then declined New York's $13.3 million qualifying offer because he wanted an opportunity to close and he wasn't going to get it as Mariano Rivera's setup man in the Bronx. Boras denied a report this week that he recently circled back to the Yankees and told them Soriano might be interested in returning on a one-year deal.
"Why would we opt out knowing that Sori wanted the closer role, then call New York and say, 'No, we want to come back knowing we're not going to get the closer role?'" Boras said. "That doesn't make sense. It's illogical."
Where could Soriano land? Detroit keeps making the rounds in speculation because: (A) Boras has a history of striking deals with owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski; and (B) the Tigers are a team with legitimate world championship aspirations and no established closer. At the winter meetings in December, Dombrowski said the Tigers are comfortable with the idea of giving rookie Bruce Rondon first crack at the job because they have Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke as potential security blankets.
"The reality is this guy is a very talented individual. I feel as good with his opportunity as any young pitcher I've ever had coming in to get it done," Dombrowski said of Rondon. But Rondon is 22 years old, has weight issues and has pitched only 29 2/3 innings above Class A ball. If he needs more growth time in the minors, that doesn't bode well for manager Jim Leyland's tobacco consumption.
One other team worth keeping an eye on: Toronto. The Jays have made a huge splash this offseason with trades to add R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to the rotation and Jose Reyes to the middle infield. GM Alex Anthopoulos might have spent as much as he cares to spend, and he probably would have serious issues losing a second-round draft pick to sign a closer.
On the other hand, the Jays enter the season with Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos as their top two closer candidates. Santos threw five innings last year before going down with shoulder surgery in April. Janssen, who has one year of closing success on his résumé, underwent a shoulder cleanup in November. That combination seems a little dicey for a team that's suddenly a fashionable AL East title pick.
Soriano isn't the only closer option available. If the Jays want a veteran Plan C, they can always take a look at Brian Wilson, Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Valverde or even Francisco Rodriguez. They're not at Soriano's level, but they would be more affordable and wouldn't require anything in terms of draft-pick compensation.
Valverde and K-Rod, it turns out, are also represented by Scott Boras. At this stage of the offseason, it doesn't matter if general managers are looking for steak or hamburger. They have a pretty good idea which agent is going to be manning the grill.