Free agency to be buyers' market

Make 'em all free agents, declared Charlie Finley, the former Oakland Athletics owner and rebel, before the onset of baseball's free agency. And this was a tactic that concerned Marvin Miller, head of the players' union.

"My main worry was that someone would listen to him," Miller was quoted as saying in John Helyar's book Lords of the Realm. "It would have been an impossible box. You could not have said you were opposed to freedom."

Finley and Miller understood the simple reality of supply and demand, a principle that players and owners are learning about more and more the last couple of years. Throw a few attractive free agents onto the market and the bidding is voracious, the prices driven higher. But when there are dozens and dozens of free agents -- hundreds, even -- then teams can usually find interesting alternatives everywhere, and the prices are depressed.

Supply and demand will work against most subsets of free agents this offseason, and work for only a few.

Closers/middle relievers
The Philadelphia Phillies are set to move into a new ballpark and need to make a first-year success, so they aggressively pushed to acquire the best available closer in left-hander Billy Wagner, who is already under contract. That's only one more reason why this is not going to be a good winter for the late-inning relievers.

If Boston general manager Theo Epstein -- who operates one of the few teams that might spend a little money this offseason -- wants to sign an established closer, he could try to lure Keith Foulke. If Foulke wants more money than Epstein wants to pay, then there's always Eddie Guardado. Or Trevor Hoffman (brother of the manager, perhaps?). Or Ugueth Urbina, the Fish who got away from the Red Sox.

Not good enough? OK, how about Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Armando Benitez, Tim Worrell, Tom Gordon, Jose Mesa or Mike Williams?

Some closers are not well-suited for Boston (Read: Benitez), and Epstein has demonstrated a clear preference for power arms, but the volume only helps Epstein. And if he wants to go the committee route again, there are many decent middle relievers out there, from Mike Timlin to LaTroy Hawkins, Jason Grimsley, Scott Sullivan, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, Steve Kline and others.

With so many options, the Atlanta Braves might be inclined to sign a closer at a reduced price and then move John Smoltz back into the starting rotation.

This will not be an off-season for relief pitchers to achieve extraordinary wealth.

There is Vladimir Guerrero as free agent No. 1, Gary Sheffield as free agent No. 2, (and not young enough to command a massive long-term deal), and the likes of Shannon Stewart, Raul Ibanez and Mike Cameron in a third modestly compensated group. And then there are a lot of players who will be considered interchangeable by general managers trying to save a few bucks.

Want a serviceable veteran? There's Reggie Sanders (again), Jeromy Burnitz or Kenny Lofton. Willing to take a chance on a possibly high impact offensive player with great physical risks? How about Juan Gonzalez or Brian Jordan? Do you prefer betting on a player with a checkered past coming off his best year? There's Jose Guillen. And there's also Jose Cruz, Jr., Carl Everett and Rondell White.

Five years ago, Ivan Rodriguez would have been in perfect position for a huge payday, coming off a superb season in which he excelled offensively and defensively and was the leader of a World Series champion. But he may find that the market is not much better for him than it was last winter.

The vast majority of teams are cutting back or holding the line, and most of the teams that will spend already are committed to catchers for 2004 -- the Yankees (Jorge Posada), Red Sox (Jason Varitek) and Phillies (Mike Lieberthal). The Florida Marlins loved Rodriguez, and they're facing a range of financial decisions that may preclude them from a huge investment in any single player.

Pudge's best chance to cash in might be with the Baltimore Orioles. But if the Orioles don't like the way negotiations are going (or if they are leery of the relative shelf lives of catchers -- and Pudge will be 32 next season, the dreaded age of decline for catchers), Baltimore could always make a more modest investment in Javy Lopez, who is coming off a season in which he set the single-season record for home runs by a catcher. Or Benito Santiago.

Middle infielders
Luis Castillo might have looked awful in the World Series, flailing at breaking balls by his feet, but he is the most complete player in a generally unimpressive group. Todd Walker can rake, but there is the matter of his defense, and Roberto Alomar is either in decline (most likely) or has simply lost the desire to play (a possibility).

Starting pitchers
As always, this is the group that will get the most cash. But there could be an interesting tug-of-war involving the free agent with the most leverage: Andy Pettitte's Family vs. The Union's Want Of Money.

Pettitte could be worth anywhere from $12 million to $15 million annually to the Yankees, who need desperately to retain the left-hander. There figures to be significant pressure from the Players Association honchos for Pettitte to take the Yankees' bloated offer in a winter of frigid financial restraint.

But the Wagner deal might put Houston in position to bid modestly for Pettitte, and Pettitte is the sort to seriously consider a hometown discount when voices in his family circle are pulling at him to play near his Houston-area estate. For some players, those voices might be a minor consideration or completely irrelevant, but Pettitte is particularly devoted to his family.

If Pettitte signs with Houston, it's hard to imagine Bartolo Colon landing anywhere other than the Yankees (it's always possible, of course, that the Yankees sign Pettitte and Colon). And Kevin Millwood will get the big bucks, as well, in an offseason when the glut of free agents will generally find dollars to be in sparse supply.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.