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Weak Free Agent Market Could Strengthen Trade Winds

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

You never know who is going to show up at baseball's winter meetings. Last year at the Disney World resort outside Orlando, none other than Barry Bonds himself dropped in, drawing reporters (though not general managers) to him like kids to Mickey Mouse. We can be quite certain Bonds, a free agent once again, will not repeat his fly-by when this year's meetings convene Monday in Nashville, since he has a little appointment to keep -- in a federal courtroom in San Francisco -- at the end of the week.

But there is plenty of room for surprises, even though many of the biggest plot lines of this offseason -- Alex Rodriguez's return to the New York Yankees, Bonds's indictment on perjury and obstruction charges, Joe Torre's move from the Bronx to Chavez Ravine and Torii Hunter's signing with the Los Angeles Angels -- have already reached their conclusions.

What is left? Trades, that's what. A decidedly weak free agent market, coupled with an unusual situation in which some of baseball's richest teams (the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels) have some of the deepest farm systems, has made this the hottest trade market in recent memory.

Among those who could be dealt in Nashville this week are the consensus best pitcher on the planet (Minnesota's Johan Santana) and the best under-25 slugger in the game (Florida's Miguel Cabrera).

"I think trades are going to upstage free agents, because almost everyone feels it's their best chance to improve their club," said Atlanta Braves General Manager Frank Wren, whose team launched the first major deal of the offseason by sending shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit. "But teams are also trying to hold on to their young players, so it's not that easy to get deals done. It's going to take a lot of hard work."

Here, then, is an early look at what to expect when 30 GMs, dozens of agents and -- who knows? -- perhaps a mystery guest or two convene at the Opryland Hotel on Monday:

The Nationals

Our local nine has committed to raising its $38 million payroll from a year ago as it opens a new ballpark, but if anything that figure has gone down, after Friday's trade of veterans Brian Schneider and Ryan Church to the New York Mets for center fielder Lastings Milledge.

That gives Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden & Co. even more cash to spend, although they still insist they will not be signing any major free agents. While it appears almost no one on the roster is immune to being involved in trade discussions, the most likely Nationals to be dealt remain the same as at last winter meetings -- relievers Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch.

The market for closers went up significantly when former Milwaukee Brewer Francisco Cordero signed a four-year, $46million deal with Cincinnati. That leaves the Brewers as one of several teams that might be willing to pay a price for an established closer, such as Washington's Cordero (no relation), given that the free agent options are slim.

But the Nationals' moves could branch out beyond the names that have annually filled the rumor mill. There are indications that the club's baseball operations side was willing to pursue free agent second baseman Luis Castillo earlier this month. That would perhaps indicate a willingness to part with infielder Felipe Lopez, whom club officials believe underachieved last year. Lopez is arbitration-eligible and will receive a raise from his $3.9 million salary last year.

The Santana Sweepstakes

How rare is it for the best pitcher in baseball to get traded in the prime of his career? So rare, we can't think of another example in recent history (although Pedro Martinez in 1997 and Steve Carlton in 1972 come close).

But it's about to happen, once the Twins pull the trigger on a deal to either the Red Sox or Yankees -- with a handful of other teams, including the Dodgers and Mariners, also believed to be dark-horse possibilities -- and once that team gets Santana to agree to a contract extension that could make him the game's first $150 million pitcher.

The Consolation Prizes

For those teams that lose out on Santana, there still is no shortage of attractive pitchers available on the trade market.

Perhaps the best of those is left-hander Erik Bedard of the Baltimore Orioles, who is definitely available now that, according to league sources, he has informed the team he has no interest in signing an extension to stay in Baltimore beyond 2009, when he hits free agency.

And Bedard, who is perhaps one more solid year away from establishing himself as a true No. 1 starter, could be a poor man's Santana, costing a team half the talent and less than half the money (if they are interested in extending him) in a trade.

Among the other appealing pitchers available on the trade market: Dan Haren and Joe Blanton of the Oakland Athletics, Florida's Dontrelle Willis and Toronto's A.J. Burnett.

Third Basemen Named Miguel

Cabrera may become one of the best under-25 position players in history to be traded. He is accurately described as a young Manny Ramirez, and he would make the Angels, for one -- on top of their signing of Hunter -- a favorite to win the AL pennant next year.

The Orioles, meantime, are shopping "shortstop" Miguel Tejada -- whom everybody else in the league considers a third baseman. The only thing that could prevent a deal from occurring is if the Orioles continue to trade Tejada's value as if this were still 2005 -- which, we've been assured, it isn't.

Center Fielder Musical Chairs

The Angels' surprise signing of Hunter, only one year after investing $50 million in Gary Matthews Jr., threw off the whole center fielder market, easily the deepest sub-market on the free agent landscape.

Still out there are Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, Mike Cameron, Corey Patterson and Japanese free agent Kosuke Fukudome -- though Fukudome has not ruled out signing with a Japanese team.

Most of baseball assumes that Rowand will wind up back on the South Side of Chicago, where he came up with the White Sox before a 2005 trade to Philadelphia, and that Cameron will wind up back in San Diego.

Two teams thought to be in the market are no longer -- the Nationals, who filled their hole by trading for Milledge, and the Braves, who are willing now to consider stopgap players for a couple of months until prospect Jordan Schafer is ready this summer.

Free Agents

The lack of pitching talent in this winter's free agent class -- headed by Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse and Livan Hernandez -- doesn't mean the market is going to take a downturn. In fact, one NL executive predicted Friday that Silva will get a contract approaching that of Gil Meche last year, who signed with Kansas City for five years, $55 million.

"There's a lot of need," the executive said, "and very few guys out there."

Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is also drawing interest, but some East Coast teams have been informed by Kuroda's agents that he almost certainly will limit himself to West Coast teams.

The Mitchell Report

One MLB executive predicted several weeks ago that former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, who is heading the sport's internal investigation into steroid use, could issue his long-awaited final report during the winter meetings -- since the media would already be on hand to attend a news conference.

Such timing now seems less likely, but what would the winter meetings be without a mystery guest?

Staff Writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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