The biggest forces on either side of the free agent universe -- agent Scott Boras and the New York Yankees (decide for yourself which one represents the force of Good, and which the force of Evil) -- are bearing down on each other this winter with unprecedented speed. One has the most big-name players. One has the most money. Each would like nothing more than to swap some of their largesse for some of the other's.
Baseball's free agent market officially opened at 12:01 a.m. today, the first day teams can begin negotiating with free agents other than their own. There are 30 teams and more than 200 free agents, though one of each clearly matters the most.
Twenty-seven-year-old center fielder Carlos Beltran, arguably the best young player to hit the market since Alex Rodriguez in 2000, heads Boras's stable of 11 free agents. Boras envisions him as the next A-Rod, setting his price tag at 10 years and somewhere between $150 million and $200 million. The Yankees envision him as Bernie Williams's heir in center field at Yankee Stadium, and rare is the targeted player whom the Yankees fail to acquire.
As usual, the Yankees, whose 2005 payroll is a couple of pricey players away from crossing the $200 million threshold, are expected to drive the market. But what kind of market will it be?
For the last three winters, the free agent market has been on an acute downturn, a seemingly natural reaction to the insane spending of the 2000-01 winter, when Rodriguez (a Boras client, naturally) got 10 years and $252 million from the Texas Rangers, and Manny Ramirez, Todd Helton, Mike Mussina and Mike Hampton got gargantuan contracts that, in most cases, led to serious cases of buyer's remorse at one point or another.
Last winter, by contrast, Miguel Tejada's six-year deal from the Baltimore Orioles was the only one of that length, and no player signed for more than the $14 million average annual salary that Vladimir Guerrero got from the Anaheim Angels.
Baseball executives refer to that cycle as a "market correction," and most believe it is still in play.
"To most baseball [executives], their idea is that, 'We're just paying back the crazy cycle of the last couple of years. We're still financially upside down,' " said agent David Sloane, who represents free agent first baseman Carlos Delgado. "It's going to make for, to say the least, some interesting negotiations for these free agents."
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's office was sensitive enough about the perception of a centralized effort to keep salaries down -- particularly after the players' association began gathering evidence for a possible collusion charge last winter -- that it circulated a two-page memo to all 30 teams reminding them of the rules governing free agent negotiations.
Naturally, Boras thinks a new cycle is beginning, and he obviously believes the Yankees will define it. It is worth pointing out that last winter, when Tejada and Guerrero signed the longest and richest deals at relatively low figures, the Yankees failed to bid on either player. And their involvement changes everything.
"They've been the Goliaths of the game," Boras told reporters this week at the general managers' meetings in Key Biscayne, Fla., "and I don't expect their position to change."
Or as Sloane put it, "Will the Yankees drive the market? I sure hope so."
If Boras is driving the market from the players' side, it means many free agents will remain on the market well into December and January, as Boras's strategy is to wait and wait in hopes a surprise team will come into the picture -- like the Detroit Tigers last year with catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.
"If you had told me last year at this time that we'd be able to get Pudge," said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, "I wouldn't have believed it."
The Yankees, meantime, are coming off their fourth straight season without a World Series title -- an eternity by owner George Steinbrenner's standards. Next April, as it happens, they will be in Boston for the Fenway Park home opener, when the Red Sox unveil their World Series banner and distribute their championship rings.
One players' association source said this week that Steinbrenner "is calling the shots for the Yankees," which may explain why speculation persists that the Yankees will make a play for not only Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox's ace and free agent, but also Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek -- presumably using his checkbook to avenge his team's on-field defeat.
That may be bunk -- for one thing, the signing of Martinez, the chief villain to anyone wearing pinstripes, would likely create a revolt in the Yankees' clubhouse -- but in the case of Beltran, at least, Steinbrenner can be expected to give the player practically anything he wants. It also means he is likely to do anything it takes to pry Randy Johnson away from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade.
"He is a guy who cares about his team, cares about his players," Beltran said when asked about Steinbrenner during last month's NLCS. "I think every owner should put a little bit more effort into making his team a contender."
Rabid interest from the Yankees, of course, would play right into Boras's hands, if, as one team executive speculated this week, Beltran will simply use the Yankees to extract more money from a team like the Anaheim Angels, with whom he might feel more comfortable.
That is a classic Boras ploy, and one he might use multiple times this winter, given an unsurpassed stable of players that includes not only Beltran, Varitek and Lowe, but also Adrian Beltre, Magglio Ordonez, J.D. Drew and Kevin Millwood.
It is good to be Scott Boras this winter. And it is good to be the New York Yankees. But it is even better to be Carlos Beltran, who sits anxiously at their intersection.