Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Free agent season opens

Baseball notebook

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - One of the top free agent classes in recent years hit the market Monday, with teams wary of flashing big bucks and offering longterm deals.

A record 210 players voluntarily became free agents, 53 more than the previous mark set last year.

Available stars include pitchers Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon, Greg Maddux and Sidney Ponson; relievers Keith Foulke and Ugueth Urbina; outfielders Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield; infielders Miguel Tejada and Joe Randa; and catchers Ivan Rodriguez and Javy Lopez.

And dozens more players figure to be cut loose by Dec. 20, the last day for teams to offer 2004 contracts to players on their rosters. Former All-Star Robert Fick already was let go by Atlanta.

Monday was the first day free agents could talk money with all 30 teams.

"It seems, given the market dynamics, that there are going to be a lot of players available," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said.

A slow national economy, increased revenue sharing and the luxury tax on high spenders have slowed spending since December 2000, when Alex Rodriguez got his record $252 million, 10-year contract, and Manny Ramirez ($160 million over eight years) and Mike Hampton ($121 million over eight years) received landmark deals.

The biggest package after the 2001 season was Jason Giambi's $120 million, seven-year contract with the New York Yankees. The largest deal after the 2002 season - when the new labor contract was agreed to - was Jim Thome's $85 million, six-year agreement with Philadelphia.

Insurance has become more expensive to obtain since then, making teams more prone to offer shorter contracts.

In addition, some agents reported receiving similar offers from different clubs, prompting the players' association to spend the last 10 months contemplating whether to file a collusion grievance.

"There was conduct in the marketplace that was wholly different to what we had seen in the past, there were information exchanges," agent Scott Boras said. "After doing this for a long time, seeing offers exchanged that are all uniform for particular players is a very unusual circumstance."

Management lawyer Rob Manfred has denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations "ludicrous."

Some agents planned to visit the annual general managers' meeting, which began Monday night in Phoenix, to start early discussions.

Pitching figures to be highly pursued, especially by contenders in the AL East and NL East.

Re-signing Pettitte is a top goal of the Yankees, who also may try to land Colon. With Steve Karsay's return still uncertain following shoulder surgery, New York might try to sign a right-handed setup man, such as LaTroy Hawkins.

"Pitching is the biggest issue for us, no doubt about it," general manager Brian Cashman said.

Boston, which lost to New York in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the AL championship series, could chase the same players the Yankees covet. Second baseman Luis Castillo, who helped Florida win the World Series, might be on that list.

"The Yankees have more resources than every other club in baseball," Epstein said, "so they're always going to be a force in the market, and that's something other clubs have to deal with in developing strategies and executing them."

Talks involving most free agents won't get detailed until around Dec. 7 - following that date, teams won't lose draft picks if they sign top free agents not offered salary arbitration by their former clubs.

Of the 139 free agents who signed last offseason, just six reached agreements before Dec. 6. Fifty-five signed from then through Christmas.

"Any time markets change, there's a residual affect, and it takes longer for parties to agree," Epstein said.

Still, top free agents such as Guerrero, Pettitte and Colon figure to get deals averaging more than $13 million a season, although they might not be for as long as they would have been three years ago.

"Your premium free agents are going to get their money, no question," agent Phil Tannenbaum said. "I see everything heading north in major league baseball. Baseball has definitely been rejuvenated in the playoffs and the World Series, and all of the contending teams want to remain competitive."

TOP ROOKIES: Kansas City shortstop Angel Berroa beat New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui in the closest AL Rookie of the Year vote in 24 years. Florida pitcher Dontrelle Willis won the NL award.

Berroa had 88 points to 84 for Matsui. It was the closest vote since the baseball writers adopted the current format in 1980, a year after Minnesota's John Castino and Toronto's Alfredo Griffin tied.

Berroa hit .287 with 17 homers, 73 RBI, 21 steals and 92 runs, cutting his errors from 19 in his first 63 games to five in his last 95.

Matsui batted .287 with 16 homers, 106 RBI, two steals and 82 runs. He was a three-time MVP of Japan's Central League before signing with the Yankees after the 2002 season.

In the NL, Willis easily defeated Milwaukee outfielder Scott Podsednik.

"I never thought I would make it to the big leagues so soon, let alone have success," said Willis, who signed out of high school in 2000.

Willis went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA as Florida won the NL wild card, slumping in the second half of the season. The high-kicking left-hander was 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA before the All-Star break, then went 5-5 with 4.60 ERA.

Podsednik hit .315 for the Brewers with nine homers, 58 RBI, 43 steals and 100 runs.

PIRATES: The team declined to exercise its option on second baseman Pokey Reese, deciding not to pay him $5,125,000 next year after he missed all but five weeks of last season. Reese gets a $750,000 buyout.

DRUG TESTING: Results are expected in a few days from this year's drug-testing survey of players, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Monday.

If more than 5 percent of those tests are positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance, then all players will be subject to possible random, unannounced testing, with penalties for those who fail.

Otherwise, another survey will be conducted.

Key dates

Today-Nov. 14: General managers meeting, Phoenix.

Dec. 7: Last day for teams to offer salary arbitration to their former players who became free agents.

Dec. 19: Last day for free agents offered salary arbitration to accept or reject the offers.

March 3: Mandatory reporting date for spring training.

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