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Epic off-season looms


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Another year, another November. Even as the regular baseball season ends, amidst swirling rains and plunging temperatures with players cavorting in earmuffs and mittens, the real baseball season begins.

In the contemporary incarnation, no competition is fiercer and no contests nastier than the annual, late autumn, fire-sale of free agents and trade-ables. A monster off-season of ferocious bargaining, badgering, and bulldogging looms. The Hot Stove will be more like a roaring furnace. All the conditions are ripe for it.

There’s a superior crop of free agents with C.C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Ivan Rodriguez, Orlando Hudson, Jason Giambi, Rafael Furcal, Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Milton Bradley, Ken Griffey, Orlando Cabrera, Casey Blake, Raul Ibanez, Jason Varitek and Greg Maddux only among the more prominent characters afloat.

Supplementing that bumper crop is a growing list of worthy players purportedly available in trade. The impressive list includes Jake Peavy, Matt Holiday, Dan Uggla, Garret Atkins, Paul Konerko, J.J. Putz, Huston Street, Magglio Ordonez, Prince Fielder, Jermaine Dye, Dontrelle Willis, Kosuke Fukudome, Freddie Sanchez, Gerald Laird and at least a couple of Molinas being only among the hotter properties being bandied about.

Additionally, there are some fine role players in both markets, most notably relief pitchers who are always in demand. For the well-heeled team that’s willing to absorb some dumb contracts there may be some bargains in the end. Then there is the burgeoning international market. There are at least four Japanese prospects that are considered prime.

Most important, all the key players in the annual post-season melodrama are notably energized. The Yankees are ravenous which means the Red Sox will have to be even if they don’t want to be if only to keep the Yankees honest and drive up the price. Other willing spenders like the Mets, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, and Tigers have needs and are therefore motivated. With revenues fast rising, even some of the skinflints from the third-world baseball bloc -- like the Brewers, Rays, Braves and Royals -- seem inclined to muscle in on some of the action.

Adding richly to the flavor of the thing is the fact that super-agent Scott Boras -- more Machiavellian than ever after his embarrassing gaffe in the A-Rod sweepstakes a year ago -- has a staggering 13 clients bobbing happily in the free-agent pool with visions of sugar plums dancing in their otherwise empty heads. This absolutely guarantees that the coming weeks will be zany which should keep us amused through the holiday season. The possibilities are epic. You might call it a “perfect storm” of baseball madness currently brewing.

The only factor that might blight this giddy scenario is the economy. By which one means the perilous state of the world and the hideous financial meltdown that has brought the entire globe to the edge of absolute panic. This ghastly and unprecedented mess terrorizes the rest of us who are at least awake.

But sport in general and baseball in particular is more than a bit of a cocoon. In recent years, the fun and games industry has remained amazingly immune to the tides that dramatically affect normal commerce. The baseball moguls, who have been rolling in profit since the strike and sharing the wealth merrily, may have convinced themselves that nothing has changed and that they remain impervious.

Still, you’d think simple prudence would guide most teams, given the historic thunderclaps rocking global markets the last six weeks. Nothing will restrain the Yankees and precious little the Red Sox and Mets. The cash cows in L.A. and Chicago can also be easily tempted, given that all four devoutly believe they are within one fortuitous signing of going all the way. A couple of other franchises are just plain dumb.

But teams that are not sitting on billion dollar endowments or haven’t sold out 90 percent of their seats for next season might hesitate before offering a lackadaisical first baseman $150 million to hit about .285 over the next six seasons. They may first wish to determine if the on-going recession is rolling inexorably into a full-scale depression, which many Cassandra’s believe. That’s merely standard operating procedure in the real world. We may be about to discover if baseball is even remotely tethered to that “real world”.

The telltale cases will be Ramirez, Sabathia, Teixeira, Sheets, and Burnett (presuming that he opts out of his Toronto contract) probably in that order, with the fascinating case of Jason Varitek dominating local interest.

Ramirez tests the annual “idiocy factor”. Every year features one. Last year’s gem produced the A-Rod circus which ended with the Yankees foolishly bidding against themselves and giving Rodriguez everything he wanted even after he’d lost much of his bargaining power. They will pay for their folly the next eight years, which does not mean A-Rod won’t be useful, only that he won’t be worth it.

In the ‘real world’, or one that makes any kind of sense, Ramirez would have hopelessly compromised his chances for a big score with his treacherous behavior in Boston with his subsequent resurrection in Los Angeles only verifying his mendacity. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this fundamental notion to be affirmed in the free-agent wars. One remains hopeful the Dodgers re-sign him, succumbing to the pressures of their finicky fans, while the Yankees rise above the temptation to grovel in Manny’s gutter.

Sabathia is an intriguing test. The man is a left-handed pitching horse and there is no more valuable commodity in the game. But he’s chronically over-weight and has been gravely over-worked the last three seasons. Every instinct you have about this game tells you this is a very risky signing and it will take at least $150 million to land him. It’s assumed the Yankees will pay any price. I’m not so sure. He’s building a posh new home in Los Angeles. Do you have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out?

And if the Dodgers surrender to Manny and the Angels swallow on C.C. that leaves Boston and New York to resume their tribal warfare by tangling over Teixeira and they will. That the Red Sox should want him seems puzzling although it may suggest they’re very pessimistic about Mike Lowell rebounding from his hip problems which -- one continues to hear -- are more serious than is widely understood.

That the Yankees should want Teixeira is a no-brainer. He seems the ideal replacement for the broken down Jason Giambi although the House of Steinbrenner should be reminded that when they snared Giambi seven winters ago he too was deemed “ideal”. And Teixeira will be even more expensive. At a minimum, Boston will seek to drive the price for the switch-hitting first baseman out of sight but if the Yankees sign anybody big it will be this guy.

Sheets and Burnett will test the desperation of the market. Both have fabulous promise, superb stuff, but shaky resumes and histories of arm problems. How much of a chance will teams take for the promise of pitching, however questionable? These guys will tell that tale.

Finally, there is Varitek. Sorry, dear Nation, but he’s gone, unless he’ll sign a short deal for small money and that’s not Scott Boras’s style. Varitek is 37, creaking at the seams, and a .220 hitter. They are a dime a dozen. They play hardball at the Fens nowadays. Theo and company got sentimental last winter and got suckered by Curt Schilling. It won’t happen two years in a row.

Wish Mr. Varitek well. And say “goodbye”.

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