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Original Issue

Getting Off the Juice

Teams have player issues to deal with--besides steroids--as they head into this weekend's winter meetings

We interrupt the onslaught of gloomy steroid-related headlines to give you this sunny reminder: Pitchers and catchers report in 10 weeks. Yet through Sunday only 21 of the 207 players who had filed for free agency were signed (12 of those had reupped with their old clubs), and none of the big names on the trading block had new homes. With the hot stove just warming up--baseball's four-day winter meetings begin in Anaheim on Friday--here are five questions that need answering.

•Will Carlos Beltran be homeless when spring training starts?The 27-year-old free-agent centerfielder will command a huge contract after a postseason in which he homered eight times in 12 games. Beltran's hard-line agent, Scott Boras, wants 10 years and $200 million, but will any team go that high? "[Beltran] is a great player, but there's a pretty significant gap between what they're asking for and what teams are going to be willing to pay," says one National League executive. "There might not be a deal for him by February." The Yankees will be among the bidders, and the Astros have said they'll make a strong run at retaining their All-Star. But don't count out the Angels, who last winter unexpectedly landed Vladimir Guerrero.

•How will the Yankees upgrade their rotation? New York's top priority is improving a beleaguered pitching staff, but trade talks involving Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson abruptly broke off last week with the Yankees saying Arizona's asking price was too high. Lefty Eric Milton, a 14-game winner for the Phillies last season, and righthander Brad Radke, who ranked fourth in the league with a 3.48 ERA for the Twins, remain available. But the best free-agent starter is Carl Pavano, who went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA for the Marlins. New York's toughest competition in the bidding war for Pavano will likely come from the Red Sox, who must factor the possible signing of the 28year-old righthander into negotiations with their own free-agent righty Pedro Martinez.

•How will early signings affect the market?The Mets overpaid when they resigned free-agent righthander Kris Benson (three years, $22.5 million), an underachieving 30-year-old with a 47-53 career record. So did the Expos when they picked up shortstop Cristian Guzman (four years, $16.8 million), a .274 hitter with a puny .309 on-base percentage for the Twins last year. Benson's deal was great news to middle-of-the-rotation free agents such as Derek Lowe, Jon Lieber and Matt Clement. Guzman's hefty contract similarly bumps up the price tags on free-agent shortstops Nomar Garciaparra, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera.

•Where can a team get a quality closer? When the Giants signed Armando Benitez to a three-year, $21.5 million contract last week, they grabbed the last of the three free-agent closers on the market. That's bad news for teams like the Cubs, Marlins and Indians. For instance, not wanting to start the season with righthanders LaTroy Hawkins and Joe Borowski as the Cubs' best options to close out games, general manager Jim Hendry has been talking trade with the Brewers (All-Star righthander Danny Kolb is available, but for a hefty price). Another option is Giants righthander Robb Nen, who hasn't pitched in two years because of a shoulder injury but hopes to return this spring.

•Will any aging superstars change teams? The trade rumors about Johnson, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Kevin Brown persist, but big contracts make the relocation of those players unlikely. "There's just way too much risk and too much money involved in many of these big deals people talk about," says a National League G.M. "It's hard to see a big trade happening this off-season."

Winter Lineup

Five faces to watch in what is shaping up as an increasingly intriguing off-season for baseball

Brian Cashman
The heat was already on the Yanks' G.M. to retool. Now he must deal with the Jason Giambi fallout.

Scott Boras
The hard-line negotiator represents 11 free agents, including Carlos Beltran and Adrian Beltre.

Donald Fehr
Will the players' association director continue to stand in the way of more stringent steroid testing?

Pedro Martinez
The three-time Cy Young winner may end up playing second fiddle to hot free-agent starter Carl Pavano.

Peter Angelos
The Orioles' owner could further complicate the Expos' move to D.C. if he files suit against MLB.




Beltran is unlikely to haul in the $20 million a year that his agent is seeking.