Back in september, San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers floated a trade proposal to New York Mets G.M. Omar Minaya: Towers would give Minaya outfielder--first baseman Xavier Nady for centerfielder Mike Cameron, whom Towers needed to patrol the spacious outfield in Petco Park. It wasn't a blockbuster, but it was an early indication of things to come.
This winter's free-agent market, Towers had decided, would be tough, with too many teams flush with cash and too few proven stars on which to spend it. Clubs would be enriched by three streams of new or improved revenue: Each would get nearly $2 million from satellite radio rights (MLB signed an eight-year deal with XM in October 2004) and as much as $10.5 million from growing Internet and MLB.com revenues. The expected sale of the Washington Nationals for $450 million would also mean a return of about $11 million per team on MLB's $120 million purchase of the Montreal Expos nearly four years ago.
"We were forecasting the free-agent market to be kind of high," Towers said last week. "A lot of clubs have dollars to spend that they didn't have in the past. Pittsburgh, Kansas City ... clubs that normally did not have flexibility had the ability to take on payroll. We figured more than 20 teams"--about a half dozen more than in years past--"would be in that position. That's why we looked at the trade market early." Towers's pursuit of Cameron paid off with a deal on Nov. 18. "At $6 1/2 million," Towers said, referring to the 32-year-old's guaranteed money, "you couldn't find a player like Cameron on the free-agent market." That trade kick-started an unusually active November in baseball. Fueled by the Florida Marlins' fire sale (page 34), the typically slow trade market has been buzzing, with big names such as Cameron, first basemen Carlos Delgado (Marlins to Mets) and Jim Thome (Phillies to White Sox), and righthander Josh Beckett (Marlins to Red Sox) all dealt by Thanksgiving weekend.
The free-agent market, meanwhile, has been as inflationary as Towers feared. The Chicago Cubs gave righthander Bobby Howry, 32, and lefty Scott Eyre, 33--two setup men who had been released or placed on waivers within the past three years--three-year contracts for a combined $23 million. The Nationals gave a bench player, Marlon Anderson, a two-year deal worth $1.85 million. The Toronto Blue Jays gave B.J. Ryan, a 29-year-old reliever with 42 career saves, all but six of them coming last season, more money ($47 million over five years) than had been guaranteed to any relief pitcher in history. On Monday the Mets gave closer Billy Wagner $43 million for four years.
The frenzy of trades and signings was only a start. After all, the annual winter meetings, the traditional height of baseball's shopping season, do not begin until Dec. 5. Moreover, the most expensive free agents--first baseman Paul Konerko, outfielders Johnny Damon and Brian Giles, righthander A.J. Burnett and shortstop Rafael Furcal--remained up for bidding. "The winter meetings should be real fun, with a lot of activity," Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi said last week.
Ricciardi's Blue Jays are one of the nouveau riche teams helping to drive the market. Jays owner Ted Rogers announced last February he was loosening the purse strings, meaning Ricciardi could raise his $50 million payroll to around $80 million next season. After being rebuffed in a trade attempt last summer for first baseman Mike Sweeney of Kansas City, Ricciardi sought to sign "two or three" of what he identified as the top free agents. With Ryan signed, Giles and Burnett are his top remaining priorities. Now Ricciardi can shop his 2005 closer, Miguel Batista, in a trade for a hitter, such as the Brewers' Lyle Overbay.
The biggest player in the market is Minaya, who's trying to build a contender for the inaugural season of the Mets' regional cable network. (Time Warner, parent company of SI, is a partner in the venture.) Minaya traded three prospects to the Marlins for Delgado, who had spurned the Mets last winter as a free agent. Florida kicked in $7 million in the trade, still leaving the Mets with a three-year obligation of $41 million to the 33-year-old first baseman, including a fourth-year buyout for $4 million. Delgado is a huge upgrade for a team that tried seven first basemen last season and had the worst OPS in baseball at the position.
To get Wagner, 34, Minaya outbid the Red Sox and the Phillies, who freed up money when they traded Thome for centerfielder Aaron Rowand. Minaya is also hoping to sign one of the two top free-agent catchers (Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez) and outfielder Mark Sweeney. "He's the Kevin Malone of this year," one rival G.M. says of Minaya, referring to the ex-Dodgers G.M. who splurged on free agents such as Kevin Brown. "He's got lots of money, and he's dangerous with it."
With Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez and Arizona pitcher Javier Vazquez having asked to be traded (yes, Minaya has his eye on Ramirez, too); the Rangers listening to offers for second baseman Alfonso Soriano; and the premier free agents still available, the hot stove league has begun to heat up.
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"I'm 72. I don't have much time to get the football program in the top 20." --JERRY FALWELL, FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 31
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO