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Help Wanted (Name Your Price)

Flush with cash, teams are lavishing eight-figure salaries on some of the most unlikely free agents (Gil Meche?). Good news for the '07 crop: Binge spending won't be a one-year phenomenon

Such is the zeal with which major league teams are spending money that they cannot be constrained by the mediocre talent available nor, as Cubs general manager Jim Hendry proved last week, three blocked arteries and an EKG machine. Hendry provided the metaphorical highlight of the off-season when, tethered to a heart-monitoring device while awaiting an angioplasty, he made a cellphone call and closed a four-year, $40 million deal for lefthanded starter Ted Lilly, a seven-year veteran who has yet to throw 200 innings in a season and whose career won-lost record (59--58) and ERA (4.60) are the very definitions of average. Hendry soon felt better. After the angioplasty, of course.

Think House meets Deal or No Deal when it comes to this off-season, as owners happily dole out millions to your average Joe (Borowski, to whom the Indians gave $4.25 million despite a 2006 season in which the journeyman 35-year-old closer blew seven saves). However, at the same time that they generated debate about the mental wellness of front offices throughout the majors, such deals confirmed the extraordinary financial health of the game. "It could have been anticipated--though maybe not quite to this extent," Braves G.M. John Schuerholz says of a six-week stretch in which more than $829 million was lavished upon free agents. "History tells you that every time additional money comes to clubs, it slips right through their hands and into the players'. We're seeing that again."

Said one player agent at last week's winter meetings, "The spending is moving the market so fast that what was unreasonable just two weeks ago is reasonable today."

The market is being driven by record crowds (total attendance is up 8.1 million from 2002), growth in revenues from traditional and new media, revenue sharing and labor stability. Last month owners and players agreed on a second straight collective bargaining agreement without a work stoppage. Says an American League executive, "I was shown the books, and beyond the Internet and XM [satellite radio] money everybody talks about, you wouldn't believe what's coming in and projected from licensing and international business. This [spending] isn't a one-year thing."

Oddly, what's missing from the forces driving spending is one traditional catalyst: star talent. Outside of free-agent outfielder Alfonso Soriano ($136 million, eight years from the Cubs) and lefthander Barry Zito (still unsigned as of Monday), this free-agent class lacks difference-making players. "It's a function of more players getting locked up to longer deals," says Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti. "You get fewer of those players on the market. There aren't the arbitration guys or five-plus [service years] guys out there like there used to be."

The flow of star talent, though, could be about to accelerate. Among the potential free agents next year are Braves centerfielder Andruw Jones, Blue Jays centerfielder Vernon Wells, Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano, Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, all of whom gained leverage with the market upswing. Toronto, for instance, could explore trades for Wells next month if the recent runup has put a contract extension out of reach. (Only 28, Wells is almost certain to eclipse the deal Soriano, three years his senior, received). Colorado righthander Jason Jennings, another potential '07 free agent, is already available by trade, having told the Rockies he'd be foolish to forfeit free agency by signing an extension.

Halfway through baseball's most extravagant spending season since the winter of 2000--01, here are the most important story lines of the bull market of '06--07.

THE CUBS
The worst team in the National League last season has spent $304 million on new manager Lou Piniella and eight players (Soriano, Lilly, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, infielder Mark DeRosa, pitchers Jason Marquis, Kerry Wood and Wade Miller and backup catcher Henry Blanco). One NL G.M. speculated that the Tribune Company, which is considering a sale of the club, is looking to give the Cubs additional curb appeal. "The Cubs are a brand with great value even when they lose," says the G.M, "but if you turn them into a winner, the price goes up even higher. They figure if they add $40 million [in payroll], they'll get that back and a lot more if they're selling a playoff team."

Seeing how the six-division playoff format allows for quick on-field turnarounds, the Cubs envision themselves as next year's version of the '06 Tigers. Since the wild card was introduced in 1995, 19 teams--or 20% of all playoff clubs during that span--have made the postseason in the year after a losing season. Says Piniella, "Jim told me when he hired me, 'We're going for it.' He's done it and then some. We have eight starting pitchers under 30. We should contend."

OVERVALUED PITCHERS
Lilly, Marquis (three years, $20 million), Adam Eaton (three years, $24.5 million from the Phillies), Gil Meche (five years, $55 million from the Royals) and Vicente Padilla (three years, $33.8 million from the Rangers) all turned middle-of-the-rotation careers into riches. Meche's contract was not only the longest of those deals, but also the most stunning. The 28-year-old righthander has not thrown 200 innings in a season, and his ERA was worse than the league average in three of the four years in which he made more than 25 starts. Moreover, Kansas City, which also signed closer Octavio Dotel (one year, $4 million plus $2 million in incentives) and was pursuing righthander Miguel Batista, ranked 26th in payroll last season and hasn't made the playoffs since 1985. Spending by such a low-revenue club confirmed not only the widespread health of the sport but it also underscored the success of the players' union in convincing clubs to funnel more revenue-sharing money toward payroll rather than their own pockets.

Midlevel innings-eaters Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver remained available, as did Zito, who could command a deal of at least six years and $100 million, surpassing the $16 million average annual value the Dodgers gave Jason Schmidt, 33, for three seasons and the Yankees gave Andy Pettitte, 34, for one year. The Giants, Mets, Astros, Cardinals, Twins, Mariners, Rangers and Blue Jays continue to search for starting pitchers.

BARRY BONDS
You know the winter meetings, staged in the backyard of Dopey and Goofy, are odd when commissioner Bud Selig doesn't show but the sport's No. 2 alltime home run hitter does, looking for a job in a flush market. A few teams made preliminary inquiries before the meetings, but ultimately 29 clubs wanted no part of Bonds. Says an executive of one team that showed some initial interest, "His people said he had to have nine [of his] assistants around him. And he wanted top dollar. You like the production he can give you ... not at the cost of the money and the problems."

The Giants, bidding against themselves and committing to another distracting season with old players and a weak team, re-signed Bonds, 42, for one season at $16 million while dropping another $43.6 million combined on Rich Aurilia, 35, Ray Durham, 35, Bengie Molina, 32, and Pedro Feliz, 31.

THE TRADE MARKET
It has barely existed, teams having been preoccupied with free-agent spending. The little action that has taken place has involved pitching, of course, and has benefited the NL East. The Mets (Ambiorix Burgos from the Royals for Brian Bannister) and the Braves (Rafael Soriano from the Mariners for Horacio Ramirez) each obtained a power reliever for a back-of-the-rotation starter. The Phillies risked two young starters (Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez went to the White Sox) for the walk year of '07 free agent Freddy Garcia.

THE RED SOX
With few teams willing to trade young pitching for a bat, Boston hit a dead end again in their annual attempt to deal the flighty but productive Manny Ramirez. "Too bad," says one AL East executive. "We would've chipped in money to get him out." Instead, Boston upgraded its offense at shortstop, where Julio Lugo ($36 million, four years) replaces Alex Gonzalez, and rightfield, where J.D. Drew ($70 million, five years) steps in for Trot Nixon. The Sox also are trying to get Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka signed before a Dec. 15 deadline. After one noncompetitive September, Boston suddenly abandoned the belt-tightening that had defined its previous 12 months, during which the club let durable and productive Johnny Damon leave (after offering him one year and $30 million less than what they would give Drew) and passed on a trade for Bobby Abreu because they didn't want to pick up the $27 million left on his contract.

To the consternation of some, including L.A.'s Colletti, Drew, 31, had opted out of a seemingly generous contract with the Dodgers that guaranteed him $33 million over the next three years. After all, Drew had missed 106 games and batted .284 for Los Angeles in the first two years of that deal. But that performance was enough to essentially add two years and $37 million to what he had in hand. The size of Drew's unexpected windfall stood as its own sort of EKG. With money flowing freely, the game appeared in good health.

$51 MILLION QUESTION
What Daisuke Matsuzaka's decision means for Boston and baseball at SI.com/baseball.

Rating the Winter Wonders

A Baseball Prospectus analyst weighs in with the best and worst off-season acquisitions

GOOD PICKUPS

JASON SCHMIDT, Dodgers (three years, $47 million)
The short commitment and relatively low total outlay make this the best pitching deal of the winter. Schmidt still has power stuff, as reflected in last year's 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.3 K's for every walk.

FREDDY GARCIA, Phillies, (one year, $9 million)
A steal as a No. 3 starter because neither pitcher the Phils sent to the White Sox (Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez) is a top-tier prospect. One concern: Garcia's home run rate has been rising, and Citizens Bank Park is an unforgiving yard.

J.D. DREW, Red Sox (five years, $70 million)
When on the field he is better than Carlos Lee or Alfonso Soriano, an OBP machine who plays great defense. His reputation for frailty is overstated, as his shortest seasons were the result of bad-luck injuries from being hit by pitches.

ANDY PETTITTE, Yankees (one year, $16 million)
Any short-term deal for a good pitcher is a winner in this market. Pettitte allows the Yanks to go slowly with minor league phenom Philip Hughes while giving them a more dependable lefty than Randy Johnson to match up with the David Ortiz--Drew Red Sox.

RAFAEL SORIANO, Braves (arbitration-eligible)
A shutdown reliever whose elbow is healthy again, he's a godsend for a bullpen desperate for power arms. At best, Horacio Ramirez, for whom Soriano was traded, is a No. 5 starter who can't stay healthy.

BAD PICKUPS

GIL MECHE, Royals (five years, $55 million)
Lowest ERA in a full season is 4.48, walks too many (4.0 per nine innings in 2006, his career year), protected by a huge ballpark and good defense in Seattle. This looks like a Chan Ho Park--level mistake by K.C.

GARY MATTHEWS JR., Angels (five years, $50 million)
The idea of this deal would've been crazy eight months ago and is no less so now despite a career year in '06. He's a solid fourth outfielder who had a fluky spike in batting average and one memorable catch. The rest of his game (notably his isolated power and strikeout rate) hasn't changed, and he's 32.

JUAN PIERRE, Dodgers (five years, $44 million)
The Dodgers found an outfielder who walks fewer times, has less power and has a worse arm than the player he replaces, Kenny Lofton. Pierre's range in centerfield helps. Nothing else, including his .330 OBP and poor stolen base percentage, does.

ADAM EATON, Phillies (three years, $24.5 million)
A No. 4 starter at best, he spent the last two seasons on the DL or getting hurt by homers (25 in 193 innings). The signing will look even sillier if the Phils trade the superior Jon Lieber to make room for Eaton in the rotation.

MARK DEROSA, Cubs (three years, $13 million)
A solid extra infielder; as an every-day second baseman he's not as good as prospect Ryan Theriot, whose path to Chicago he's blocking.

WE'LL SEE ...

ALFONSO SORIANO, Cubs (eight years, $136 million)
Power-speed players tend to hold up well with age, so he should retain his value for the first half of the deal. But his OBP has never been higher than .351, and he's changing positions again (centerfield).

CARLOS LEE, Astros (six years, $100 million)
Another deal that will look better in the short term than the long. Lee's top comparables include bad-body types Ivan Calderon and Kevin McReynolds, who faded quickly in their early 30s.

GARY SHEFFIELD, Tigers (three years, $41 million)
The deal--Detroit gave up three pitching prospects and tacked two years on to the 38-year-old outfielder's contract--looked a bit foolish when it happened. Six weeks later the extension looks like a bargain for a player who brings the OBP the Tigers desperately need.

TED LILLY, Cubs (four years, $40 million)
There are parallels to Bronson Arroyo--talented pitcher moves from AL East to NL Central--that make it hard to write off this signing. But Lilly has to give up fewer than 25 homers to be a success.

ADAM KENNEDY, Cardinals (three years, $10 million)
The last time St. Louis signed an Angels middle infielder to a low-cost three-year deal after he had an off year, he ended up the World Series MVP.

"The spending is moving the market so fast," says an agent, "that what was UNREASONABLE two weeks ago is reasonable today."