The early bird free-agent checklist

August 20, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Baseball's free agency period is months away.

But, sadly, when late August comes here, the hot stove league can't fire up soon enough.

Although this year's potential group isn't deep, there is some interesting potential.

Some have team options for 2007, such as New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Chicago White Sox right fielder Jermaine Dye, and are almost certainly staying with their current clubs. But options on others, such as St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds and Chicago Cubs injured starter Kerry Wood, could be bought out.

Although the list won't be complete for months, here's a quick primer of top pending free agents with an early guess as to whether the Orioles will be involved.

Barry Zito, Oakland Athletics, left-handed pitcher: He's 28, left-handed and a former Cy Young Award winner. He throws 200-plus innings and posts double-digit wins every year. A.J. Burnett (five years $55 million) and Carl Pavano (four years, $40 million) have half that resume and have hit it huge in free agency. Six years and $72 million is not a reach for what Zito could command. Super agent Scott Boras might get him more. Orioles' angle: Zito's looking for a contending team in a big market, and, besides, the Orioles historically don't give pitchers lengthy contracts.

Alfonso Soriano, Washington Nationals, left fielder-second baseman: No pending free agent helped himself more this year -- maybe ever -- than Soriano. He switched positions, leagues and ballparks and is having his best season. Only 30, he now plays two positions adequately. Even if they have to overpay, the Nationals need to save face for not trading Soriano in July. But after a year like he's had, it would be a shock if he didn't test free agency. Orioles' angle: They could use him in left and will make an effort, but a deal here likely won't happen. He has the same agent as Miguel Tejada, and that might not be a plus for either side these days.

Carlos Lee, Texas Rangers, left fielder: He's 1A with Soriano as best hitter on the market. Lee, 30, is a prototypical slugger, homering 30 or more times in four straight seasons. He's cut down on his strikeouts this year, but isn't a big walker (a career on-base percentage just under .340). He reportedly turned down a four-year, $48 million extension from the Milwaukee Brewers, so he'll likely be seeking a five-year deal worth $60 million or more. Orioles' angle: Here will be the MASN-windfall test. One club official sees Lee as a perfect fit here. The club could offer a deal similar to the one extended to Paul Konerko last winter (five years, $65 million) and pump it up if needed. If the Orioles are uncharacteristically aggressive, it could happen.

Mike Mussina, New York Yankees, right-handed pitcher: The Yankees need to upgrade their starting rotation, so dumping Mussina, 37, after another solid campaign is unlikely, even with a $17 million option ($1.5 million buyout) looming. Expect the Yankees to negotiate an extension. Orioles' angle: Kidding, right? He left because he wanted to be on a winner. Six years later and the Orioles still aren't.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Seibu Lions, right-handed pitcher: It's undecided whether the Lions will post -- auction off the negotiating rights for -- Matsuzaka, the 25-year-old pitching sensation who was the Most Valuable Player of March's inaugural World Baseball Classic. If he is posted, it could cost $30 million -- and that's before negotiating a salary with him. Orioles' angle: They have yet to jump into the Asian market, so don't count on it.

Gary Sheffield, New York Yankees, right fielder: He'll be 38 in November, is coming off wrist surgery and has BALCO baggage. The Yankees likely won't pick up his $13 million option. Despite this year's injury, his consistent production is nearly unrivaled. Orioles' angle: One club official said owner Peter Angelos has always admired Sheffield's ability and consistency. His market value could dry up, making this a possible destination for him to DH, play some outfield and first base. But is that a good thing?

Jason Schmidt, San Francisco Giants, right-handed pitcher: He's in the second tier of aces available, primarily because he's made 30 or more starts just once since 1999. The 33-year-old is a winner and an innings eater when healthy and he's had a pretty good 2006. Orioles' angle: Pitchers with injury histories and the Orioles don't mix. But they'll at least be among the initial clubs with interest.

Torii Hunter, Minnesota Twins, center fielder: He's one of the game's most exciting players -- defensively, anyway -- and also one of its most respected. But the small-market Twins might not choose to pick up his $12 million option, especially in a year in which he has battled injuries. Orioles' angle: Unlike Corey Patterson, Hunter, 31, has a consistent track record. But center field is not the club's primary concern right now.

Mark Mulder, St. Louis Cardinals, left-handed pitcher: Heading into this season, Mulder, 29, was one of the hottest would-be free agents. But he posted a 6.09 ERA in 15 starts before hitting the disabled list with a shoulder strain in late June. How he rebounds during the stretch run will determine his winter market. Orioles' angle: Treading lightly around pitchers with recent injuries.

Nomar Garciaparra, Los Angeles Dodgers, first baseman: Garciaparra, 33, has proved he can still hit. But he hasn't shown he can play a full season. He signed a one-year deal because of injuries. He has added first base to his resume, so that should help. But a long-term contract is unlikely. Orioles' angle: They had some interest last offseason, and likely will again.

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