|Tuesday, November 12
There's Thome and then there's everyone else
By Jayson Stark
Two winters ago, it was the A-Rod and Manny Show, co-starring their very special guests, Mike Hampton and Mike Mussina.
Last winter, the names atop the free-agent marquee were Barry Bonds and John Smoltz, two men about to enroll in Free Agent U's Grass Ain't Greener School.
And now, finally, the latest, not-so-greatest free-agent class of 2002-2003 is ready to head for the auction house. It's a class that includes three former Cy Youngs (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens). It's a class that includes five former MVPs (Clemens, Frank Thomas, Pudge Rodriguez, Jeff Kent and, yep he's still around, Rickey Henderson).
But despite all those familiar faces, this winter isn't going to be their production. Nope, there's only one working title for this free-agent extravaganza: "It's About Thome."
"In this whole group, there's one legitimate impact player -- Jim Thome," said one veteran scout. "Everyone else is a crap shoot."
Two years ago, A-Rod and Manny Ramirez both got $20-million-a-year deals. Last year, Bonds got $18 million a year, and Smoltz became the first $10-million-a-year closer in history.
But this winter, there is only one player on the shelf of this free-agent supermarket with a chance to make even $15 million a year. That's Thome, who was awaiting a five-year, $75-million offer from the Phillies on Tuesday which, it's believed, could eventually grow to six years, $90 million.
So there no doubt will be outside pressures at work that could influence Thome to leave Cleveland, take the biggest offer and drive the market. But two men who know Thome well say he's less driven by money than any big star in the whole sport.
"He'll do what's best for him and his family," said one baseball man. "This is not a guy who will want to carry a flag for the industry."
So the Phillies have worked relentlessly to try to sell Thome on the concept that there is more to like about Philadelphia than dollars and cheesesteaks. During his visit to Philadelphia last week, they worked hard to convince him they're a team poised to win faster than the Indians are and, with a stream of big-time pitching prospects on the way, also a team capable of winning for the length of his contract.
"This guy could be so important to this franchise," said one Phillies official recently, "I've had a hard time sleeping at night. He's the one guy who could do for the Phillies now what Pete Rose did 20 years ago."
But the Indians are doing some selling themselves. Besides the four years and approximately $45 million they're believed to have offered Thome, the Indians have pitched the stability of playing for the only team that has ever employed him. And the security of knowing he is the most popular professional athlete in Cleveland. And the importance to their franchise of having Thome serve as a bridge between generations -- for players and fans.
So Thome -- who is also expected to hear from the Red Sox and Orioles -- will be the man to watch as the free-agent offers start flowing. For just about everyone else, though, it could be a long, frustrating winter.
Asked if he could sum up this free-agent class in one word, one prominent agent replied: "Unfortunate." Which is not a synonym for "affluent."
Why? Because the new labor deal starts pounding on the teams at the top of the payroll charts. Because new long-term debt rules will leave their mark. The state of the economy in general is draining dollars. And all the age and uncertainty surrounding most of these free agents means this is not a year to try to hit the big free-agent Super Lotto. Which doesn't mean it will be boring. So let's break down this free-agent class:
Five best hitters
2. Kent: Coming off six straight 100-RBI seasons but will miss his good buddy, Barry Bonds. Prefers to stay at second base. May have to move to first. Looking for a hefty pay day.
3. Ray Durham: One of four active players with six straight 100-run seasons (with Bernie Williams, A-Rod, Derek Jeter). Best leadoff man on the market. Could help his marketability by considering a move to the outfield.
4. Cliff Floyd: Youngest of the impact bats (turns 30 in December). As many home runs the last two years as Kent (59). Teams worry about his health, but hasn't been on the DL the last two years. May have to move to first base.
5. Hideki Matsui: Four-time Japanese Central League home run champ, three-time MVP, coming off 50-homer season for Yomiuri Giants. Left-handed stroke has "Yankees" written all over it.
Five best starting pitchers
2. Tom Glavine: Twelve straight winning seasons. Winningest left-hander of last 25 years (242). He's 55-27 the last three years, so enough "he's-fading" talk. Said to be puzzled by Braves' one-year, $9-million offer, with four option years. Has told friends he wants to stay in the NL and pitch on the East coast.
3. Roger Clemens: Still a force at 40, but slipped to fewer wins (13) and innings (180) than Jimmy Haynes. Expected to go back to The Bronx.
4. Paul Byrd: Coming off well-timed career year (17-11). Led all free-agent right-handers in wins and innings (228 1/3). Great command and creativity. Bizarre career (two 15-plus-win seasons, no other seven-win seasons).
5. Jamie Moyer: 105 wins in the last seven seasons, more than all left-handers except Randy Johnson, Glavine, Andy Pettitte and David Wells. In one 16-start stretch this year, gave up one run or none in 12 outings. Looking for a three-year deal at age 40.
Five most underrated
2. Mike Stanton: One of only eight relievers with seven straight years of 60-plus appearances. Has appeared in 11 consecutive postseasons. The most underappreciated Yankee of the Joe Torre era.
3. Mike Remlinger: Four straight seasons of 70-plus appearances. Averaged 9½ whiffs and only seven hits per nine innings in four Braves seasons. The Mike Stanton of the NL.
4. Woody Williams: He's 16-5, 2.42 in 31 starts as a Cardinal. Higher career batting average (.212) than Tom Prince (.208). If he could only stay healthy.
5. Steve Finley: Hit .291, slugged .523, drove in 47 runs in 68 games after the All-Star break. Can still play center field. Age (38 next March) getting to be a factor. But can help somebody short-term.
Five most overrated
2. Fred McGriff: Consensus is he's not as good a hitter anymore as his two straight 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons make him look. Still hits mistakes in a hitter's park, but not a middle-of-the-order force now, at age 39.
3. Kenny Lofton: Did score 98 runs this year -- and has 11 straight seasons of 90-plus, most of any active player. But has really slipped defensively. No longer a big-time base-stealer. Good one-year gamble for a contender.
4. Roberto Hernandez: At 11 hits and 13 baserunners per nine innings, his days as a premier closer are in the rear-view mirror.
5. Ugueth Urbina: The good news: 40 saves, 44 hits and 71 whiffs in 60 innings. The bad news: 1-6 record, with six blown saves. One scout's review: "A set-up guy -- on a good team."
Other free-agent lists
Five big names with health issues (pitchers)
Five big names with health issues (hitters)
Five starters worth rolling the dice on
Five relievers worth rolling the dice on
Five hitters worth rolling the dice on
Five pitchers not worth rolling the dice on
Five hitters not worth rolling the dice on
Five six-year free agents who will get jobs
Right name, wrong decade
Four free agents who pitched 200 innings
Six free agents who pitched in more than 70 games
Five free agents who hit .300*
Six free agents who drove in 90 runs
Two free agents who stole 20 bases
Three free agents who scored 100 runs
Don't they do this every year?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.