For the second straight winter, the free-agent market has moved slower than Henry Blanco. And it's getting more and more obvious that Dec. 7 is turning into as important a date on the baseball calendar as opening day.
That's the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their own free agents. But more realistically, it's also the date when other clubs find out if they have to give up a draft pick as compensation for signing those free agents.
And gee, it sure is funny how, for 25 years of free agency, that draft-pick compensation wasn't much of an issue. But now those draft choices are suddenly being portrayed as if they're more valuable than Bill Gates' software secrets.
"I've never seen people covet those draft picks the way they are now," says one AL executive. "In the past, plenty of quality players used to sign before Dec. 7. Not anymore."
Good point. Last year, of 139 free agents who signed over the winter, only six signed by Dec. 6 -- Jim Thome, David Bell, Tom Glavine, Mike Remlinger, Jesse Orosco and Frank Thomas. But at least five of those changed teams. Five got contracts of three years or longer. And Thome, Thomas, Bell and Glavine all got deals averaging more than $4 million a year.
This winter, however, only four free agents had officially "signed" with a new team through Wednesday -- Kelvim Escobar, LaTroy Hawkins, Raul Ibanez and Pat Hentgen. (Players such as Gary Sheffield, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill have unofficially "agreed" to change teams, but haven't "signed." So they don't count.)
Seventeen more free agents have re-signed with their old teams. But of those 21 who signed, only Escobar, Hawkins and Ibanez got three-year deals. And Escobar and Ibanez are the only two, among those 21, whose deals average more than $4 million a year.
So there have actually been more trades for players with big contracts (Javier Vazquez, Curt Schilling, Eric Milton, Billy Wagner) than signings of players to deals that big. Of the 21 signings, 14 are for only one year and 13 are for $2.2 million a year or lower.
Which tells us that a "slow" market is a synonym for a "lousy" market -- if you're a free agent out there trying to hit the lottery.
Millwood told three baseball people in the last week that he wanted to return to Philadelphia. But Boras went nearly two weeks without responding to the Phillies' first contract offer (believed to be three years, for about $29 million).
Then, when Boras was essentially told by Phillies GM Ed Wade on Tuesday, that if Millwood wasn't interested in that offer, the Phillies had other plans, Boras continued to insist Millwood could get a five-year contract elsewhere. Under 24 hours later, the Phillies waved goodbye by making the Milton deal.
An executive of another NL team thinks the Phillies did the right thing. Asked about Millwood, he replied: "I'd put my money somewhere else. To me, they've been trying to get him to be something he can't be -- the ace of a staff."
We also asked an AL scout which pitcher he would rather have for one year -- Milton or Millwood. He voted on Millwood for health reasons, but said: "If you could guarantee me that Milton would be healthy all year, I'd take him. I think he's going to come to the National League and pitch very well. This guy has good stuff. And he was throwing great at the end of the year. He just had no stamina because he hadn't pitched."
Incidentally, the two players the Phillies traded for Milton -- Carlos Silva and Nick Punto -- had been offered to Arizona for Curt Schilling, and to Milwaukee as part of a three-way deal involving Schilling and Sexson. Arizona and Milwaukee both said no. But Minnesota will use Punto to replace Denny Hocking as a utility guy and as a presence to push Cristian Guzman. And Silva could be anything from a starting pitcher to a set-up replacement for LaTroy Hawkins.
"Silva has a great arm," says one scout. "You have to be careful using him against left-handed hitters. And I'm not sure I'd bring him in with men on base. But he's an intriguing guy."
The Phillies are now out of the market for established starting pitchers, unless they find someone in the $1-million bargain bins in January. For now, their fifth starter will be someone from the threesome of Amaury Telemaco, Bud Smith or their most advanced pitching prospect, Ryan Madson.
When the Twins traded Milton and wiped his $9 million paycheck off the books, it was a clear sign that they're bringing back closer Eddie Guardado, who never wanted to leave. But Shannon Stewart's return isn't so certain.
It's a reasonable guess that the Twins would offer Stewart arbitration, giving them two more weeks to negotiate. But while the Twins' public posture is that the trade of Milton opened budget room for both Stewart and Jacque Jones, clubs that have spoken with the Twins say they've been told otherwise.
If Stewart goes back to Minnesota, clubs interested in Jones expect him to be traded. And the Twins then would install Michael Cuddyer in right field.
Jones is just one of many Braves outfield options to replace Sheffield. Clubs that have been in touch with the Braves say they're exploring a long list of players. Among them: free agent Reggie Sanders, Juan Encarnacion (if he gets non-tendered), J.D. Drew (as either a trade candidate or a non-tender free agent) and Richard Hidalgo (if Houston pays a chunk of his contract).
"They've got a long list," says one NL executive. "It depends on how it all comes down."
That's because the Braves could take some -- or all -- of the $11 million a year they had earmarked for Sheffield and put it into starting pitching.
They had interest in Millwood, but not at $15 million a year. They made a run at Sidney Ponson, now a free agent, before the trade deadline. And they were outbid by the Yankees on Vazquez, a pitcher they've been trying to get for two years.
"They have a lot of different scenarios," says one source who has spoken frequently with the Braves. "They could put their money into one of the big pitchers. Or into offense. Or in a combination of each. As the dominoes start falling, each move leads into the next."
One position the Braves aren't looking to invest many dollars in is first base. Their plan is to bring back Julio Franco and mix him in with good-looking rookie Adam LaRoche, who was rated as the ninth-best first-base prospect in baseball by SportsTicker's Howe Sportsdata.
"I like his swing a lot," says one scout who has seen LaRoche in Puerto Rico this winter. "He needs experience. And he needs to show he can drive the ball. But I see him as a similar type hitter to a Doug Mientkiewicz or Nick Johnson -- line-drive hitter, uses the whole field, but eventually with more power than those guys. To be honest, I think he'll be a better hitter down the road than Nick Johnson."
Among the forgotten players who have surfaced in the Puerto Rican winter league this year: Bobby Chouinard, John Valentin and Olmedo Saenz.
"Chouinard (1-1, 4.76) still has good stuff," says one scout. "But you're talking about a lot of baggage. Valentin (.309, seven HR in his first 68 AB) can still hit, but I'm not sure where he is physically. He had a play where he didn't slide when he should have. And Saenz (.322, 10 doubles in 90 AB) is still making good contact, but he has a noticeable limp."
One scout's nomination for the most impressive young position player in Puerto Rico is Blue Jays center-field prospect Alexis Rios: "Hell of an athlete. Hell of a center fielder. And probably the best-looking young hitter in the league. Reads breaking balls well. Does a lot of things instinctively. Wouldn't surprise me if he shows up in the big leagues at some point this year."
The same scout's pick for best young pitcher in Puerto Rico is Angels prospect Bobby Jenks (15 hits, 24 strikeouts in 27 1/3 IP): "Nasty stuff. Throws three pitches that are all above-average -- a split, a hard power curve and a fastball that he gets up to 97-98 mph. He's probably the pitcher here."
It's never too early to look forward to the drama of the Rule 5 draft, which looms as the unofficial grand finale of the winter meetings Dec. 15. The Tigers have the No. 1 overall pick and have been looking for a power bat. But scouts we've surveyed wish them luck.
"I don't see one position player out there," says one scout. "I've seen some defensive players, some pure-shortstop types. But that's about it. There's a smattering of some pitching. That's the way to go."
There wasn't a single position player in last year's Rule 5 who made a significant impact, although the Brewers still have hope for the first overall pick, shortstop Enrique Cruz. But a bunch of pitchers left their mark -- especially Aquilino Lopez in Toronto, Javier Lopez in Colorado, D.J. Carrasco in Kansas City, Luis Ayala in Montreal and the Wilfredo Ledezma-Matt Roney-Chris Spurling threesome in Detroit.
Finally, here's Curt Schilling's all-important review of Theo Epstein's manners at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Schilling wouldn't confirm reports that Epstein displayed perfect mechanics while passing the gravy, but did say: "I think he was slightly over-complimentary of the cooking. He wasn't shy at the table, though. And when you're eating with this family, you'd better not be."