Budget-conscious general managers gather for annual meeting

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Baseball general managers began an offseason of economic uncertainty when they gathered Monday for their annual meeting -- at the same posh resort where AIG executives convened following the company's government bailout in September, drawing criticism from Rep. Henry Waxman.

Walking past a circular lobby area with sculpted plants, intricate stone floors and glass artwork at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, the GMs prepared for feeling each other out about potential trades and meeting with agents touting their free-agent clients. While baseball is coming off a season of record $6.5 billion revenue, some teams are worried the go-go years might be over and still have not set final payroll budgets for next season.

"I know we're sensitive to the softness of the economy and frankly are taking it into account as we do our planning for next season," Arizona Diamondbacks chief executive officer Jeff Moorad said. "We're bullish about next season on the one hand, but we recognize that especially on the corporate partnership side, that there could be some direct impact."

Just five days after the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays for the World Series title, the other 28 GMs were plotting overtaking them to win next year's pennants. They can't start talking money with free agents from other teams until Nov. 14, and the offseason maneuvering is unlikely to pick up speed until the winter meetings are held in Las Vegas from Dec. 8-11.

CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Rodriguez highlight the potential free-agent pitchers, and Manny Ramirez and Mark Teixeira top the available hitters. San Diego is shopping ace Jake Peavy in the lobbies of the fancy hotel, where a bagel goes for $5.50.

Peavy is guaranteed $63 million over the next four seasons, and Padres GM Kevin Towers said he had talked exclusively with one unidentified team about a trade before enlarging the field. Towers would like two major league players plus prospects in return.

"His preference is still the National League. He likes that part of the game," Towers said. "I've got maybe a handful of clubs right now I'm going to focus on. A lot of those clubs we've already had quite a bit of dialogue."

Towers also said the Padres will probably exercise outfielder Brian Giles' $9 million option by Saturday's deadline and are trying to work out an agreement to keep closer Trevor Hoffman.

Ramirez, whose $20 million team options were voided when the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired him from Boston on July 31, expects a bull market for his services.

"I want to see who is the highest bidder. Gas is up and so am I," he said last month after the Phillies eliminated the Dodgers from the playoffs.

Perhaps Ramirez didn't notice, but the average price for a regular gallon of gas dropped to $2.41 nationally on Monday, down more than 30 percent from last month, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.

"We'll have to check the gas market, I guess, before I go and speak with him," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "I know how the fans feel and how we feel. It's obvious. I mean, what he did for 10 weeks -- regular season and postseason -- was as good as anybody can do. I've been at it long enough to tell you that I'm not going to tell you what my gut feeling is."

Ramirez is represented by Scott Boras, who last year persuaded Colletti to give Andruw Jones a $36.2 million, two-year contract. Jones then hit .158 with three homers and 14 RBIs.

Colletti said the Dodgers haven't made an offer yet to Ramirez and it would be difficult to afford both Ramirez and Sabathia.

"You can't let one player stand in the way of everything else you need to do," he said. "Every player's got their own timeline and their own rhythm to their thought process. So when you have other needs that you need to address, you can't really hold them up waiting for somebody to make a decision, unless it's a very unique situation."

Milwaukee said it made an offer to Sabathia last weekend, hoping to sign him before other clubs can offer megabucks.

"It's in their hands," general manager Doug Melvin said. "He hasn't really had a chance to talk with other teams."

Free-agent contract demands won't slow because of the economy. That could cause negotiations to drag out even longer than usual because budgets may be in flux.

"I think in some places it may very well have an effect," Houston Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith said. "From the standpoint of free agents, it's something clubs will probably take a look at."

Some high-revenue teams, relatively certain that they will sell close to 100 percent of their tickets, don't have to worry as much.

"I don't have a final number yet, but my boss, Crane Kenney, I think he feels that our payroll will go up slightly," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said, referring to Chicago's chairman. "We're fortunate that it's not going to stay flat or take a reduction, but at the same time you have to be cognizant of what's going on in the world."

Boston has sold out every game at Fenway Park since May 15, 2003.

"I think as long as we win, we'll have revenue certainty," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said.

At this point in the offseason, speculation runs rampant. Mets GM Omar Minaya was asked coyly whether his team would prefer a 26-year-old reliever or a 36-year-old left fielder, presumably references to Rodriguez and Ramirez.

"That's good for bloggers to write about," Minaya said. "I'll follow it in the blogs."

Minaya's first concern is his bullpen following the Mets' second straight September collapse. All-Star closer Billy Wagner will miss most if not all of next season following elbow surgery.

"I would say this is probably one of the best years to be a closer on the free-agent market in a long time," said Rick Thurman, agent for reliever Brian Fuentes. "New York is on our radar. I think New York would be a great place for him because he thrives under pressure. We talked about him possibly coming to New York, so he'd look forward to talking with them."