<
>

Countdown ... To the Hot Stove League

Getty Images

"There are a lot of people in our sport who have their heads buried in the sand," said one major league GM the week the Dow plummeted more than 1,000 points.

He was referring, in part, to some club executives who believe that baseball, because of its popularity, is insulated from the impact of the unstable economy. But he was also talking about agents and players, many of whom might be in for a long, cold winter of low-ball offers. Superstar free agents like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Manny Ramírez are going to get mountains of cash wherever they land, but the middle class is doomed to take a hit. GMs expect the trade market to be robust, and you'll hear some surprising names floated—Prince Fielder, Jeff Francoeur and Jake Peavy among them&MDASH;as teams search for affordable alternatives in baseball's bear market.

5 … YEARS OF PEAVY
The Padres have the 27-year-old righthander under control through 2013, but rival execs claim San Diego will seriously consider dealing the Cy Young winner. Peavy has grumbled about the state of the team, and his escalating salary (from $11 million in 2009 to a $22 million club option in 2013) could consume a quarter of the Padres' payroll in a few years. So the team has begun marketing Peavy, who has a no-trade clause and prefers the National League. The Braves, looking for someone to lead their rotation, and the Cardinals, who don't know if Chris Carpenter's elbow and shoulder will ever bounce back, figure to pursue Peavy aggressively. The Brewers, in need of a new ace themselves, might get involved. Inevitably, the Yankees and the Red Sox will check in as well, but Peavy is an old-school guy who loves to hit. The team that lands him will pay a high price: at least two top-notch young pitchers and at least one young everyday outfielder. The guess here is that Peavy opens the 2009 season in a Braves uniform.

4 … RAYS OF HOPE
Tampa Bay has recast its franchise history with one glorious season. Undoubtedly, Joe Maddon's team will be referenced in training camps across Arizona and Florida next spring as an example of what is possible. Here are four clubs that could be the rayS of 2009: the Marlins, who finished strong and will be a trendy pick to win the NL East; the Indians, who rebounded from an ugly start to finish at .500 and should improve with the talent they got in the Sabathia trade; the Padres, who could contend in the weak NL West even if they trade Peavy; and the A's, who expect to be loaded with good, young pitching. They should all dream big.

3 … AND OUT
Ryan Howard'S $10 million arbitration award sent shock waves through the game last winter, because it was only his first pass through the process. Smaller-market teams try to lock up young stars, like Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, to long-term deals. Those who don't sign are more likely to be traded when they reach three years of service time and get arbitration rights. Exhibit A this winter could be Fielder, a Scott Boras client. Rival execs expect the Brewers to consider swapping Fielder for a pitcher, like the Giants' Matt Cain, to help replace Sabathia and Ben Sheets, both free agents.

2 … BIG SQUEEZES
In baseball, just like in real life, the middle class will feel the recession the most. Free agents such as Jon Garland, Adam Dunn and Orlando Hudson may get low-ball offers. The other group getting squeezed: the "elderly." With improved steroids testing, GMs have noticed that the Fountain of Youth is quickly running dry. There's a growing skepticism about the ability of older players to produce, which means many thirty-something free agents will be hard-pressed to get offers of more than two years this off-season.

1 … PERFECT PLACE
Sabathia was going to cash in this winter no matter what, but he increased his value even more by hoisting the Brewers onto his broad shoulders and carrying them into the playoffs, pitch counts be damned. If the 28-year-old lefty wants the biggest deal, the Yankees are prepared to offer a king's ransom, plus New Jersey. But all things being equal, Sabathia would prefer to go home to California and play in the NL, where the .261 career hitter can swing the bat. If you were the Dodgers and had $100 million-plus to spend, would you invest in the volatile and unpredictable Ramírez, or in the younger and more team-oriented Sabathia? It's a no-brainer.