Free agency sometimes isn't all it's cracked up to be -- especially when it costs a player a trip through the wonderland that is salary arbitration.
Scores of veteran major league players are keeping plans on hold as they wait to see if they receive contracts by the Dec. 20 deadline. The ongoing recession mentality prevailing throughout baseball suggests that a lot of very good players will be cut loose rather than be tendered contracts that guarantee large raises through arbitration.
The pending class of non-tenders is one of the reasons the market could develop slowly this winter. All but the most highly regarded free agents could be kept waiting on offers as teams wait to see what possible bargains could come their way during the holiday season.
Here's a look at some players who could become available:
Jay Payton, LF, Rockies
Only Todd Helton started more games for Colorado last season than Payton, who set career-highs with 28 homers and 89 RBIs. But his contract demands run counter to the Rockies' cost-cutting mentality. He's a four-plus player who earned $1.85 million last year, meaning his salary will probably jump to more than $3 million through arbitration. He should be in demand elsewhere if he's cut loose because his weren't the prototype Coors Field stats. Fifteen of his 28 homers were on the road.
Possible destinations: Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minnesota.
Jason Johnson, RHP, Orioles; Damian Moss, LHP, Orioles
Johnson was second on the staff with 10 wins last year but could be more expendable than Moss, who went 1-5 with a 6.22 ERA after being acquired from San Francisco in the Sidney Ponson trade. Moss, who was a Super 2 in last year's arbitration class, is in line for an increase from $1.55 million. Johnson, a five-plus player, earned $2.9 million last season and could jump over $5 million. It's not out of the question that both could be non-tendered.
Possible destinations: St. Louis, Texas, White Sox for Johnson; Atlanta, St. Louis, Cubs, Texas for Moss.
Braden Looper, RHP, Marlins
There were no bigger outs in the World Series than Looper getting Aaron Boone to pop up in Game 5. But he figures to be among the economic casualties in Florida. He earned $2.4 million in 2003, including $800,000 in incentives, and could jump to $4 million as a five-plus player. The Marlins will try to deal him to one of the teams looking for a closer -- after all, he converted 41 of 47 save chances in one stretch in 2002-03 -- but probably will have to cut him loose.
Possible destinations: Boston, Oakland, Texas, Yankees, Cubs, Atlanta.
Marlon Anderson, 2B, Devil Rays
After being non-tendered by Philadelphia a year ago, Anderson played as well for Tampa Bay as replacement Placido Polanco did with the Phillies. He was a huge bargain at $600,000 last season but now can go to arbitration as a four-plus player. Antonio Perez is in line to replace him.
Possible destinations: White Sox, St. Louis, Montreal.
Erubiel Durazo, DH/1B, Athletics
Billy Beane probably has too much emotionally invested in Durazo to let him walk. But he hit only .259 last season (ranking last among the AL's six full-time DHs with an .804 OPS) and will bump his $1.065 million salary to about $2.5M through arbitration. Increased playing time has seemed to limit the production of Durazo, who hit .236 in the second half.
Possible destinations: Los Angeles, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Anaheim.
Geoff Blum, 3B, Astros
Gerry Hunsicker is up against it financially, as the Billy Wagner trade illustrates. It's unlikely he can commit $2.5 million to a bench player. That's what Blum looks like as a four-plus player after earning $1.5 million last season, when he hit .262 with 10 homers. Morgan Ensberg has taken over as the regular third baseman, making the switch-hitting Blum a utility player. He could be a valuable part for a good team.
Possible destinations: Cubs, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Yankees, Kansas City, White Sox.
A.J. Burnett, RHP, Marlins
No team faces a tougher call than Florida does with Burnett. He has progressed well after having Tommy John surgery last April but is unlikely to be in shape to help until June or July, if then. If they tender him a contract as a four-plus player, they could be on the hook for $3 million for a guy who doesn't pitch at all. Burnett's talent makes this a no-brainer for the Yankees, but the Marlins might not be able to take the risk.
Possible destinations: Yankees, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, St. Louis, Mets.
Freddy Garcia, RHP, Mariners
Once Seattle's ace, Garcia was fourth on a deep pitching staff in both wins and ERA (by starters) last season. He went through arbitration a year ago, earning $6.875 million, and the Mariners are very unlikely to allow that to happen again. They are trying to move him, but nobody else wants to pay a 12-game winner $8 million.
Possible destinations: St. Louis, Tampa Bay, White Sox.
Mike Barrett, C, Expos
If it had a chance, Montreal should have traded Barrett last winter, when the Cubs were interested in him. He collapsed in 2003, when Brian Schneider took over as the regular catcher, and will almost certainly be non-tendered as a four-plus making $2.6 million. His ability to play third base could give him some extra value for teams looking to add catching.
Possible destinations: Oakland, Atlanta, Florida, Minnesota.
Scott Schoeneweis, LHP, White Sox
Schoeneweis wants another chance as a starting pitcher, and could get one in Chicago. But if the Sox are able to trade for a starter before Dec. 20, they'll almost certainly let Schoeneweis go. He's a four-plus player and doesn't offer much value in a bullpen that also has lefties Damaso Marte and Kelly Wunsch. It's not out of the question that the Sox could hang onto Schoeneweis and move Wunsch, who is also eligible for arbitration.
Possible destinations: Texas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cubs.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.