The Major League Baseball Players Association has advised agents to be on the lookout for collusive behavior from teams. Scott Boras and MLB's top lawyer, Rob Manfred, are sniping at each other over the game's finances, and Red Sox owner John Henry is floating the idea of a payroll floor to prevent clubs from hoarding their revenue sharing money.
Yes, the smell of Hot Stove harmony is in the air.
As Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey wait for their big paydays, a lot of teams are looking for the next Bobby Abreu. He signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Angels in February, hit .293 with an .825 OPS and parlayed it into a two-year, guaranteed $19 million contract three weeks ago.
At the risk of making agents cringe over the word "bargain," here are some individuals or groups of players who might be attractive to clubs this winter as reasonably priced, short-term acquisitions. Some are older players who have shown signs of a drop-off in performance, others are questionable because of injuries, and some could be victimized by a glut at their particular position. Welcome to the Christmas shopping edition of Starting 9.
Delgado and agent David Sloane are laying low early this offseason. Delgado is still rehabilitating from hip surgery and plans to play winter ball at home in Puerto Rico -- although he's not expected to take the field until mid-December. Delgado has 473 career homers and is determined to show teams he can still hit
Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley both recovered from hip surgery to have productive seasons, and Delgado is barely a year removed from hitting 38 homers, driving in 115 runs and slugging .518 in 159 games with the Mets.
"It's strictly a medical prognosis issue with him," said an AL assistant general manager. "It's not a potential decline in skill. Until he got hurt, there was no reason to believe he was done."
The Mets haven't ruled out bringing back Delgado, but he'll turn 38 in June, and the consensus is he might be best served as a DH at this stage of his career. He was considered a suspect defender even before the hip surgery.
Teams in search of a Hall of Fame-caliber, lefty DH-type will have their choice of Delgado and Jim Thome, who hit 23 homers and slugged .493 for the White Sox before a late-season cameo with the Dodgers. Then there's Hideki Matsui, who has more left in the tank than either Delgado or Thome. The competition doesn't enhance anyone's bargaining position.
Sheets averaged 225 innings a season with Milwaukee from 2002 through 2004, and has yet to crack the 200-inning barrier since. He underwent flexor tendon surgery last February and shelved a late-season comeback attempt to focus on 2010.
Agent Casey Close draws a parallel to Andy Pettitte, who underwent a similar procedure in 2004 and has averaged 210 innings a season in the five years since. On the other hand, Jason Jennings hasn't been nearly as successful or durable since his return from flexor tendon surgery.
Although Close predicts that Sheets will be "100 percent" by spring training, teams are going to be circumspect. They'll comb through Sheets' medical reports, then expect him to get on a mound and audition sometime after the New Year.
A National League executive mentioned the Red Sox, Rangers, Brewers, Mets, Yankees, Dodgers, Rays, Twins and Angels as potential fits for Sheets, and several baseball insiders said they anticipate a late-developing market.
Sheets isn't the only injury risk who'll warrant attention between now and February. Erik Bedard and Mark Mulder are out there, and Rich Harden is attracting interest from the Mariners, Red Sox and Twins, among others. Teams salivate over Harden's ability, but he's now 28 years old and hasn't pitched more than 148 innings in a season since 2005.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jermaine Dye
Maybe someone commits to a multiyear deal for Vlad or Dye, but there are enough questions surrounding these guys to think one or both could get the Abreu treatment.
Pluses on Dye: He's a professional, low-maintenance guy in the clubhouse, and he averaged 32 homers and 93 RBIs over the past five seasons with the White Sox.
Minuses: Dye turns 36 in January. The defensive metrics on him in right field aren't good, and one National League scout said he "isn't sold" that Dye can make a smooth transition to first base. Dye also hit .179 with a .297 slugging percentage after the All-Star break, so he didn't exactly close with a rush.
Guerrero's decline is evidenced by a pronounced drop in OPS (from .950 to .794) since 2007. He can't run a lick anymore, and he appeared in 93 games at DH and two in right field this season. You hear the word "immobile" applied to him routinely these days.
Although Dye is on the radar in a few NL cities -- Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco, to name three -- Guerrero is now an AL-only player. Texas needs a right-handed run producer and has both Dye and Guerrero on its list. Given the Rangers' financial squeeze, GM Jon Daniels would prefer something short-term.
The Rangers are known for rehabilitating hitters, but it will be interesting to see if hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo's departure to the Cubs hinders the organization's sales pitch.
"I think that might hurt them more than they anticipated," said one agent.
The Bay Area Boys
Justin Duchscherer, a two-time All-Star with Oakland, is an intriguing case. He underwent elbow surgery last March, then sought treatment for clinical depression in August. He made substantial progress in his treatment and says he's ready to go for 2010.
Noah Lowry won 13 games for San Francisco in 2005 and 14 games two years later, but was forced to shut it down in August 2007. Lowry's injury was eventually diagnosed as a rib problem that resulted in a lack of circulation. He had surgery to correct the problem, and believes the Giants set back his rehab considerably by misdiagnosing the ailment.
Agent Damon Lapa, who represents both players, is looking for short-term contracts that the two pitchers can use as a platform to something bigger next winter.
"We're seeking deals that won't be financially limiting for the vast majority of clubs," Lapa said.
Those parameters could put teams such as Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the mix on both pitchers. The Dodgers are poking around on Lowry, and Texas, Boston and the Phillies are potential fits for Duchscherer. Because of their price tags, both pitchers would be potential July trade candidates if their new teams failed to contend.
Duchscherer is divorced, and his ex-wife and son live in New Jersey. An East Coast locale would be preferable to him, but it's no deal breaker. Duchscherer is more concerned with getting an opportunity to start rather than pitch in the bullpen.
"I don't have the best stuff, so the challenge for me is the mental part," Duchscherer said in a recent interview. "How do I solve this lineup? How do I get guys out the second or third time? It's like a puzzle. I prefer starting to relieving by far."
Boras Guys -- Non-Holliday Edition
The words "Scott Boras" and "bargain" go together like "Las Vegas" and "iceberg." But Boras represents several players who are coming off injuries or subpar years and could be looking at short-term deals that might be springboards for longer contracts next winter.
The list includes Xavier Nady, who's coming off Tommy John surgery; Hank Blalock, who hit 25 homers but posted a .277 on-base percentage; and Rick Ankiel, whose season went south after he crashed into a wall in May and hurt his shoulder.
The Pirates have publicly acknowledged interest, and one NL scout thinks Ankiel is a prime bounce-back candidate. Ankiel strikes out a lot and has some problems against lefties, but he hit 25 homers two years ago, and his conversion from the pitcher's mound to the outfield was one of baseball's more amazing stories.
"I'd bet on the guy," the scout said. "The splits won't be too good. But he'll hit 20-plus homers, and he's such a good athlete he'll give you a return on your investment."
At the moment, Boras doesn't sound like a guy who's thinking short-term on Ankiel.
"He ran into a wall," Boras said. "Certainly there are aspects of his contract that might require some unique triggers. But because he's a center-field athlete at a young age, there are a lot of teams that really covet him."
The Hot Corner Crowd
Last year, the market was heavy on veteran, lefty-hitting outfielders, and it made job-hunting a challenge for anyone not named Raul Ibanez or Milton Bradley. Adam Dunn signed a two-year contract with Washington, Abreu and Garret Anderson agreed to one-year deals, and Jim Edmonds, Geoff Jenkins and Luis Gonzalez went home.
This year there's a glut at third base, with Adrian Beltre, Mark DeRosa, Pedro Feliz, Joe Crede, Troy Glaus and Juan Uribe among those in search of work. In addition, Miguel Tejada is moving over from shortstop, and third base is one of several positions that Chone Figgins plays adroitly. To make the congestion even worse, the Phillies have filled their third-base hole with converted second baseman Placido Polanco.
St. Louis would like to hand over third base to rookie David Freese, the Rockies will make Garrett Atkins available to anyone with an interest, the Red Sox will certainly listen on Mike Lowell, and Florida is shopping Dan Uggla, who prefers second base but is capable of playing third.
Throw all those names into a pot, and third base has a real "musical chairs" feel to it this winter. Some unfortunate free agent is bound to take a hit.
The Craig Landis Injury-Rehab Duo
Houston GM Ed Wade cautioned not to read too much into the revelation that the Astros have made phone calls on free-agent pitchers J.J. Putz and Brett Myers. File this one under "due diligence."
"If he can throw, we've contacted him," Wade said in an e-mail.
Nevertheless, Myers and Putz are on a lot of teams' lists because they've been productive in the past and they're willing to sign short-term deals for a chance to show they've recovered from injuries suffered in 2009. Putz had surgery in June to remove a bone chip in his elbow, and never returned. Myers underwent hip surgery in June, then suffered a strained muscle behind his shoulder during his comeback in September.
Putz, who's working out at Brett Fischer's complex in Arizona, is receptive to pitching in the eighth inning if a closer's job fails to materialize.
"If some guys pitch really well in the eighth, there are concerns that maybe they can't handle the ninth or don't have the stomach for it," said Craig Landis, the agent for Putz and Myers. "J.J. has already done it. People already know he has the mentality to be a closer."
And the elbow injury?
"The medicals are a little iffy," said a National League executive. "Who knows if he'll pitch at all? But if he's healthy, you're golden. He could be a real good 'buy low' candidate."
Myers, 29, has the versatility to start or relieve. Although he's been tagged as a bit of an "attitude" guy, Myers showed he could handle pitching in a demanding market in a small ballpark in Philadelphia. He also surpassed 190 innings four times with the Phillies.
If Myers doesn't sign with a team as a starter, Landis said he wants a legitimate opportunity to close. If Myers is going to sign a one-year contract, it doesn't make financial sense for him to spend 2010 piling up "holds" as a set-up man.
Orlando Hudson lingered on the market for most of last winter before signing with the Dodgers in February. Although his $3.8 million deal was widely perceived as a steal, Hudson achieved most of his incentives and wound up making almost $8 million. A reasonable sign, but not quite the bargain it was made out to be.
This could be another interesting winter for Hudson, 32. He was lights-out for the Dodgers in the first half, but his playing time decreased down the stretch after Ronnie Belliard arrived from Washington. Hudson's defense at second isn't quite what it used to be, and he became a much more pronounced ground ball hitter this year, for what that's worth.
Hudson's biggest problem is that teams just aren't inclined to spend big money for second basemen, unless you're talking about Chase Utley, Brian Roberts, Robinson Cano or Ian Kinsler signing multiyear deals with their current clubs. And Uggla, Alberto Callaspo and Kelly Johnson are among the second base trade candidates, which further dilutes the free-agent market. The Dodgers declined to offer Hudson salary arbitration, and he might have to be patient to find the right fit again this offseason.
Escobar has pitched a total of five big league innings the past two years because of shoulder problems, so teams are going to tread carefully around his medical charts. But clubs will have a chance to monitor his progress very soon in his native Venezuela.
Escobar plans to begin pitching for the Cardenales de Lara in winter ball around mid-December. On the recommendation of Dr. David Altchek -- the surgeon who repaired his labrum in July 2008 -- Escobar has decided to come back strictly as a relief pitcher. In 2002, Escobar saved 38 games and struck out 85 batters in 78 innings for Toronto.
"We all thought it was a good idea for him to come back as a reliever, and we all believe he will eventually be a dominant closer again," Peter Greenberg, Escobar's agent, said in an e-mail.
Potential suitors will believe it when they see it, but Escobar clearly has some upside if healthy. He went 18-7 with a 3.40 ERA for the Angels in 2007, and consistently clocked in the 93-94 mph range before his injury -- with a power breaking ball, to boot. The question that teams must answer, to their satisfaction, is whether he'll have better luck staying healthy in short bursts than he did trying to throw 100 pitches every five days.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book, "License To Deal," was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.