New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson won the offseason quotability award last weekend with his reaction to Jayson Werth's new $126 million contract with the Nationals. "I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington,'' Alderson said, to the laughter of many.
When it's mid-December, you run a team in baseball's biggest market and your winter meetings transaction rundown consists of D.J. Carrasco, Ronny Paulino and Boof Bonser, it pays to have a sense of humor.
The Mets, caught in a financial squeeze, have been forced to stand idly by this winter and watch the big names drop off the transactions board. They were mere spectators when Werth went to Washington and Carl Crawford signed with Boston for seven years and $142 million, and now they're on the outside as the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers keep schlepping back and forth to Little Rock, Ark., to sweeten their offers to Cliff Lee.
Alderson and the Mets aren't the only ones living in a world far removed from the heavy hitters. While the Cleveland Indians were adding Jack Hannahan and Paul Phillips to the fold, their divisional rivals in Chicago spent $93.5 million to lock up Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, and the Detroit Tigers were investing $66.5 million in catcher Victor Martinez and setup man Joaquin Benoit.
Commissioner Bud Selig has made a big effort to push competitive balance in the game, and the San Francisco Giants helped advance his case by becoming the ninth team in 10 years to capture a World Series. But competitiveness can be hard to find during the Hot Stove season, when a select few teams are dining on surf-and-turf and scoring orchestra seats to "Billy Elliot: The Musical'' while a lot more are sitting at home, eating microwave popcorn and shopping at QVC.
"I think that's been true the last couple of years,'' Alderson said. "A lot of clubs ignore what's going on at the top end and focus on the middle and bottom ends, or realize that some players are interchangeable. Or their performance is so unpredictable, they're almost interchangeable.
"One of the things I've said all along is we want to be in that marketplace competing for players year in and year out. This year we can't because of some payroll [issues], but we certainly expect to be in the future. We want to be a player, whether we get the guys or not.''
While the Red Sox, Rangers, Yankees and a few other clubs dominate the Internet chatter, there's a vast, expansive universe beyond the headlines that's decidedly less sexy. It consists of bargain-hunting general managers, hard-working agents and players who can be filed under "intriguing'' provided the medical reports check out and a few other things go right.
Arizona general manager Kevin Towers is a major presence in this realm. Since the end of the season, Towers has acquired Zach Duke in a trade with Pittsburgh, sent Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for two young relievers, signed J.J. Putz to a two-year deal, picked up Geoff Blum and Melvin Mora and added veteran lefty Mike Hampton on a minor league contract. Meanwhile, all that speculation about a mega-deal involving Justin Upton amounted to a lot of smoke and no payoff.
Towers became adept at guerrilla warfare during his extended run as San Diego Padres general manager, so he's in his comfort zone upgrading his roster incrementally, without a lot of flash.
"We've always tried to identify guys where maybe there's some risk attached to it,'' Towers said. "I'm talking about guys who are looking for bounce-back years or coming off bad years. Or guys that might be hurt, and you're hoping they're healthy again. For maybe a third of the teams, I would say that's the market in which we shop.''
Once the big free agents are gone, subtle distinctions and sound value judgments can mean all the difference between successful or unsuccessful signings. Maybe a general manager has special insight into a player's character from a relationship with a previous club. Or a club's medical staff and trainers have faith that an injured player will come back strong. Or one of the team's scouts is particularly vocal in his endorsement of a free agent target.
Consider the list of available free agent starters who once qualified as front-line guys and are now trying to resurrect their careers after injuries. Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis, Chris Young, Justin Duchscherer and Chien-Ming Wang are at the front of the line among this group.
In recent years, a lot of second- and third-tier free agents have sat around until late January or February before landing jobs. This winter, the action has been hotter and heavier because of changes in the schedule. Major League Baseball moved up the free agent filing date, the salary arbitration-offering date and the tender deadline, and it's given teams a clearer picture of the overall universe of players.
"I think everything flowed pretty well this year,'' said Minnesota GM Bill Smith. "When we came to the winter meetings, all the mysteries were taken out of the equation. The sequencing has been very good this winter.''
There'll be some good [signings] this winter of players who aren't necessarily on people's radar screens. If you end up catching the right guy, good things can happen.
”-- D-backs GM Kevin Towers
Only a handful of big names need to come off the market before the bargain-hunting begins in earnest. It appears that Lee will decide on his next destination by the end of the weekend. Then the attention will turn to Carl Pavano, who is being courted by the Twins and Milwaukee Brewers.
Agent Scott Boras still has to find homes for Adrian Beltre, Rafael Soriano, Magglio Ordonez, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Some established bats -- most notably Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche and Hideki Matsui -- still need a place to land. And Scott Downs, Matt Guerrier and the other top setup men will try to see how successfully they can piggyback on Benoit's $16.5 million deal with Detroit.
Last January the Giants signed Aubrey Huff to a $3 million contract after he attracted little interest on the open market. Huff went on to lead the team in almost every major offensive category, and the Giants rewarded him with a two-year, $22 million deal in November.
"There'll be some good [signings] this winter of players who aren't necessarily on people's radar screens,'' Towers said. "Maybe they used to be elite guys and people can get bargains on them. If you end up catching the right guy, good things can happen.''
And if not, what's a little $3 million transaction among friends?