Whether you love or hate Scott Boras (and we have a reasonable idea where much of the ticket-buying public stands), it's only fair to give the man his due for his ability to take a wrecking ball to the conventional wisdom.
Jayson Werth's $126 million contract with Washington was roughly 30 percent above industry predictions, and you won't find many people who envisioned Adrian Beltre signing an $80 million guaranteed deal with Texas with a chance to earn $16 million more. Carlos Gonzalez just signed a seven-year extension with Colorado, and all Boras needs to do now is find a home for closer Rafael Soriano to get his top-tier free agents off the board.
After that, his job-placement skills will really be put to the test.
With the possible exception of fifth starters and middle relievers, no group is more abundant this winter than veteran hitters in their twilight years. And no agent represents a more intriguing set of players than Boras, who has the task of finding homes for Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Andruw Jones. That's three players in their mid-to-late 30s who might not make the Hall of Fame, for various reasons, but all deserve to be included in the discussion.
As the past few winters have shown, aging hitters with waning skills often have to scramble for employment. Jermaine Dye turned down a $3 million offer from the Chicago Cubs last year and hasn't been heard from since. Gary Sheffield recently made overtures to play for his hometown team in Tampa, failed to receive a follow-up phone call from the Rays and pronounced himself a "little disrespected" and "99.9 percent sure" he would retire.
That doesn't stop Boras from talking about Ramirez, Damon and Jones as if we've time-traveled back to 2005. He describes them as upper-echelon players who have the ability to win games, sell tickets and positively affect global warming and world peace.
"These guys are star players," Boras said. "They're championship-caliber players. Owners and general managers know they have extraordinary abilities, and they can be a force in the locker room and around young players. Those are things that most veteran players don't offer."
Manny as mentor and clubhouse healer? Who knew?
Regardless of the industry perception, the math is daunting. Only 14 of the 30 MLB teams employ designated hitters, and many of those spots are already filled. You can file the Chicago White Sox (Adam Dunn), Boston (David Ortiz), Cleveland (Travis Hafner), Kansas City (Billy Butler), New York Yankees (Jorge Posada), Baltimore (Luke Scott), Oakland (Hideki Matsui) and Detroit (Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez) as teams that appear set at the position. That's eight off the board right there.
In addition, Toronto (Adam Lind or Edwin Encarnacion) and the Los Angeles Angels (Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera) seem content with what they have in-house, and Seattle is operating on a tight budget and appears ready to go with Jack Cust and Milton Bradley. That leaves Texas and Minnesota, which are both courting Thome, and Tampa Bay, which is seriously looking for a DH for the right price.
What constitutes the "right price" for Ramirez and Damon?
"You have to understand these guys bring lot of attention to the ballpark in fan identity and TV ratings, so signing these types of players has a grand benefit to the marquee of the franchise," Boras said. "That generates income which more than pays for these players."
Translation: We might be waiting until Valentine's Day or beyond for an answer.
What does 2011 hold for the Boras trio? ESPN.com talked to a bunch of scouts and front-office people who gave their thoughts:
He is universally regarded as a fine teammate and a hard worker, so the intangibles work in his favor. He also has enjoyed a more accomplished career than a lot of people realize. With 20 more runs scored, Damon will have 1,584 runs and move from 51st place to 48th on baseball's career list. The three players he'll pass: Tim Raines, Rogers Hornsby and George Brett.
But how much does Damon have left? His home run total dropped from 24 to eight with the move from Yankee Stadium to Detroit's Comerica Park in 2010, and he's stolen only 23 bases over the past two seasons. Damon can't play center field anymore, and if he's going to log much time in left, it should ideally be in a park with minimal real estate out there. Damon is probably also best served staying in the American League rather than enduring the shock of a transition to the NL at age 37. (For a precedent in this area, see: Anderson, Garret).
"I think he's got one more big 'push' year left in him," said an AL personnel man, "but he's going more on skill than tools at this stage of his career."
There was some buzz earlier this offseason that the Dodgers might provide a safe haven for Damon. But that rumor failed to gain any traction, and one source familiar with the team's thinking said it's "unlikely" Damon will land in L.A.
Among people surveyed for this story, the Angels and Rays were mentioned as decent possibilities for Damon. He fits the Angels' profile as a guy who can go first-to-third, blend seamlessly into manager Mike Scioscia's clubhouse and help fill a void at the top of the order. In the end, it could come down to whether the Angels prefer Damon or Scott Podsednik, the other left field-catalyst type still on the market.
It's no secret in baseball circles that Damon never wanted to leave the Yankees -- and that a lot of his teammates wish he had stayed in the Bronx. The Yankees haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing Damon, but sources say it would have to be as a fourth outfielder. The Yankees think their outfield is set from left to right with Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, and they're committed to giving Posada the bulk of their DH at-bats.
Andruw Jones, another fourth-outfielder target for Brian Cashman, is more versatile defensively than Damon and has the advantage of swinging from the right side. But Damon, a lefty hitter, bats .282 career versus lefties and .289 against righties and is a much better on-base guy.
"He still has value as an extra outfielder who can fill in at all three spots and mash left-handed pitching," an AL assistant GM said of Jones, who hit 19 homers for the White Sox last year.
As he approaches his 34th birthday, Jones has regressed defensively in center field but is still above-average on the corners.
Jones posted a .919 OPS at U.S. Cellular Field compared to .729 on the road. But he did flash a little more bat speed than in recent seasons and slugged .558 against lefties with eight homers in 86 at-bats.
One advantage that Jones has over Damon and Ramirez is affordability: He's played for a $500,000 base salary in each of the past two seasons.
Potential fits include the Yankees, Rockies and possibly the Braves, who briefly discussed the idea of signing Jones for a bench role earlier this winter. But the Braves are committed to turning around Nate McLouth in center field, and they want to give him lots of breathing room in spring training. At the moment, Jones is strictly a back-burner option at best.
Chipper Jones was recently asked how he'd feel about a return to Atlanta for Andruw, his former teammate with the Braves from 1996 through 2007. He responded as noncommittally and diplomatically as possible.
"I love Andruw," Chipper said. "He's been like a little brother to me for a long time. It was nice to see him make some adjustments and bounce back with a better year last year.
"I know there are still some concerns about there being some holes in his swing, and that he's had a bunch of problems with his knees lately. Everybody would welcome Andruw back if he were given the opportunity. I'm just not sure what his role would be on the ballclub. Maybe an American League team might be a better fit for Andruw because he could play in the field a couple of days a week and DH, too. You can't do that in the National League."
He's Boras' biggest challenge for a multitude of reasons.
The first one is obvious: Ramirez's contentious departures with the Red Sox and Dodgers cemented his reputation as a player who can be disruptive when the planets don't align properly. He needs a manager who'll give him the latitude to be himself, a tolerant clubhouse and a contract big enough to dissuade him from pouting. But does Ramirez have the luxury to be picky after hitting nine homers in 320 at-bats last season?
"I think a lot of teams are getting tired of his act," said a National League assistant GM. "It's one thing if the guy is hitting .340 with 45 homers. But why would you put up with the headaches if his skills aren't what they once were? At this age, the guy isn't going to change."
Toronto was mentioned as a potential landing spot for Ramirez earlier this offseason because the Blue Jays' new manager, John Farrell, knows Manny from their time together in Boston. But the consensus is that Farrell's familiarity with Ramirez might make a reunion less likely, because he understands the maintenance that Manny requires. At any rate, the Jays are committed to either Lind or Encarnacion as their main DH in 2011.
Seattle is another team in desperate need of a power bat. But Eric Wedge is in his first year as Mariners manager and trying to improve the tone in the clubhouse. General manager Jack Zduriencik would have to have to be a sadist or have a bizarre sense of humor to drop both Ramirez and Milton Bradley into Wedge's lap.
Of the executives we canvassed, Tampa Bay was mentioned several times as a possible landing spot for both Ramirez or Damon. Ramirez's mother lives in Florida, and Damon comes from Orlando, so both players have ties to the area. And manager Joe Maddon might be enough of a free thinker to accommodate Ramirez's eccentricities, given Tampa's crying need for an impact bat.
But the Rays have limited resources, and it's hard to tell how the notoriously frugal Ramirez would react to an offer he deems substandard.
"Manny has the first dime he ever made in this game," said an AL official who knows Ramirez. "If he gets insulted, you wonder if he might just decide to stay home."
Not according to Boras, who insists that Ramirez is anxious to play and rebound from last year, when a calf injury limited his effectiveness.
"This is a labor of love for Manny," Boras said. "The man has made over $200 million in this game."
Actually, Ramirez has made an unofficial total of $204,807,769, according to Baseball-reference.com. But hey, who's counting?