Oswalt heads class of free agents looking for work

Because baseball offers no monthly jobs report, we at 10 Degrees thought it a public service to do just that. The state of baseball’s economy is good. So say Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. How good? If the sale price of the Los Angeles Dodgers reaches $1.8 billion – a realistic notion – it will make Frank McCourt, one of the worst owners in baseball history, a billionaire.

Not everyone is flush, of course. There are struggles, even in baseball. Employment is fickle. There is ageism. A supply-and-demand imbalance. One guy just wants to stay near his family in the South, but the only job is in the Northeast. He’s learning quickly: This is America; gotta move where the jobs are.

Roy Oswalt has a 159-93 record in 12 major-league seasons.
(Getty Images)

And that notion continues to drive the unemployment of Roy Oswalt, the best free agent left on the market for the 2012 season and the seventh-ranked player on Yahoo! Sports’ ultimate free-agent tracker. It’s true: Oswalt wants to pitch for a contender, and he wants to pitch close to his home in Weir, Miss., and it just so happens the two teams in the World Series last season, the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, satisfy both of those requirements.

It would seem like a slam dunk, then, that …

1. Roy Oswalt would end up with one of the two. He is, after all, Roy Oswalt, owner of the 15th-best adjusted ERA of all-time among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings. Ten of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. The other four are Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson.

In other words, Oswalt isn’t just some schlemiel who’s looking to latch on with a low-guarantee major-league deal in time for camp. He wants to get paid because he deserves to get paid, even if he’s coming off the worst season of his career – 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA and back troubles to boot.

Problem is, the Cardinals sport a five-man rotation, plus future ace Shelby Miller waiting to lap up the innings Jake Westbrook may cede come June. Oh, and they’re out of money. The Rangers go seven starters deep and have no intentions of moving Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison or former closer Neftali Feliz to the bullpen. They inquired on Oswalt pitching in relief. He politely declined.

So Oswalt remains in no-man’s land, parrying inquiries from the Boston Red Sox like the Civil War is still going on, and his best hope for now is something that entails bad karma: hoping for an injury. Remember, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright blew out his elbow Feb. 21 last year. And St. Louis three years ago signed Kyle Lohse in the middle of March. So there is precedent.

The market just isn’t flush for Oswalt, not nearly as flush as it ought to be, and certainly not as flush as the one at which …

2. Jorge Soler suddenly is staring. Soler is a 19-year-old Cuban outfielder who defected at the perfect time: right before MLB’s new international free-agent rules kick in and significantly limit the amount a team can spend on amateurs.

As such, teams are treating Soler like whiskey on the eve of Prohibition. While no team technically is allowed to offer Soler a contract – he has yet to be cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control – teams surreptitiously let it be known what they’re willing to pay. And that is a boatload for a player expected to spend a couple of years in the minor leagues.

When reports from the Dominican Republic said Soler would sign with the Chicago Cubs for four years and $27.5 million, the dollar figure didn’t seem altogether ridiculous, not after the Oakland Athletics gave 26-year-old outfielder Yoenis Cespedes a four-year, $36 million deal. It’s the years that made the reports dubious, the idea that any team would let a 6-foot-3 (or 6-foot-4, depending on the source), 200-pound potential star hit free agency at 23 years old.

Anyway, limiting the market for Soler at this juncture would be self-defeating. According to two sources, the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies – the teams with payroll Nos. 1 and 2 in the major leagues this season – have expressed the keenest interest in Soler. A Cubs official confirmed they’re smitten by him as well, and as we’ve seen with the last two big-time Cubans – Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman and Cespedes – you can’t forget the low-revenue teams.

OFAC’s unblocking process takes time and is inconsistent, so Soler could hit free agency next week – or maybe next month. When he does, the offers will pour in – more of the six- and seven-year variety since the interest in Soler will almost ensure he receives a contract that grants him free agency at the end. He’d be 25 or 26, still a pup, what …

Manny Ramirez

3. Manny Ramirez wishes he were instead of 40 in May. This is the portion of the employment report that gets sort of sad. Five straight DHs, all once stars, now victims of that horrid malady with which even non-athletes can sympathize: aging.

[ Related: Small-market Athletics gamble on Cuban Yoenis Cespedes ]

There’s the whole supply-and-demand thing, too. While it looks like Manny is going to latch on with the A’s – who already have Chris Carter and a glut of outfielders who could play DH – the prospects for his position mates looks grimmer by the day. The rest of the American League’s DH situations are as follows:

Angels: Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo or Bobby Abreu
Blue Jays: Edwin Encarnacion or J.P. Arencibia
Indians: Travis Hafner
Mariners: Jesus Montero
Orioles: Wilson Betemit, Mark Reynolds or Chris Davis
Rangers: Michael Young or Mike Napoli
Rays: Luke Scott
Red Sox: David Ortiz
Royals: Billy Butler
Tigers: Delmon Young and, if we’re being honest, Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder eventually
Twins: Justin Morneau, Ryan Doumit or Trevor Plouffe
White Sox: Adam Dunn
Yankees: Andruw Jones or a rotation of 30-somethings who need a breather

In other words, not much room anywhere. Maybe the Orioles could use someone, though they said no to Manny and already have done the …

4. Vladimir Guerrero experiment to poor effect. Vlad turned 37 earlier this month. Reverse those numbers and that’s the age he looks on a baseball diamond. And he still wants $5 million.

The amalgamation of the game’s dirtiest three-letter words – age and ego – ends careers of effective players more than anything. Guerrero is not a $5 million-a-year player. He is not a $3 million-a-year player. Hell, any franchise that guarantees him $1 million is banking on him replicating the first half of his 2010 season, the last time he didn’t look like a disaster, and that was almost two years ago.

Jermaine Dye forced himself into retirement when he didn’t think a contract offer was good enough, and Guerrero seems headed down the same path. Last year, that seemed the case, too, until Guerrero signed Feb. 18 with the Orioles. Which is to say he’s got two days left to replicate his luck. The O’s are out. Same with the Yankees, for whom Guerrero said he’d like to DH only to be rejected on account of …

Raul Ibanez

5. Raul Ibanez and a handful of others potentially bringing something the Yankees need more: a left-handed bat. There remains some juice in Ibanez’s bat, his 20 home runs last season enough to make a miserable season a little less miserable.

In a platoon role, facing right-handed pitching, Ibanez, who turns 40 in June, could prove worthwhile for the million-dollar investment the Yankees want to make at DH. His career numbers against righties are excellent (.286/.351/.488). Even last year, amid his struggles, he hit .256/.307/.440 off right-handers.

And the Yankees easily can depress the salary to the level at which they’re comfortable thanks to the DH glut, which …

6. Hideki Matsui complicates even more. Matsui was a disaster in the first half with Oakland last season before somewhat solving the leviathan O.co Coliseum in the second half with a total line of .295/.353/.425. No longer is he Godzilla. He’s not the guy who gets stomped, either.

While Matsui has said he doesn’t intend to return to Japan, his future in the major leagues may depend on his willingness to take a minor-league deal. Unless the Yankees start feeling nostalgic, the dearth of teams that need DHs could send him to retirement. And if the Yankees are going to do that …

Johnny Damon

7. Johnny Damon might make more sense than anyone. Because Damon actually played well last year. His adjusted OPS was 10 percent better than league average, he stole bases efficiently, he was his typical jovial self in the clubhouse and, unlike his teammate Ramirez, he didn’t test positive for performance-enhancing drugs and skulk off to an early retirement.

At 38, Damon is six months older than Matsui. Like Guerrero, he wants $5 million. That’s not happening. Teams understand that not only does no such market for DHs exist in March, but also that Damon has more incentive to return than anyone.

He’s at 2,723 career hits. He’s nearing 1,000 walks. He already has more than 400 stolen bases and 200 home runs. He won a championship in Boston and another in New York. Damon is playing now for records and legacies, and the prospect of him turning down any sort of job, once spring training approaches, becomes even tinier. As much as Damon wants to play, it seems like …

8. Javier Vazquez hasn’t a care in the world whether his whims take him to an early retirement or back to the field. Which is something of a shame seeing as the only starters with post-All-Star-break ERAs better than Vazquez’s 2.15 last season were Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee and Ian Kennedy.

[ Related: Josh Hamilton’s walk year could occupy Texas Rangers’ season ]

It’s good company for the 35-year-old right-hander, whose velocity started 2011 averaging about 87 mph and finished closer to 91 or 92 mph. Once his fastball spiked, he turned around a shameful first half and ended the season with a 3.69 ERA – nearly two runs better than his second failed Yankees stint in 2010.

Should Vazquez go, that, more than the overall underachievement and failure to translate great strikeout rates into better production, will be his baseball epitaph. His Yankees years were so fraught with peril – much of it, considering how he pitched, deserved – that separating Vazquez from New York, in the eye of an average fan, is tough. Like Ed Whitson before him and plenty of others surely after, Vazquez never conquered New York. And with his kids waiting at home and tens of millions secure in his bank accounts, Vazquez may well leave something on the field, something …

Mike Gonzalez

9. Mike Gonzalez shouldn’t have to do. He still throws in the low to mid-90s like he did in his prime, when he was one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. The slider remains sharp. And there’s enough of a want for good relief pitching that Gonzalez cannot stay unemployed for too long.

Whether it’s an injury, a drop in asking price or the confluence of both, Gonzalez should be in a camp by the time all of the spring trainings open in less than a week. As for …

10. Roy Oswalt, that may take longer. He is not the sort to budge. Neither are the Cardinals or Rangers. It’s a game of chicken, the sort that doesn’t often breed itself during free agency.

The last such one came in March 2009, when Manny Ramirez, of all players, waited for the Los Angeles Dodgers to pay him $45 million for two years. It turned out to be one of the worst contracts in baseball history. Ramirez got popped using PEDs for the first time in ’09, was traded after an injury-filled ’10 and still is owed $8.33 million for each of the next two seasons.

Ouch.

Because Oswalt won’t cost more than $10 million for a year, the downside is far less risky. Teams are interested enough that they’ve requested Oswalt’s medical records to check the status of his back. According to one source who has seen them, tests show Oswalt’s back is in bad shape – though not so bad to keep him from being an effective pitcher. More than anything, the source said, Oswalt needs good trainers and a good maintenance program and he should be able to pitch a regular load of innings.

It could be in St. Louis. Perhaps Texas. Or maybe a team swoops in with a Godfather offer and forces Oswalt to forget about Weir, Miss. It’s almost spring training. It’s time for the truly employable to get to work.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 16, 2012