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Whether Daisuke Matsuzaka throws the gyroball is irrelevant. He'll be rich with or without it.

Matsuzaka, the MVP of the World Baseball Classic and Japan's best pitcher since Hideo Nomo, is set to be the biggest splash of this season's free agent class – if his team, the Seibu Lions, offers him to Major League Baseball under the posting system.

Should Matsuzaka continue to express his desire to play in the United States – numerous times in the past, he has – Seibu could post him, which means teams would bid for a chance to sign him. When Ichiro Suzuki was posted, the Seattle Mariners won his rights with a $13.125 million bid, then signed him to a three-year, $15 million deal.

That was six years ago. And with a fairly weak free-agent class, Matsuzaka's posting could cause a stir. Surely teams would pay a $20 million fee. Would they go $25 million? Or $30 million? Or higher?

Because, remember, the posting number is just for the rights to negotiate. And with the 25-year-old Matsuzaka in the midst of his best season yet – 10-2 with a 2.03 earned-run average, a Japan-best eight complete games and 114 strikeouts in 102 innings – he'll command frontline starter money on top of it.

"If he's not at the front of the class, he's way up there," said one National League executive. "Alfonso Soriano is doing it here. Carlos Lee is doing it here. There's still an unknown with Matsuzaka."

What is known: The New York Yankees want him. Bad. So do the Mariners. And Matsuzaka's agent likely would be Scott Boras, who also just signed the No. 2 player on our first look at the 25 best free agents available this offseason (* – player whose 2007 option is unlikely to get picked up):

1) Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP, Seibu Lions (Japan) – The only question about Matsuzaka concerns his pitch counts. He did once throw a 250-pitch game as a high schooler, and just this week he won his 10th game by going the distance in a 10-inning victory. Projected contract: four years, $50 million

2) Barry Zito, SP, Oakland Athletics – A Cy Young winner at 24, Zito never gets hurt, is unfazed by the cutthroat American League and, best of all, is left-handed. He may not be the best of the class, but, at 28, he might get the most money. Projected contract: five years, $75 million

3) Alfonso Soriano, 2B/OF, Washington Nationals – He hits home runs, he runs well and he plays two positions. Aside from that, there's plenty to nitpick about Soriano, like his fielding liabilities and low walk rates (which, admittedly, have improved this year, while his strikeouts have jumped, too). In the end, he's still the best hitter in the class, and he'll get paid as such. Projected contract: five years, $67.5 million

4) Carlos Lee, OF, Milwaukee Brewers – The steadiest hitter in the class, Lee is good for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs every year. This season, his best yet, Lee could pass 40 and 120. Projected contract: five years, $62.5 million

5) Nomar Garciaparra, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers – Garciaparra took a make-good $6 million deal and made great, and now he's in line to get another huge payday. It probably won't be for the four years he wants, but it could inch up to $40 million. Projected contract: three years, $35 million

6) Jason Schmidt, SP, San Francisco Giants – After a poor 2005, Schmidt is looking more like he did in 2003, when he was the best starting pitcher in the game. While his strikeouts are down, batters are hitting just .216 against him. The one concern: He turns 34 in January. Projected contract: four years, $45 million

7) Mike Mussina*, SP, Yankees – While the Yankees would love to keep Mussina, doing so for $17 million could be prohibitive, even with the season he's having (10-3, 3.24 ERA). Should they not pick up the option, let the bidding begin for a right-hander who will be 38 on Opening Day. Projected contract: three years, $34 million

8) Torii Hunter*, OF, Minnesota Twins – In Hunter, teams can guarantee themselves first-rate defense (five straight Gold Gloves), decent pop and speed (he's gone 20-20 twice) and strong leadership. Just don't expect numbers that will blow you away. Projected contract: three years, $30 million

9) Seung-Yeop Lee, 1B, Yomiuri Giants (Japan) – Lee led the WBC with five home runs – no surprise considering he set an Asian record with 56 homers in his native Korea in 2003, leads Japan's Central League with 28 home runs and is batting .322. He is a free agent after this season and, at 30 years old, should draw lots of interest. Projected contract: three years, $21 million

10) Mark Mulder, SP, St. Louis Cardinals – Three of the worst words a pitcher can hear are "rotator-cuff injury." The eight absolute worst are "rotator-cuff injury in a free-agent season." Mulder might have lost himself $35 million, unless he comes back and proves himself healthy. Projected contract: three years, $30 million

11) Gary Sheffield*, OF, New York Yankees – Sheffield's wrists have made him about $130 million over his career, so that his left one now is failing him – his torn tendon will make teams very leery – shouldn't make him complain too much. Someone still will take a chance on him – albeit at a lesser rate. Projected contract: one year, $9 million

12) Julio Lugo, SS, Tampa Bay Devil Rays – He hits well, runs well and fields well, and if Lugo weren't stuck in baseball Hades, people just might know him a little better. When he gets a big-money deal this offseason, they will. Projected contract: three years, $20 million

13) Gary Matthews Jr., OF, Texas Rangers – Nice year to break out. Matthews, on his seventh team, made his first All-Star Game and has worked himself into Gold Glove conversations. Time to cash in. Projected contract: three years, $20 million

14) Cliff Floyd, OF, New York Mets – Not a good year to slump. Floyd was in line for his last big contract, and instead he's spent nearly a quarter of the season injured. Still, he can be great at times and is a good clubhouse presence, which will at least earn him a multi-year deal. Projected contract: two years, $12 million

15) Barry Bonds, OF, San Francisco – He's this high because of his name, not his production. And it is name, and name alone, that will get Bonds a deal in the one-year, $10 million range if he decides to return. An early guess: He won't. Projected contract: Retired

16) Jason Marquis, SP, St. Louis – Take away the 13-run mess of an outing he endured, followed by another seven-run debacle, and Marquis' ERA is almost a full point less than his current 5.43. The main point: He's 27 and throws 95. Someone will bite. Projected contract: four years, $28 million

17) Kerry Wood*, SP, Chicago Cubs – Someone's going to take a chance on Wood with a one-year deal that's loaded with performance bonuses. If it works out, good for him and the team. If it doesn't … well, no one will be that surprised. Projected contract: one year, $4 million (with incentives to $8 million)

18) Trot Nixon, OF, Boston Red Sox – Despite a small slump – Nixon took an 0-for-9 in the 19-inning game against the White Sox – Nixon is playing the best he has since 2003. He doesn't turn 33 until April and probably has a couple good years left. Projected contract: two years, $14 million

19) Adam Eaton, SP, Texas – On the plus side: He'll be 29 on Opening Day. On the minus: He's got a career ERA of 4.34 and hasn't started a game this season because of a broken finger. Projected contract: two years, $11 million

20) Bengie Molina*, C, Toronto Blue Jays – Molina held out for too much money last season and hasn't impressed the Blue Jays enough to merit them picking up his $7.5 million option. Projected contract: two years, $10 million

21) Frank Catalanotto, OF/IF, Toronto – Woefully underappreciated since his days with Detroit, Catalanotto not only is versatile, he can straight hit. His OPS is .933 and his walks-to-strikeouts are a tremendous 38-to-16. Whoever signs him gets a steal. Projected contract: three years, $14 million

22) Ted Lilly, SP, Toronto – Just two years ago, the Blue Jays were so bad that Lilly was their All-Star. He won't be back anytime soon, but he is a left-handed starter with a pulse, which pretty much guarantees him an eight-figure deal. Projected contract: two years, $12 million

23) Juan Pierre, OF, Chicago Cubs – Because he is fast and because he is a leadoff hitter and because two years ago he hit .326, and because he will be only 29, Pierre will make far more money than he deserves. This could be the albatross contract of '06. Projected contract: three years, $24 million

24) Shea Hillenbrand, IF, Toronto – Serviceable hitter who always will hover around .300. Seems to have a genuine fear of walks, which will scare away a score of teams in need of a bat. Projected contract: two years, $11 million

25) Eric Gagne*, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers – Off to surgery again, Gagne essentially is missing his second straight year because of injury problems. His potential is the only reason he's on this list, and it alone will get him a deal. Projected contract: one year, $3 million (with incentives to $7 million)

25a) Roger Clemens, SP, Houston Astros – Just in case. Projected contract: Retired

A dozen potential bargains

1) Rod Barajas, C, Texas
2) Gil Meche, SP, Seattle
3) David Dellucci, OF, Philadelphia
4) Mark DeRosa, 2B/OF, Texas
5) Jose Guillen, OF, Washington
6) Scott Hatteberg, 1B, Cincinnati
7) Tomo Ohka, SP, Milwaukee
8) Dave Roberts, OF, San Diego
9) Javier Valentin, C, Cincinnati
10) Jeff Weaver, SP, St. Louis
11) Randy Wolf, SP, Philadelphia
12) Craig Wilson, 1B/OF, Pittsburgh

Seven expiring big contracts that will get smaller

1) Chan Ho Park, SP, San Diego – five years, $65 million
2) Phil Nevin, 1B, Chicago Cubs – four years, $34 million
3) Darin Erstad, OF, Los Angeles Angels – four years, $32 million
4) Andy Pettitte, SP, Houston – three years, $31.5 million
5) Mike Lieberthal, C, Philadelphia – three years, $23.5 million
6) Javy Lopez, C/1B, Baltimore – three years, $22.5 million
7) Brad Radke, SP, Minnesota – two years, $18 million

A baker's dozen options that should be declined (holder of option in parentheses)

1) Jim Edmonds, OF, St. Louis – $10 million (club)
2) Luis Gonzalez, OF, Arizona – $10 million (club)
3) Ryan Klesko, 1B/OF, San Diego – $8 million (club)
4) Mike Piazza, C, San Diego – $8 million (club)
5) Preston Wilson, OF, Houston – $24 million over three years (club)
6) Steve Finley, OF, San Francisco – $7 million (club)
7) Dmitri Young, OF, Detroit – $7 million (club)
8) Jeromy Burnitz, OF, Pittsburgh – $6 million (mutual)
9) Luis Castillo, 2B, Minnesota – $5.75 million (club)
10) Paul Wilson, SP, Cincinnati – $5.15 million (club)
11) Francisco Cordero, RP, Texas – $5 million (club)
12) Jose Cruz Jr., OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – $4 million (club)
13) Aaron Boone, 3B, Cleveland – $3.75 million (mutual)

10 options that should be accepted

1) Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs – $33.5 million over three years (player)
2) Mark Buehrle, SP, Chicago White Sox – $9.5 million (club)
3) John Smoltz, SP, Atlanta – $8 million (club)
4) Mike Cameron, OF, San Diego – $7 million (club)
5) Jermaine Dye, OF, Chicago White Sox – $6 million (club)
6) Tim Wakefield, SP, Boston – $4 million (club)
7) Keith Foulke, RP, Boston – $3.75 million (player)
8) Casey Blake, IF/OF, Cleveland – $3.75 million (club)
9) Damian Miller, C, Milwaukee – $3.75 million (club)
10) Jose Mesa, RP, Colorado – $3 million (club)

11 players who could retire

1) Sandy Alomar Jr., C, Los Angeles Dodgers
2) Moises Alou, OF, San Francisco
3) Eddie Guardado, RP, Cincinnati
4) Greg Maddux, SP, Chicago Cubs
5) Jamie Moyer, SP, Seattle
6) Troy Percival, RP, Detroit
7) Tim Salmon, OF, Los Angeles Angels
8) Matt Stairs, OF, Kansas City
9) David Wells, SP, Boston
10) Bob Wickman, RP, Cleveland
11) Bernie Williams, OF, New York Yankees

20 others worth watching

1) Tony Armas Jr., SP, Washington
2) Danys Baez, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers
3) Ronnie Belliard, 2B, Cleveland
4) Craig Counsell, 2B, Arizona
5) Ray Durham, 2B, San Francisco
6) Pedro Feliz, 3B/1B, San Francisco
7) Aubrey Huff, 3B/OF, Houston
8) Adam Kennedy, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
9) Cory Lidle, SP, Philadelphia
10) Kenny Lofton, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
11) Mark Loretta, 2B, Boston
12) Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B, Kansas City
13) Vicente Padilla, SP, Texas
14) Mark Redman, SP, Kansas City
15) Shannon Stewart, OF, Minnesota
16) Jeff Suppan, SP, St. Louis
17) Frank Thomas, DH, Oakland
18) Mike Timlin, RP, Boston
19) Steve Trachsel, SP, New York Mets
20) Todd Walker, 2B, Chicago Cubs

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