Post-Thanksgiving free-agent feeding frenzy begins

Who besides the Cardinals is willing to pay Albert Pujols 200 million?

The fun starts now. Baseball's offseason isn't like the NFL's, where the best players sign within the first 72 hours, or the NBA's, packing a couple of locked-out, spoiled months into a few days. It's like barbecue: low and slow until the end, when the finished product is well worth the patience.

This offseason in particular has developed with the urgency of a sloth. Just two of the top 32 players on Yahoo! Sports' free-agent tracker have signed: outfielder Grady Sizemore(notes) on a make-good one-year return to the Cleveland Indians and Jonathan Papelbon(notes) getting $50 million from the Philadelphia Phillies and, in the process, turning the rest of the closer market into an overpriced mess.

Among teams, there is fear that the rest of the offseason will follow suit, a rightful worry considering how the new collective bargaining agreement should funnel money into the free-agent market. Teams don't want to be the first ones to pay. This isn't 2006 or 2007.

Remember Alfonso Soriano's(notes) $136 million calamity in '06? The Chicago Cubs gave it to him Nov. 19, one of the first deals consummated that offseason. And Alex Rodriguez's(notes) $275 million anchor from '07 that tunnels deeper today? The New York Yankees gifted it Nov. 15.

Most of the biggest contracts of the last decade have come during or soon after the winter meetings, which begin in one week. Carl Crawford's(notes) was Dec. 8, 2010, at the meetings, and Jim Thome's(notes) Dec. 3, 2003, right before them. A-Rod's original $250 million deal came Dec. 10, 2001; Jason Giambi's(notes) $120 million pact Dec. 13, 2002; and Miguel Tejada's(notes) $72 million haul – the lowest of the annual highest – Dec. 14, 2004. Mark Teixeira(notes) signed two days before Christmas two years ago, leaving just two players who waited until after the new year, Carlos Beltran(notes) in 2005 and Matt Holliday(notes) in 2009, both Scott Boras clients, both content to squeeze every last teat in an effort to milk as much out of their big paydays as they could.

And that, it seems, is where players and agents find themselves today. They, too, are curious where this market is going and the proper time to strike. Especially the ones in the upper echelon, where value isn't so much what you're worth as what someone will pay you.

At this point, it's not evident who's got the upper hand. Being free agency, it often ends up with the players, which is why …

1. Albert Pujols(notes) shouldn't panic. Yet. It's just that unless he's ready to pull a Cliff Lee(notes) and keep his dalliances with a mystery team secret throughout the entirety of his free agency, the interest in Pujols has been surprisingly quiet.

Whether that equates to a paucity of teams going after him is unclear, though three executives last week suggested the number of landing spots for Pujols is frighteningly thin. A team-by-team rundown with those executives placed the St. Louis Cardinals as heavy, heavy favorites – "I'm 100 percent certain he's going back there," one said – with … well, there's the rub: They had trouble identifying another team Pujols seriously would consider.

The Florida Marlins don't qualify despite their offer to Pujols, which was for less than the Cardinals proposed nine months ago. They're using Pujols for publicity just as he tried to use them for leverage. Theirs is a marriage that never will consummate.

The Washington Nationals fit because they're sitting on a gold mine, have room for a first baseman and have a chance to be a contender. And the Texas Rangers make sense, too, even if they're privately pooh-poohing their chances.

Maybe the new CBA motivates the Chicago Cubs to spend or the Los Angeles Angels to splurge like their markets should allow them or another team – the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox – to change their tack mid-winter. Probably not.

[ Related: Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker ]

Which leaves Pujols and …

2. Prince Fielder(notes) fighting for the same money from the same limited number of teams with enormous numbers in mind: the third and fourth $200 million deals, behind only A-Rod's pair.

A few more teams crop up when discussing Fielder, who has neither the loyalty to city nor the price tag of Pujols. The Seattle Mariners, whose general manager, Jack Zduriencik, was scouting director when Milwaukee drafted Fielder, make sense. The Cubs could make a special dispensation for a player four years younger than Pujols. And who knows? If the market softens enough, maybe the Brewers make a play. Again: Probably not.

Fielder, if anything, has fewer questions than Pujols. Yes, he is fat. He has been fat for more than half a decade, and that hasn't impeded his success. Each of the three executives said they would take on an overweight player before they would an aging one.

Which wasn't to say they preferred Fielder to Pujols. Just that Fielder's options may not be as limited as they seem at the moment. He still hasn't been to Florida, after all, unless his visit somehow went unreported – and none have, including …

3. C.J. Wilson(notes) arriving Monday just in time for stone crab season. Unlike Pujols and Fielder, Wilson actually could find himself in the Marlins' price range if they're really serious about this pursuit of top-end free agents, which pretty much nobody is convinced is the case.

If Wilson really does want Cliff Lee money, cross the Marlins off his list for good. The Rangers remain lukewarm on him, happy to re-engage if the price drops, but six years at $20 million a pop for a pitcher with two seasons as a starter would qualify as a fair bit of insanity for any team that bites. Free agency, of course, does a fine impression of dystopia.

Every day Yu Darvish doesn't commit to playing in the major leagues next season – he's still noncommittal – Wilson's worth remains in the nine-figure neighborhood. And even if Darvish arrives, the losers in his posting will need another pitcher. Which is why it's understandable for Wilson to wait: With some time, his price actually could rise. Of course, if …

4. Mark Buehrle(notes) gets $60 million for four years, can teams really justify giving Wilson a couple more years at $5 million extra a pop? Probably not. Where Buehrle ends up – and for how much – "may set the price for the pitching market for the rest of the offseason," one executive surmised.

The Chicago White Sox seem to have Peavyed, Dunned and Riosed themselves out of the bidding, and the Cardinals, Buehrle's hometown team, can't fork out eight figures a season without knowing Pujols' decision. Funny how this game works: The two teams for whom Buehrle said he could envision himself playing no longer make much sense for him.

That whittles down the interested parties to, oh, about one-third of the sport's remaining teams. Washington wants Buehrle bad. The Yankees are enamored of him, too; the feelings are not mutual, thanks more to Buehrle's fear of New York since 9/11 than his distaste toward the team. He could take the Red Line north a few miles to the Cubs, cross the border to Toronto or round out a monster staff with the Angels. Buehrle has choices, the sort every free agent wants, the sort …

5. Jimmy Rollins(notes) might have as well should he accept three years instead of the five he wants. Because this is free agency, there is no sense in starting at a reasonable place; why do so when somebody might actually find palatable a 33-year-old at a position that demands youth?

At five years, Rollins' market should be barren, which is why the onus is on Philadelphia to give him a fourth year if it wants him to wear a Phillies uniform for his whole career. Should they call Rollins' bluff – something they'd be mighty well-served to do – even four years of Rollins may not enthrall teams wary of his OPS gradient since his MVP season in '07: .875, .786, .719, .694, .736.

Rollins is a great presence in a clubhouse when he wants to be, passionate and fiery and amusing and intelligent. He is not, by anybody's definition, as good a shortstop as …

6. Jose Reyes(notes) is when his stupid hamstrings don't grab at him and remind everyone that for the excitement, the talent, the pure aesthetic of his brand of baseball, there is the ever-present injury factor he just cannot shake.

Healthy, Reyes gets Crawford money: $140 million or thereabouts.

As he is, Reyes should crack nine figures but not much higher.

Granted, Reyes really has missed only one year because of injury: his brutal 2009 season. He was the National League's best player for the first three months of last season until his hamstrings tightened up and tethered him to a bench. That was enough to affect his market such that the Marlins actually believe they can get him, while Milwaukee continues to target him, St. Louis has him as part of the sans-Pujols backup plan and the Mets hold out hope that he loves New York as much as New York loves him.

Reyes is lucky he's a free agent now. Another year of injuries and he could be …

7. Grady Sizemore and take a one-year deal to rebuild his value. Granted, Sizemore's troubles have lasted three seasons and turned him from a player who received MVP votes yearly into one without power, speed or the plate discipline that made him a superstar-in-the-making before his body intervened.

Sizemore signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Cleveland this week. It included $4 million in incentives if he hits plate-appearance thresholds. History says he won't. Because history says that players who spend much of their 20s injured don't often evolve into healthy 30-somethings. There are exceptions to every rule. Hell, if …

8. Bobby Valentine can get the Boston Red Sox's managerial job after nearly a decade away from the major leagues, surely modern medicine can keep Grady Sizemore healthy. After all, the more time passed, the slimmer Bobby V's managerial opportunities seemed. And now, as the Red Sox are poised to name Terry Francona's replacement, he enters as the overwhelming favorite.

Sure, Boston could pick Gene Lamont, who would inspire the same sort of confidence Joe Torre did when the Yankees hired him to take over for Buck Showalter. He's a retread and one with a mediocre record at that. Bobby V, on the other hand – well, he's Bobby V. Charismatic. Brilliant. A leader. Maybe he liked the camera lights a little too much and talked back and never met a man smarter than him, but he was Bobby V, so who gives a damn?

Baseball is a better game with Valentine because he's a legitimate personality in a sport sorely lacking them. No one will forget his tenure with the New York Mets, which only …

9. Francisco Rodriguez has surpassed since in terms of pure craziness. Loopy K-Rod is plenty mellower these days, and he wants to close games again, and some team is bound to give him that chance – unless the unlikely happens.

Milwaukee last week offered Rodriguez arbitration, a wild bet that could leave them with a $13 million setup man. Arbitration works as such: If a player accepts, he is guaranteed at least 80 percent of his salary from the previous season – and, with a strong year, should receive a raise. K-Rod made $11.5 million in 2011. Milwaukee offering arbitration without an understanding that Rodriguez would deny it meant they took a big risk for the compensatory draft pick Rodriguez would bring should he sign elsewhere.

The risk isn't quite as big as indicated elsewhere. One thing about arbitration contracts: They are non-guaranteed, and if the Brewers felt too hamstrung by his deal, they could cut him before mid-March and be on the hook for just 30 days of salary – about $2.2 million.

Is a compensatory pick worth a $2.2 million gamble? Probably not. Though plenty of executives figured Milwaukee was nuts gutting its farm system last offseason, and the Brewers almost spoiled St. Louis' World Series run in the NL Championship Series. There is enough interest in the high-end closer market – K-Rod, Heath Bell(notes) and Ryan Madson(notes) – to justify the sort of multiyear deal that would prompt Rodriguez to leave arbitration on the table. Now, it's not the sort of money …

10. Albert Pujols will bank … though what sort of money Albert Pujols will bank really isn't all that evidenced right now, is it? Varying reports have placed the Cardinals' pre-spring training offer for nine years at between $198 million and $210 million. It's a healthy offer. The question: How much better will it get? Or maybe: Will it get better?

The pressure is immense: on St. Louis to retain Pujols, on Pujols to return and on agent Dan Lozano to land him a deal worthy of the game's best player. The scrutiny on Lozano is ever greater after Deadspin's lurid and graphic report that linked Lozano to prostitution, pegged him a two-faced hustler and accused him of advising Pujols to sign an under-market contract in 2004 so he could cash in the commission.

[ Related: Big League Stew: Bombshell allegations against Lozano ]

Pujols strongly defended Lozano to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and reiterated his commitment to his longtime agent, which turned the focus back toward the contract and where Pujols goes next.

It may take awhile. The most disorganized teams can lose faith in their plan midstream, and they're the ones likeliest to come in with an 11th-hour bid and make Pujols the sort of offer that could sway him from St. Louis. For now, though, it's status quo: the Cardinals and everyone else, lower and slower than usual.

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