Offseason intrigue looms

Jeff Passan

DENVER – Baseball's offseason began before its postseason ended, Alex Rodriguez more than happy to hijack the World Series by announcing in the middle of Game 4 that he opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees and would become a free agent. Hey, if he couldn't be there in body – for the 12th time in 12 full seasons, prospective buyers – then casting selfish vibes across the country surely comes in a close second.

With those wheels churning, the great uniter of this year's Hot Stove League also began: speculation. It will come Costco-sized, starting with A-Rod's destination, moving to the hunk of Stilton that Scott Boras can secure him, leaping to the world champion Boston Red Sox's dynasty-building efforts, sliding to the Yankees' maneuvers to keep pace with Boston, leading to perhaps the weakest free-agent class ever and finally bivouacking with George Mitchell's steroid investigation hitting 175 degrees – ready to consume, yes, if not a bit overcooked.

Big dollars and bigger consequences will govern the next few months, both apparent with A-Rod playing pawn in Boras' quest to secure professional sports' first $300 million contract. The looping of his signature is the type of intoxicant in which Rodriguez enjoys imbibing. Champagne being for losers and all.

Though the Yankees were preparing a contract extension to bring the value of Rodriguez's deal to around $230 million total and nearly $29 million a season, doubts must have percolated. Rodriguez is the best player in baseball. He will win his third American League MVP this season, and deservedly so. Yet the Yankees, as shown by the likely hiring of Joe Girardi as manager, want to return to the no-nonsense crew of 1996 to 2000, which operated in the same calculated fashion of the current Red Sox, and which makes signing free agents Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte – the last vestiges of those teams – a priority.

Nonsense is the house specialty with Rodriguez.

And perhaps a one-way ticket from LaGuardia will serve him well. Leaving the environment that broadcasts his dalliances with strippers can't hurt. Unless he ends up in Los Angeles, the likeliest destination, with Angels owner Arte Moreno craving a big bat and the Dodgers' offense even more anemic.

A-Rod. Britney. Same city.


San Francisco could replace Barry Bonds with the man who will break his record. Detroit could pony up. Same with the Chicago Cubs. Maybe a mystery entrant, like Texas became back in 2000, when it offered Rodriguez $250 million for 10 years – more than $50 million than the next-best offer.

And just for fun, how about the champions, the team that thought it had A-Rod in a trade before the Yankees poached him from Texas.

Nah. The Red Sox aren't that much like the Yankees, not yet at least.

"We have our own way of going about things; they have their own way," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "We could probably learn a lot from them, and maybe vice versa. But we have a philosophy, we have a plan and we have a lot of great people who work hard to execute it.

"The Red Sox ultimately will be judged on the success or failure of that plan, not necessarily a direct parallel to the Yankees. But if you want to compare us to them based on winning, we'll take that comparison any day of the week."

Though Boston still needs 19 championships to catch up to the Yankees' 26, gone are the warts of 86 years without a title, excised by Epstein's ability to build not just a team but a franchise. The Red Sox are stacked, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in the rotation, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup, Jonathan Papelbon unhittable at the end of games. None is older than 28, none a free agent until 2009 (and only Beckett then), none yet peaked.

Which means if the Red Sox lose World Series MVP Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling via free agency, Chicken Little need not rear his head. Boston, bathing in money, always can find another bat, whether through free agency or the preferred route, their player-development system. And with Ellsbury's emergence, Coco Crisp and his $5.75 million contract become a bargaining chip, particularly for those blanching at multi-year deals for Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand and Mike Cameron, the other jewels in this free-agent class, more amethysts than diamonds.

Still, the spending frenzy from last winter may spill into this offseason, too, with turnover in nearly one-quarter of baseball's general manager posts and in five more managerial seats. Ed Wade (Houston), Neal Huntington (Pittsburgh), Mike Hill (Florida), Frank Wren (Atlanta), Tony Reagins (Los Angeles Angels), Bill Smith (Minnesota) and Yet To Be Determined (St. Louis), familiar with the vagaries of free agency, also want to mark their territory. Buyer beware. Wading almost got Colorado's Dan O'Dowd – he of the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle debacles in his first season – fired.

Cecil Cooper (Houston), Dusty Baker (Cincinnati), Trey Hillman (Kansas City), Girardi and Also Unnamed (Pittsburgh) will be charged with turning such decisions into performance, payroll – $175 million in Girardi's case, $50 million in Mr. Unnamed's – be damned.

And yet any talk of ballgames is ludicrous, for between now and then, so many careers will change, if you are inclined to believe the machine hyping Mitchell's investigation. Because he has shrouded it in Skull-and-Bones secrecy – enough so that something as simple as the standard he will use for naming players, an important distinction, remains unknown – the investigation, for now, is bluster and buildup, salvaging the keister at its finest.

Hopefully, Mitchell comes forth with a thorough cross-section of performance-enhancing drug use throughout the '90s and well into this decade. Even more hopeful is that he holds himself to a high standard, not throwing out names because someone told him something, but checking, re-checking, cross-checking, going to every length to ensure he's not a conduit for smear campaigns.

Names from the raids on anti-aging clinics in Florida continue the leak, and the guilty continue to float wild stories. Makes complete sense for Paul Byrd to treat his "tumor" by allowing a dentist to prescribe him drugs.

In the end, it's all the same spin, whether from the drug cheats or Boras, enough lip service to keep ChapStick sales ripe for the winter.

All we can do is speculate. Which is half the fun of it anyway.