Pitchers and catchers will flood into Florida and Arizona in the next few days, and it's springtime, sunshine and sanguinity for all.
Except the established major leaguers who don't have jobs, that is. They sit at home, working out, stewing, wondering why nobody wants them. Reasons vary from advanced age to questionable health to unrealistic contract demands to declining skills.
Yet among them is a nugget – there always is – a player overlooked, underappreciated and unsigned who before long will energize a training camp. He'll have something to prove. The team that signs him will be pleased by its great bargain. The player will excel for a while. By July, all bets will be off.
Who will it be this spring? Where will he land?
• Johnny Damon(notes): Damon will be Johnny-come-lately unless he signs in the next day or so. The Detroit Tigers are the most likely destination for one year and $7 million or two years and $14 million, the same deal he turned down from the New York Yankees. The left-handed Damon would give the Tigers a legitimate leadoff hitter and take playing time from young right-handed power threat Ryan Raburn(notes) in left field and injury-ravaged veteran Carlos Guillen(notes) at designated hitter.
The White Sox also have been mentioned as a suitor for Damon, probably only to give agent Scott Boras leverage and squeeze every possible dime out of division-rival Detroit. The Braves have contemplated hiring Damon to hold the fort until top prospect Jason Heyward is ready, but their offer is considerably lighter than that of Detroit.
• Jarrod Washburn(notes): Washburn quietly contemplated retirement when he was pitching well for the Seattle Mariners during the first half last season, a source said, and he's contemplating it again. He's had overtures from the Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and Mariners but isn't inclined to sign for a bargain-basement price, not after pitching for around $10 million each of the last three years. His value could increase when spring arm injuries do.
• Felipe Lopez(notes): Lopez dumped Boras for Dan Lozano because he doesn't have a job despite batting a career-high .310 with a .383 on-base percentage while making $3.9 million last season. Maybe there's a chemistry issue: Lopez has played for four teams over the last two years and six in his nine-year career. Nobody is eager to have him back, although the St. Louis Cardinals might bite. He hit .385 the last quarter of 2008 for them and could serve as a cover-your-eyes third baseman if rookies David Freese(notes) and Tyler Greene(notes) fizzle.
• Russell Branyan(notes): Nobody seems convinced that Branyan's balky back can hold up through an entire season. So even though he belted 31 home runs while playing home games at cavernous Safeco Field last season, only the Cleveland Indians are known to have made an offer. He's mulling it while working out at Vanderbilt, having at least convinced the coach there, Tim Corbin, that he's healthy.
Branyan could find playing time with the Indians – who drafted him in 1994 – at first and third base, left and right field and DH. The Tampa Bay Rays could sign him if he becomes dirt cheap and the Boston Red Sox have talked to his agent but have nowhere to put him. If Branyan won't take the Indians' offer, they'll go even cheaper with all-or-nothing specialist Hank Blalock(notes), who otherwise could sign a minor-league deal with the Florida Marlins.
• Jermaine Dye(notes): Dye is a bit like Branyan, enduring a precipitous decline in production the second half of last season. And he's nearly two years older and is accustomed to being paid a lot more money. Dye hit 27 home runs but batted .250, had only 19 doubles and is a liability in right field. He declined a one-year, $3.3 million offer by the Chicago Cubs and recently told Frank Thomas(notes) that he'd be OK with retirement; Dye has made $75 million during his career. Look for him to sign midway through spring training with a team so desperate for pop it'd convert him to first base or have him DH against left-handed pitching.
• Braden Looper(notes): Looper takes the hill and nobody in the opposing dugout needs Prozac. He might be the most hittable starter in baseball – and the ball travels far, too: Looper gave up a major league-leading 39 home runs in 2009. Still, he also tied for the NL lead with 34 starts and somehow had a 14-7 record. Signing Looper as a No. 5 starter is preferable to rushing a prospect.
• Gary Sheffield(notes), Geoff Jenkins(notes), Nomar Garciaparra(notes), Darin Erstad(notes), Dmitri Young(notes) and Carlos Delgado(notes): Let's throw a big retirement party for these once-productive hitters. Invite pitchers Troy Percival(notes), Mark Mulder(notes), Livan Hernandez(notes), Paul Byrd(notes) and Mike Hampton(notes), too. John Smoltz(notes) gets a one-year reprieve given his impressive comeback last year. Garret Anderson(notes) could be an excellent late-inning bat off the bench. Pedro Martinez(notes) really ought to pitch again. Scott Eyre(notes) had the good sense to retire; no word on Alan Embree(notes).
• Extra batteries: Can Kiko Calero(notes), Chan Ho Park(notes), Joe Beimel(notes) or Jason Jennings(notes) provide welcome relief? They'll all get a chance before camps break. Catchers Rod Barajas(notes), Jose Molina(notes) and Paul Bako(notes) probably will end up with the Rangers, Mariners and Mets. Does it really matter who gets whom?