Bill Conlin: Big gray area for MLB free agents

Posted: November 24, 2009

THE GREAT FREE agent-auction of 2009 began last Friday. There were 171 ballplayers hoping - no, praying - their agents would be able to leverage them into a lucrative change of scene.

If the majority of these arms, bats and gloves for sale were casks of aged Bordeaux wine instead of ballplayers, this would be a year of rare vintages, indeed.

But this class of Fordeaux has so much age you'll be able to smell the liniment this spring training if the wind is just right.

A year ago, Phillies rookie GM Ruben Amaro burst on the scene like a meteor, taking a big bite out of his budget to sign 36-year-old outfielder Raul Ibanez to a 3-year, $31.5 million contract. The late-arriving but loyal Pat Burrell Fan Club was incensed. But by the All-Star Game, Ibanez was on the short list of National League MVP candidates - they were bellowing "Raaaaaaaaaaooooool" like everybody else.

Amaro fired one of the first shots of a free-agent season where the reeling U.S. economy has drawn a curtain of caution over what many clubs will be willing to spend for the 2010 season. I have a feeling that this will be a very good time for hot rookie prospects to come out of spring training with roster spots.

Look no further than the length of tooth of this doddering class than to conclude young, home-grown, big-league minimum players will get long, hard looks. And when pitchers and catchers report in mid-February and the equivalent of 6.84 major league rosters lining up at the trough, scores of them will still be looking for their deal.

Here are some very hard numbers:

* Just 10 free agents are under 30 years old, but none younger than starter Rich Harden, 27. They include starting pitcher Brett Myers, outfielder Rocco Baldelli, first baseman Hank Blalock and the class president, outfielder Matt Holliday. Blalock played all but one game at first and DH last season, but bear in mind the ex-Rangers slugger made two AL All-Star teams as a third baseman.

* There are 60 free agents over 35. It's a vast, mostly undistinguished, group that has started the swift toboggan ride toward the waiver wire. Mike Hampton or Nomar Garciaparra anyone?

* Eleven free agents are over 40, snow-capped by 46-year-old Randy Johnson, who last season almost certainly became the last 300-game winner we will ever see. Somebody will pay the 303-game winner $5 million to spot start.

* There are 16 free-agent third basemen. The most topical for Phillies purposes is Pedro Feliz, who showed up in Charlie Manuel's starting lineup in 158 of 162 regular-season games coming off back surgery. The rocket-armed veteran gave Ryan Howard letter-high throws at first and was the most productive No. 7 hitter in the NL with 82 RBI while leading the Phillies with a .336 average when batting with runners in scoring position. Amaro set off a lively debate among his front-office advisers when he declined to pick up Pedro's $5 million option for 2010. For a few days, I thought Ruben was crazy like a fox. With the glut of free agents at the position, it seemed unlikely Feliz would be offered a starting job for that kind of money. I envisioned a scenario where Amaro would sign good-fit 3B/utility jack-of-most-positions Mark DeRosa. Then he might be able to re-sign Feliz to play third and late innings for a lower number when DeRosa is plugging other holes. However, I'm told Feliz was so hurt by being dumped after playing for two World Series teams he would not consider returning.

It gets worse when you look over the other free-agent third basemen. Feliz led all of them with his 82 RBI. He tied Chone Figgins - not a economic option, according to Amaro - with 158 games played. Pedro was third in extra-base hits (44) in a tight cluster with DeRosa (47) and Juan Uribe (46). Although Uribe is listed with the third basemen, he played 79 games at second and short last season, as opposed to 44 at third. Juan also has some pop and with his versatility and age (30) could attract a lot of suitors. Amaro does not appear inclined to get into bidding wars, which is how he wound up with Cliff Lee instead of Roy Halladay last July.

For out-of-the-box thinkers, Blalock could be a wild card. In 2005, Hank made just 11 errors in 158 games at third. In 2004, he slammed 32 homers and drove in 110. But a shoulder injury cut deeply into his 2007 and '08 seasons and hitting machine Michael Young was moved to third base. Combine that with Blalock's 2009 salary of $6.2 million and it's probably a never-mind. But he is just 29 and belted 25 homers last season in 495 at-bats.

There are so many free agents straining at the starting line Ruben could even fill most positions with an Ed Wade Era team consisting of outfielders Marlon Byrd, Endy Chavez and Jason Michaels; first baseman Jim Thome, second baseman Placido Polanco; starters Paul Byrd, Eric Milton, Brett Myers, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf; relievers Bruce Chen and Billy Wagner.

Unfortunately, setup man Ugueth Urbina, acquired by Wade for Polanco, is eligible for neither free agency nor freedom at this time. *

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