I had delusions of grandeur that there would be the perfect pitcher available in the coming offseason's free agent class - but ESPN's Jerry Crasnick is shooting holes in my dream. Mulder and Zito appear to be the best of the lot - and neither one of those really excites me nor makes me want the Reds to shell out huge contracts.



'Very little star power' awaits this winter

By Jerry Crasnick


Derrek Lee possesses all the attributes that teams prize in a free agent. He's missed 20 of a possible 972 games the past six years, so durability is a given. At 30, he's in his prime producing years. He's coming off a Most Valuable Player-caliber season, plays a superb first base and would be a welcome addition to any clubhouse.

The Chicago Cubs clearly recognized Lee's appeal when they took him off the market last week -- a full seven months before he hit the show room.

When the Cubs signed Lee to a $65 million deal, they solidified first base through 2010 and locked up the slugger who was most likely to generate a Hot Stove buzz in November. Factor in previous long-term deals for Jon Garland and Jose Contreras in Chicago and contract extensions for Jeff Kent in Los Angeles and Randy Winn in San Francisco, and the 2006-07 free agent crop isn't quite as strong as it might have been.

“You better already have your stars or be able to acquire them in trades, because you're not going to acquire them from this [free-agent] class. ”
— One front office man

True, there are marquee names available at "A" (Alfonso Soriano) and "Z" (Barry Zito). But teams perusing the letters in between will find too many warm bodies and not enough gate attractions.

"There's some depth this year, but very little star power,'' said one front office man. "You better already have your stars or be able to acquire them in trades, because you're not going to acquire them from this class.''

Several things jump out in assessing this November's list. While the starting pitching pool is deep, closers are almost nonexistent. And when it comes to position players, there's an awful lot of mileage.

Consider: Of the 45 players listed as infielders, only two are 30 or younger. Tampa Bay corner man Aubrey Huff and Boston shortstop Alex Gonzalez are 29.

Of course, since it takes six years of service to qualify for free agency, established stars are rarely available for the taking at 27 or 28. That's why Alex Rodriguez is such a wealthy man and Albert Pujols got a seven-year, $100 million deal from St. Louis at age 24.

More big names could become available as this season unfolds. If the Twins slip from contention in the American League Central, they could trade Torii Hunter and avoid having to decide whether to exercise his $12 million contract option. Eric Gagne, Mike Cameron, Gary Sheffield and Jim Edmonds are among a slew of others with options that need to be addressed.

For the moment, we'll focus strictly on players who'll be free agents this winter with no strings attached. From strongest to weakest position, here's an early look at the 2006-07 free agent class:

Starting pitching

Best of the bunch: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder.

Mark Mulder
Mulder

Barry Zito
Zito

Zito's principal appeal lies in his durability. From 2001-05, he led all big leaguers in starts and ranked fourth in innings pitched behind Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon. But he's a fly-ball pitcher, so he needs to go to a spacious ballpark with a good defensive outfield.

"He's pretty dependable,'' said an AL personnel man. "You can count on him for innings. But I don't know if you roll him into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium and he'll just shut them down. I don't think he's that kind of guy.''

It's hard to envision Oakland GM Billy Beane trading Zito while the A's are contending for a playoff spot. And if Zito makes it to free agency, it's easy to see him landing with a New York team. There's the Rick Peterson connection at Shea. And signing with the Yankees will save Zito the further discomfort of having to face them again. He's 2-8 with a career 5.59 ERA against New York.

Mulder's 98-50 career record sure is dazzling. But his ratio of strikeouts per nine innings has declined from 6.90 to 4.87 since 2002, and he's now a pure ground-ball pitcher rather than a guy who'll dial it up to 93-95 mph at times. It'll be interesting to see how he fares this summer if the Cardinals' new park is the offensive fun house that it appears to be.

Mulder, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Sidney Ponson -- four of St. Louis' starters -- are eligible for free agency this winter. There's a sense out there that Mulder is the Cardinals' top priority. But his agent, Gregg Clifton, says he's had zero discussions with general manager Walt Jocketty of late.

"Reporters keep coming up to Mark and asking him about it,'' Clifton said, "but no one from the Cardinals has called. I don't know what their thought process is.''

After Mulder and Zito, free-agent shoppers have a lot of Plan C's. Jason Schmidt and Andy Pettitte are in their mid-30s and have had health issues. Greg Maddux keeps rolling along at age 40. Adam Eaton is out four months with a finger injury. Jeff Weaver is durable yet enigmatic. Tomo Ohka and Cory Lidle are dependable back-end-of-the-rotation guys.

Marquis, who's 27, and Ted Lilly and Kelvim Escobar, both 30, are sufficiently young and talented enough to raise their profiles with big 2006 seasons. They have a lot to gain this summer -- just ask A.J. Burnett.

Outfield

Best of the bunch: Carlos Lee.

Carlos Lee
Lee

Most baseball people think Lee is a good bet to hit 30 homers and knock in 100 runs over the next two or three seasons. The question is, will anyone commit to him much beyond that? Lee is a below-average defender, and at 6-2 and 240 pounds, he's not exactly a monument to conditioning.

He also tailed off badly in the second half last year, and if the Brewers aren't in contention, general manager Doug Melvin might entertain offers for Lee to make room for Nelson Cruz and/or Corey Hart.

Beyond Lee, there are some serviceable bats on the market. Cliff Floyd is 33 years old, and his knees aren't getting any better. Juan Pierre, coming off a mediocre year with the Marlins, is off to a so-so start with the Cubs. Throw in Jose Guillen, Shannon Stewart , Trot Nixon and San Francisco's ancient corner duo -- Barry Bonds and Moises Alou -- and the outfielders could make some headlines this winter.

Second base

Best of the bunch: Alfonso Soriano.

Alfonso Soriano
Soriano

There are just so many questions with Soriano. Is he a second baseman or a left fielder? How much of a financial hit will he take if his power numbers decline drastically because of the shift from Ameriquest Field to RFK Stadium?

"It's funny that he was so resistant to playing the outfield, because all that does is increase his versatility on the free-agent market,'' said an AL general manager. "Someone may look at him as an outfielder. Someone else may look at him as a second baseman. But they're still going to give him the money, because he can hit.''

The second base contingent includes some decent options after Soriano: Ronnie Belliard, Gold Glove-caliber defender Adam Kennedy and the fundamentally sound Mark Loretta, who has a chance to be a big hit in Boston this summer.

DH-utility

Best of the bunch: Craig Wilson.

Craig Wilson
Wilson

The Pirates listened to some trade offers for Wilson last winter before deciding to keep him, and so far they're glad they did. He has a .927 slugging percentage in his first 15 games.

Still, it might be time for Wilson to go to the American League and spread his wings. He hit 29 homers two years ago, and he has a .364 career on-base percentage. He can play first base, the corner outfield spots and catch in a pinch. He's a more attractive DH option than Javy Lopez, who is six years older and showing serious signs of decline after more than 1,300 games behind the plate.

Middle relief

Best of the bunch: Flip a coin.

Talk about your positional smorgasbord. We've got lefties (Kent Mercker, Steve Kline), erstwhile closers (LaTroy Hawkins and Guillermo Mota), guys in their 40s (Mike Timlin, Roberto Hernandez), swingmen (Miguel Batista) and injury-rehab projects (Octavio Dotel).

One of these pitchers -- or someone like him -- is destined to get lucky and hit the Scott Eyre-Bob Howry lottery. Given the scarcity of relievers, all it takes is one good year.

First base

Best of the bunch: Sean Casey, Aubrey Huff.

Aubrey Huff
Huff

What do Darin Erstad, Casey, Travis Lee, Doug Mientkiewicz, J.T. Snow and Scott Hatteberg have in common?

• They all bat left-handed.

• They're all past 30 -- and in the case of Snow and Hatteberg, past 35.

• None of them hits with the power of a prototype first baseman. Lee's .426 slugging percentage last year was the highest of the group, but it was lower than Jimmy Rollins, Tadahito Iguchi and Ray Durham.

• They're all available come November.

"Just about every one of those guys has been in a steady decline or isn't productive anymore,'' said an AL executive.

Erstad, of course, has switched to center field for the Angels this year. He has a .326 slugging percentage and two RBI in his first 43 at-bats.

Of course, if you want variety, there's always Phil Nevin and Kevin Millar, past-their-prime guys who swing from the right side rather than the left.

Third base

Best of the bunch: Melvin Mora.

Melvin Mora
Mora

Mora is a two-time All-Star and a great team guy. But he'll be 35 on Opening Day of 2007, and he's probably a No. 2 or No. 6 hitter on a contender. The Orioles were willing to give Mora three years and $24 million, but negotiations stalled when Mora wanted $3 million to $6 million more.

Toronto's Shea Hillenbrand has a decent bat. But he's a liability in the field, hardly ever draws a walk and has already grounded into a major-league-leading six double plays.

After that, there's the Giants' Pedro Feliz, another terrible OBP guy with some pop, and lots of old reliables in search of one-year deals. Joe Randa, Vinny Castilla and Tony Batista, take a number and get in line.

Catcher

Best of the bunch: Rod Barajas, Gregg Zaun.

Rod Barajas
Barajas

This past winter was so chock-full of catchers, there weren't enough jobs to go around. Once Ramon Hernandez signed with Baltimore, Kenji Johjima hooked on with Seattle and Paul Lo Duca went to the Mets by trade, Mike Piazza and Bengie Molina had to scramble to find spots.

It's a thinner group this year, although Barajas has quietly hit 36 homers the past two seasons and has shown a knack for throwing out base stealers. Zaun is playing better than ever with Toronto. But he's 35, and he'll see less playing time this year now that Molina is a Blue Jay.

Shortstop

Best of the bunch: Julio Lugo.

Julio Lugo
Lugo

Lugo, the focus of trade rumors last winter, suffered an abdominal strain on Opening Day and hasn't played since. But he finished with a career-high 182 hits and 39 stolen bases last season, and he shows range and athleticism in the field, even if he can be erratic at times. With B.J. Upton on the way in Tampa Bay, Lugo is another midseason trade candidate.

Royce Clayton and Boston's Alex Gonzalez are pretty much it after Lugo.

Closer

Best of the bunch: Eddie Guardado.

"He was never a stuff guy,'' an AL executive said of Guardado. "But he's really getting by on guts and guile right now.''

The same can be said for Cleveland's Bob Wickman. But he and Guardado might be the main closer options unless Dotel makes a comeback from arm problems in New York or the Dodgers decide to set Gagne free. There'll be no Billy Wagner on the market this winter.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.