The official free agency period does not begin until five days after the completion of the World Series.
But for the 26 remaining teams with no dog left in this fight – is that now a frowned-upon phrase? – the only thing left to do in 2011 is look toward 2012.
For baseball fans, there's a particularly interesting thing going on in the playoffs: The two most coveted pending free agents are still on display for all to evaluate. Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder and Texas Rangers lefty starter C.J. Wilson. (OK, so St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and New York Yankees lefty CC Sabathia could be free agents, too. But I see them remaining with their current clubs).
Let's step into the dream world for a moment: Make no mistake, signing Fielder and Wilson would go a long way into solving the Orioles' woes. More than anything, the Orioles need an ace and a legitimate cleanup hitter who, preferably, plays corner infield. Wilson, 30, would be the veteran, top-of-the rotation starter the Orioles desire. His name may not be synonymous with ace, but his numbers make a good argument: In his past two seasons he has thrown 200-plus innings, won 15 or more games and had an ERA of 3.35 or lower while playing half his games in a hitters' park in Arlington, Texas.
Fielder is a bone fide star, a legitimate MVP candidate who has made the All-Star team three times in six full seasons. He has hit 28 homers or more in each full season and driven in 100-plus runs four times. Most impressive, he has played 157 or more games in each of those six seasons. And, at 27, is entering his prime.
OK, dream over for Orioles fans.
I don't see the Orioles getting either one, a rather no-duh statement. But I say this for reasons beyond the obvious ones of price tag and the Orioles' terrible recent history, which chases away players who want to win now.
Although I say the above with one caveat: I wrote in the 2003 offseason there was no way the Orioles would land shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was one year removed from a MVP season. What happened then is that the market for shortstops collapsed on Tejada and the Orioles made the best offer – six years, $72 million – and landed him. It's possible the market could collapse around Wilson and Fielder – though I doubt it – but even then the Orioles are long shots.
Wilson is a pretty good fit. Orioles manager Buck Showalter was Wilson's first big league manager, and Wilson also has a relationship with pitching coach Rick Adair. To this day, Wilson talks glowingly about the men, saying Showalter is the first person on the big league level to really believe in him. But the starting pitching market is thin and Wilson almost assuredly will receive a five-year deal – heck, maybe even longer. And that goes well beyond the Orioles' comfort level. They don't like offering pitchers contracts beyond three years. So four would be a stretch. Five would be a shock.
And before you rip management and ownership on this one, know history proves the philosophy to be sound. Rarely does a free-agent pitcher keep his value beyond three years. It happens, but the reverse is more common.
As for Fielder, the cost itself will be prohibitive. Carl Crawford got a seven-year, $142 million deal from the Red Sox last offseason, and Mark Teixeira got eight years and $180 million from the Yankees before the 2009 season. I'd expect Fielder to fall between those two. The Orioles have never agreed to higher than Tejada's $72 million. So breaking the bank is not normal protocol during the Peter Angelos regime.
But I tell you what really would be out-of-character: Angelos approving a huge contract for a huge man. The Orioles are sticklers for signing players who are in shape – the last one who truly wasn't, Sidney Ponson, was one of the worst deals in Orioles free-agent history. Fielder is listed as 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. People have been complaining about his bad body since he was in high school. And all he does is produce. But that won't sway the argument among the Orioles' brain trust that it's too much money for someone in questionable shape.
I know many of you will disagree with me here, given recent history, but I could see a scenario where the Orioles bought a big-time free agent in the winter. It just seems like they are ripe for a splash – new GM, perhaps new philosophy, a frustrating step back in 2011 and a payroll that currently seems manageable. There just aren't enough major free agents to go around in this particular market.
So I think the targets will be more affordable – Virginia native Michael Cuddyer for instance – and not one of the two biggest fish.
OK, I'm done. Go back to watching Fielder and Wilson audition for other clubs.