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Free-for-all of free agency now is limited to just a few

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baseball's free-agent market used to be a happy place. It used to be a place where players and their agents walked around with big theoretical pillowcases and coaxed pennant-hungry team executives to fill them with large sums of money.

Sort of like Halloween, except that the treats were much, much better.

Oh, the team owners always complained that the players wanted too much candy and the players complained that the owners were holding back the best stuff for themselves, but the system was fairly straightforward and the auction was pretty entertaining for the fans.

Not anymore.

This year's market will open tomorrow with a wide array of talented players available to the highest bidder, but the tortured economics of the industry have turned it into a system only an MBA and an MVP can truly appreciate.

If you're superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, for instance, you can sit back and wait for the contract offers to roll in. The Montreal Expos already have offered a five-year deal worth a reported $75 million, so the bidding presumably will start from there.

The same goes for a small handful of other top players, including power-hitting shortstop Miguel Tejada, outfielder Gary Sheffield, catcher Javy Lopez and veteran pitchers Andy Pettitte and Kevin Millwood. No matter how soft the overall market might be, those players won't have to worry about the rent for a long, long time.

It is baseball's huge middle class that has to wonder. The last labor agreement helped create a new economic system in which teams must pay much greater attention to the bottom line and adhere to strict debt limits, which could take the fun out of free agency for all but a few teams with surplus cash.

Nearly 200 players were eligible to file for free agency, and that number will increase significantly when teams choose not to tender contracts to many arbitration-eligible players in December.

"I think the market may move slowly," said St. Louis Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "There are so many guys out there and so few teams with money to spend.

"Like last year with Jim Thome, I think certain high-level guys are going to get a lot of attention early. The clubs that can afford to compete for those guys, they'll be OK. For the rest, it [the market] is going to be slow to develop."

For Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, working on a tight budget is nothing new. The A's can't look seriously at a significant free-agent purchase until they determine which of their eligible free agents are staying or going.

"Our biggest priority is trying to hold onto one of our own guys," said Beane, who has key players Tejada, Keith Foulke and Jose Guillen headed into the market, "and some people aren't even at that level."

Happily for fans in Baltimore, the Orioles are one of the teams with money to spend. They traded away veterans Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine during the summer and have moved a number of big contracts off the books over the past few years, leaving their once-bulging payroll among the lowest in the sport.

Now, they have both the money and the motivation to make a big splash this year, if they can convince quality players such as Guerrero and Lopez that they truly are ready to climb back into contention for at least a wild-card playoff berth in 2004.

For the teams with less flexibility, the winter could be a major logistical challenge.

The Cardinals, for example, expect to be involved in the free-agent market at some point, but Jocketty has to restructure the payroll to make room for the pitching help the club desperately needs.

"We have to re-allocate our payroll money," Jocketty said. "We've got a lot tied up in position players and we need to improve our pitching. That means we'll have to find ways to restructure some contracts to get some relief or try to move some people."

It almost certainly will be a buyers' market, but that doesn't mean that the right players will be there at the right price. The competition for the top talent still could be stiff, especially if some of the big-revenue teams that came up short this season decide that one big acquisition might make the difference a year from now.

The Yankees -- dubbed "The Evil Empire" by Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino when they spent a fortune to snag foreign stars Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui last winter -- are expected to be more judicious in their offseason dealings this year, but never underestimate George Steinbrenner's desire to maintain his dynasty.

Despite whispers that he will pare down the Yankees' payroll, there remains speculation that he'll order general manager Brian Cashman to make a play for Guerrero.

The New York Mets, still smarting from a very disappointing season, remain under pressure to win the PR war with the Yankees at the same time they are trying to compete with the well-heeled Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies and, of course, the surprising world champion Florida Marlins in the tough National League East.

Nobody has to tell former A's manager Art Howe that Tejada would do a lot to shake things up at Shea Stadium.

The Los Angeles Dodgers also can be expected to try to upgrade their offensive lineup after a season in which they had the best team ERA in baseball and never challenged the rival San Francisco Giants for the NL West title.

There is some money out there. There definitely will be some competition for the cream of this free-agent crop. But the sheer number of available free agents points to a very different outlook for the dozens of quality players in the second tier of this market.

Ex-Oriole Ponson won 17 games last year, but he might have trouble matching the three-year, $21 million offer that the Orioles extended before trading him to the Giants in July.

Former Minnesota and Toronto leadoff man Shannon Stewart has batted .300 or better five straight seasons, which should make him a very popular player in this market, but he could get lost in the big crowd of quality outfielders.

Guillen is coming off a breakout performance in a season split between the Cincinnati Reds and the A's. He might be a nice fallback for a team that fails to land one of the superstar offensive players. He also could be one of those players that still is waiting for a decent contract in early January.

There was a time when a .311 average, 31 home runs and 86 RBIs would all but guarantee a very healthy free-agent contract, but not when most teams are looking to reduce payroll.

Even some very big names -- such as former Orioles stars Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar -- may have to settle for short contracts and relatively short money in this market.

"I still think you have to wait and see," Beane said. "People start talking and that can create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The Giants present a good illustration of the problem facing many teams. The club lost in the first round of the playoffs last month and enters the winter with 10 veteran players set to earn $55 million in 2004. If they stick to a payroll target of $75 million for next season, their ability to shore up the team in the fertile free-agent market is severely limited. And the Giants are a large-market team in a very revenue-friendly situation.

Don't be surprised if the "C" word starts floating around in a few weeks. The Major League Baseball Players Association was skeptical of the tight market last winter and figures to be watching closely to see if there are any signs of collusion on the part of major league clubs.

The challenge of proving that the owners are acting illegally to inhibit salaries will be more difficult with recent changes in the labor agreement that codified heavier taxes and revenue-sharing outlays for big-spending teams, but clubs still are prohibited from acting in concert to limit individual contracts.

Sound complicated? It is, unless you've got a big pillowcase full of money.

Choice free agents

Here's a look at some of the top players who will be available in this year's free-agent market. Players can begin accepting bids tomorrow:

Starting pitchers Skinny

Bartolo Colon Might be most talented pitcher in the market, but could be high-risk signing.

Kevin Millwood Won 14 games for Phillies this season. Believed to want to return to Atlanta.

Sidney Ponson Turned down three years, $21 million from O's. Sounds like the right number now.

Greg Maddux One of the greatest of all time, but how much will somebody pay for yesterday?

Andy Pettitte Astros are hoping to pry him away from the Yankees after 21-win season.

Relievers Skinny

Keith Foulke A's will try hard to keep him from leaving.

Eddie Guardado Got a good thing going in Minnesota, but might not stay there.

Ugueth Urbina Enhanced value with big performance down stretch in Florida.

Infielders Skinny

Miguel Tejada Not exactly Alex Rodriguez, but he'll command some big dollars.

Roberto Alomar Somebody will get a bargain. Usually steps up in first season with new team.

Luis Castillo Speedy No. 2 hitter should be popular after success of Marlins.

Joe Randa Might be answer at third base for Orioles.

Outfielders Skinny

Vladimir Guerrero The big dog in this market. Should go for $15 million to $18 million per year.

Gary Sheffield Has some baggage, but still one of the best all-around players in the game.

Shannon Stewart Might get overshadowed in this market, but a very valuable commodity.

Jose Guillen Could remain with A's, depending on outside interest.

Juan Gonzalez The one-year contract was invented for him.

Catchers Skinny

Javy Lopez Coming off terrific season that should send price through the roof.

Ivan Rodriguez Marlins hope to keep him, but his stock went way up in the postseason.

Designated hitter Skinny

Rafael Palmeiro Still can hit with power, but has been displaced by Rangers' youth movement.

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