Now that the games are over, let the gamesmanship begin.
That, of course, would be the ritual mating dance of baseball free agency, which officially began Sunday, less than 26 hours after the St. Louis Cardinals capped one of the most exciting postseasons in recent memory by outlasting the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
More than 148 players have either willingly entered the marketplace or been cast there against their will, from likely Hall of Famers Albert Pujols, Jim Thome and David Ortiz and National League batting champion Jose Reyes to journeymen such as Greg Dobbs, Sergio Mitre and Miguel Batista.
One potential free agent, left-hander CC Sabathia, re-upped Monday with the New York Yankees, rather than opt out of the four years and $92 million left on his contract. He agreed to a new deal that adds $30 million and one year, and gives the Yankees a $25-million option for 2017.
With Sabathia off the market and Pujols thought to be leaning toward a new deal with the Cardinals, the team he has spent his entire career with, the free-agent class of 2011-12 could turn out to be among the least interesting in years.
There will, however, be enough other things happening this winter to keep baseball’s hot stove burning, including the comings and goings of managers and general managers and the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement between the players’ union and the owners, which could be announced in the next few days.
The Frank McCourt saga may -- thankfully -- be nearing its final chapter at the same time the Dodgers are pushing for long-term extensions with most-valuable-player candidate Matt Kemp and Cy Young Award contender Clayton Kershaw. (The winners of those awards, as well as American League rookie of the year, for which the Angels’ Mark Trumbo is a favorite, will be announced beginning in mid-November.)
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are searching for a successor to Tony La Russa, the winningest manager of the last century. La Russa announced Monday, three days after winning his third World Series, that he was retiring after 33 years of managing.
The Boston Red Sox are also looking for a new manager to replace Terry Francona just a week after promoting Ben Cherington to general manager. Cherington replaces wunderkind GM Theo Epstein, who wore out his welcome in Boston and left for Chicago to be president of the Cubs.
The Angels have both a manager, Mike Scioscia, and now a general manager in former Arizona Diamondbacks executive Jerry Dipoto, whose first order of business probably will be finding a new assistant GM, player personnel director and farm director. Those positions were left vacant in the purge that claimed former GM Tony Reagins after the Angels missed the playoffs for a second straight season.
All that is background music, though, because it’s what Pujols decides to do that figures to determine the course of the next few months. Teams have until midnight Wednesday to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents, giving St. Louis two more days to try to sweeten a deal Pujols rejected nine months ago.
That offer reportedly was worth $195 million over nine years; Pujols is said to want 10 years and $230 million, numbers the Cardinals have rejected given the fact Pujols will be 32 next season. He made $14.5 million this year, the last on his eight-year, $111-million contract.
La Russa’s exit a day after the Cardinals’ World Series parade could wind up playing a big role in those negotiations. La Russa is the only manager Pujols has played for in the majors, so it’s unlikely the three-time MVP will feel the same loyalty for whoever replaces him. Meanwhile, management, knowing it has to do something significant to steady the ship La Russa just abandoned, may now feel added pressure to bring back the team’s star player.
“There’s no doubt he’s been the identity of this organization for the past decade,” St. Louis GM John Mozeliak said. “And trying to push one button or trying to say you’re not going to feel that loss would be very difficult to say, especially in this environment.”
Pujols is feeling some pressure too. As the Cardinals were celebrating their World Series win on the field Friday, teammate Lance Berkman pleaded with him to re-sign with the team, a plea the first baseman heard again and again during Sunday’s victory parade in downtown St. Louis.
“Listen, I’m going to be prayerful about it,” he said. “Whatever decision I make hopefully is the best decision . . . for my family and the fans and everybody.”
That decision figures to influence much of what happens in the free-agent market. If he comes out, Pujols could drive up the price on Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder, the next-best free-agent slugger. If Pujols stays put, then Fielder and his agent, Scott Boras, can set their price.
Pitchers expected to draw interest include left-handers C.J. Wilson of the Rangers and Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox and closer Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres.
There is a potential wild card to watch, though. Japanese phenom Yu Darvish, whom the Yankees, Rangers, Washington Nationals and others reportedly have scouted, may ask to be placed in Japan’s byzantine posting process. That would require interested major league teams to submit sealed bids for the right to negotiate a free-agent contract.
When Daisuke Matsuzaka came out five years ago, the Red Sox paid $103 million to sign him. Darvish’s price could be higher.
“Anybody that has ability is going to get looked at,” Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said of the winter swap meet. “Anybody that’s been relatively healthy, has got a good career behind him. There won’t be any surprises.”
As for the Dodgers, Colletti said he’d begun talking with representatives for Kemp and Kershaw about multiyear deals. Both figure to get sizable raises in arbitration this winter no matter what.
“They’re here and we have a pretty good idea what they’re going to cost for this particular year,” Colletti said.
But locking down the team’s two stars isn’t the only thing Colletti has on his plate. He said the team has at least one starting infield job to fill along with one, if not two, extra infield spots. The Dodgers also need to decide if they’re going to go young behind the plate or stay with veteran Rod Barajas. And they’d like to keep free-agent Hiroki Kuroda in the starting rotation.
All but ignored on the postseason agenda have been negotiations between the players and owners for a new collective bargaining agreement, replacing the old labor deal that expires in December. And given the work stoppages and lockouts that have marked relations between the union and ownership in decades past, the fact that no one is paying attention to the talks is good news, Commissioner Bud Selig says.
“We’ve come a long way and this is what we like,” Selig said. “Nobody could have conceived -- starting with me -- that we’d have [16 years] of labor peace. There’s a lot of work to be done yet . . . but the talks have been very constructive and very thoughtful.”