Early 2006 Shopping Privileges

A look at potential free agents as a source of 2006 Cardinals.

I am the first to admit that only two days into the season, it is far too early to be looking at next season's free agents. However, it isn't completely my fault. With no game Thursday, I actually had the time to read my copy of this week's USA Today Sports Weekly. In it, Bob Nightengale lists his top ten prospective free agents at season's end.

1. Nomar Garciaparra, shortstop, Cubs
2. A.J. Burnett, starting pitcher, Marlins
3. Billy Wagner, closer, Phillies
4. Paul Konerko, first base, White Sox
5. Brad Penny, starting pitcher, Dodgers
6. Johnny Damon, outfielder, Red Sox
7. Jeff Weaver, starting pitcher, Dodgers
8. Ramon Hernandez, catcher, Padres
9. Rafael Furcal, shortstop, Braves
10. Jacque Jones, outfield, Twins

A nice list, but the Cardinals aren't going to be able to afford any of these guys, anyway.

So, what I did instead was review the entire list of the possible 2005-2006 free agent crop and came up with my own list of a dozen targets. I excluded any players whose current team has options on them who would have made this group otherwise. Examples are such luminaries as Jason Schmidt, Carlos Lee and Sammy Sosa (yeah, him!).

The basis of how I created this list is by projecting the players who would best meet the Cardinals' expected needs. Based on today's roster, that would be starting pitcher, outfielder and second base.

Likely some of these guys are going to be more in the Cardinals' price range compared to the USA Today Top 10.

Starting pitchers
Kevin Millwood, Indians
Estaban Loaiza, Nationals
Vicente Padilla, Phillies

Looking at this group, it is pretty obvious to me that there are few decent second-tier starters who will be on the market this next off-season. As a result, re-signing Chris Carpenter and/or Matt Morris looks more and more important all the time.

If Millwood proves he is well and puts up the kind of numbers of which he is capable, he will come no cheaper than Morris. In fact, their situations are comparable.

Loaiza had one fantastic season in 2003, but came back to earth last season. Padilla is another underrated arm who won 14 games in both 2002 and 2003, but has been plagued by injuries since.

Outfielders
Dmitri Young, Tigers
Preston Wilson, Rockies
Brian Giles, Padres
Randy Winn, Mariners
Richard Hidalgo, Rangers
Jose Cruz, Jr., Diamondbacks

There are some very nice players here, which is good, since the Cardinals may need to replace both Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker next season and the minor league cupboards seem relatively bare.

With the possible exception of Winn, these guys are all boppers.

First base
Erubiel Durazo, A's

OK, I cheated here, as Durazo is only a first baseman/designated hitter, not one of the identified needs. However, he is also one of the most underrated, unknown power sources in the majors. Oakland will not be able to afford Durazo next year, I predict. If I could get him, I'd try to play him in the outfield or maybe even consider moving the other guy. Maybe.

Second base
Bret Boone, Mariners
Placido Polanco, Phillies

I predict that Mark Grudzielanek will either pull a Womack 2003 or a Womack 2004 this season. The former means he will play so poorly that he is not asked back for 2006. More likely, however, is that he excels, like Womack in 2004 and as a result, will get a better 2006 deal somewhere else. Either way, the Cards may need a replacement next season.

So, in that scenario, there are a couple of intriguing possibilities. For Boone to work, he'd have to be willing to take a significant pay cut. Polanco is a known and respected quantity.

Speaking of Polanco, I should note that if their teams play poorly this season, there is a decent chance that one or more of these twelve players could be traded by the deadline. Otherwise, they may very well be on the market come October.

Note, I excluded all 13 of the Cardinals' prospective free agents, but list them here for completeness: Chris Carpenter, Roger Cedeno, Einar Diaz, Cal Eldred, Mark Grudzielanek, John Mabry, Matt Morris, Mark Mulder, Al Reyes, Reggie Sanders, Jeff Suppan, Julian Tavarez, Larry Walker. (Mulder's, Suppan's and Walker's contracts include team options for next season.)

So, there's my list of twelve potential free agents that I'd pursue in this coming off-season. It's never too early to start thinking about next year – even when this year is going just fine, thank you.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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