Let the Feeding Frenzy Begin

The expected gigantic exchange of cash has started as the major league general managers gathered in Naples, Fla., for their annual meetings and free-agents are swarming about like mosquitoes in Mississippi.

Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez was lured back into a Cubbie uniform with a five-year, $73 million contract just before the meetings officially opened and many believe it is just the start of the feeding frenzy to come.

Several major agents planning to attend the gathering include free agents Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Barry Bonds, Carlos Lee and Jason Schmidt but with the anticipated bids and counter bids each will take his time to sort out the offcers, so the session has traditionally been more talk than action.

While the free agent list (published yesterday on this site) is lengthy, there are but a few plums at the top of the charts and after a particularly lucratiave season, bidders will be elbowing each other to sign their choices.

The Seibu Lions of the Pacific League decided to accept the high bid of the Boston Red Sox for 26-year-old right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.

While the Dodgers backed off the anticipated $30 million auction, the Red Sox, Yankees, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers were thought to be among the bidders.

The Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League have until Thursday to accept the high offer for Akinori Iwamura, a 27-year-old third baseman who has five Gold Gloves in Japan.

The Dodgers were originally looking for a front-of-the-staff starting pitcher and a big bad, preferably in the outfield, but with the defection of outfielder J.D. Drew, their list has of necessity grown to include a pair of bats.

This situation could force General Manager Ned Collectti to rethink the sigining of Nomar Garciaparra, who is conducive to moving to third or the outfield if asked, and cut down the amount of money available to sign Greg Maddux, who performed so well in the season just past.

Colletti, who wasn't hired until Nov. 16 last year, is certainly further along in the reloading process. But things will take delicate bit of timing to fill his needs.

The Cubs re-signing of Ramirez took that piece out of the mix, so thoughts of Garciaparra at third are certain to cross his mind. The rest of his list was thought to include pitchers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt and hitters Alfonso Soriano and Gary Matthews Jr., among others. The Dodgers have contacted Mark Mulder, who is coming off surgery, and will certainly make some sort of attempt to reel in Eric Gagne, although that is certainly a long shot.

It would be tough to commit the sort of money agent Scott Boras will ask for Gagne before he has demonstrated he is healthy.

The Dodgers seem to have some interest in Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa, although his availability has not been confirmed.

The loss of Drew means the loss of the club's co-home run leader and while Kent suffered through his worst offensive season in over 10 years, perhaps due to the offi-season surgery on his wrist, one must factor in his age (38) and realize few get better at age 39.

If Soriano signs, he may insist on playing second base. That means Kent moves to first (or perhaps third) and rookie James Loney becomes the odd-man out after hitting .380 to lead all of minor league baseball. He has played some outfield, and perhaps could be penciled in there.

Wilson Betemit and Andy LaRoche become third base candidates but Colletti said he would prefer to keep LaRoche in AAA for at least part of the 2007 season.

Colletti also has the option of signing Kenny Lofton for another season if the outfield situation does not fall in place as he wants.

Although surprise closer Takashi Saito said he might not return for a second season, contract proposals are now in the works for the remarkably effective 35-year-old.

Colletti could experiment with Brett Tomko and Hendrickson as starters and Jayson Werth's wrist is expected to be healthy after two years on the sideline. Colletti does not expect Bill Mueller to play because of a damaged knee.

The signing or non-sigining of free agents could necissitate the trading of one or more of the Dodger minor league standouts should the right opportunity present itself.

To paraphrase Betty Davis, "Be prepared for a bumpy off-season."