Free Agents at the Plate: Bidders Up! NL West

Which NL West teams are looking to bid for players and which are shedding payroll and players

With the official start of the free agency period, many fans are wondering who could be bidding for their favorite player. Below is a team by team recount of what each team in the National League West is looking to be doing.

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks could be sellers and buyers at this week's general managers' meetings in Phoenix. The Diamondbacks already have earmarked $65 million to 10 players, including Schilling, their most attractive player to trade. They don't want their 2004 payroll to exceed $80 million. That leaves $15 million to spread among the remaining 15 players on the roster. The many "Baby Backs" that came up and contributed last year will help to keep the payroll lower.

However, despite being the most attractive pawn, Schilling has a no-trade clause. The New York Yankees are believed to be interested in Schilling in an effort to revamp a pitching staff that lost Roger Clemens to retirement and could lose LHP Andy Pettitte to free agency. The Yankees can afford Schilling's $12 million salary, half of which is deferred. On the other hand, Schilling reportedly is interested in going to Boston. No word on whether the attraction is mutual.

The Diamondbacks would also love to land a power-hitting first baseman, such as Milwaukee's Richie Sexson. But they would need to make salary space since Sexson will make $8.6 million next year. In addition, the Diamondbacks will try to re-sign INF Carlos Baerga, who set a franchise record last season with 19 pinch hits. But agent Scott Boras indicated that Baerga has received interest from nine other teams and stands to receive a substantial raise from the $500,000 he made last season.

Also, the Diamondbacks will continue to scour the free agent and trade markets for left-handed relievers.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies are projecting a payroll of slightly more than $60 million and already have $53.1 million committed to six players, including the $2 million portion of Mike Hampton's salary that Colorado will pay for Atlanta. But that also includes the $9 million due Denny Neagle, who after undergoing reconstructive left elbow surgery isn't expected to pitch in 2004, which means insurance will pick up half of his paycheck. That leaves only $6.9 million for the other 19 players making up the roster.

Despite that lack of budget space, with the roster the way it is right now, managing general partner Charlie Monfort said there is nothing that has been mandated except to look for ways to improve the team. "People are misconstruing the fact we have financial limits on what we can do on the open market with a need to unload contracts," Monfort said. "We made our payroll paring last year. We are where we need to be." So while O'Dowd has shown in his four previous years he also has an ability to orchestrate mass movement, that isn't likely this offseason.

Put to rest also the speculation that the Rockies are looking to trade first baseman Todd Helton and/or center fielder Preston Wilson. If they were to be offered a deal they couldn't refuse, they would listen, but there is no active effort on their part to move either one. Where Monfort believes the Rockies have an edge in the long run is they have two players in their prime to build around -- Helton and Wilson. "Helton is our cornerstone," said Monfort. "I see us building our offense around him. He and Wilson, at their age, are two guys who give us a head start in getting to the level we want to reach."

General manager Dan O'Dowd is going to have to scour the bargain basement to fill holes this offseason. There is no room in the budget for any big-time free agent. And it is unlikely enough wiggle room can be found to accommodate the contract expectations of Jay Payton. They are also going to need some surprises, not unlike what they received this season from O'Dowd's bargain shopping, which added left-handed starter Darren Oliver and third baseman Chris Stynes for a combined salary of $1.1 million, roughly half the major league average salary. They could also use another O'Dowd deal like the one that brought Payton from the Mets midway in 2002 for right-hander John Thomson, or the acquisition of left-handed reliever Javier Lopez from Boston last spring for a minor league pitching hopeful. WIth their 2003 closer, Jose Jimenez, already opting for free agency, the Rockies will need a closer, which they figure to address in spring training, once they have made whatever offseason moves they make.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The wait-and-see approach continues to be the order among employees at Dodger Stadium, where the team remains in an ownership limbo. Frank McCourt is rallying investors to his flag but reportedly has not finalized the financing plan for his $430 million purchase of the team from News Corp. Major League Baseball officials continue to express confidence that the sale will go through, but McCourt can't do it by himself. Even if he had the resources to absorb the entire purchase price himself, he isn't wealthy enough to absorb operational losses in excess of $40 million per season -- what the Dodgers averaged under News Corp. A date has not been set for owners to review and vote on the purchase, though a conference call is expected to take place no sooner than Nov. 20. The date could be pushed back if McCourt and his financing group, Game Plan LLC, needs more time to recruit investors.

The unsettled situation could have an adverse effect on the Dodgers as they attempt to improve their league-worst offense. Unlike many teams that are cutting costs, a list that includes the NL West-rival Giants and Diamondbacks, the Dodgers figured to have at least $20 million to spend on free agents, though that could be reduced given the large operating losses. But GM Dan Evans left for the general managers' meetings in Phoenix still waiting to hear about his 2004 budget. Evans and his staff identified the free agents they want to pursue and trade targets they want to discuss.

Evans also could be on the way out once the sale goes through. Billy Beane of the A's has been rumored to be his replacement. If allowed to continue, it's likely he will pursue a trade for Milwaukee first baseman Richie Sexson and make a hard run at Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui. In addition, the Dodgers have a number of free agents, but most of them won't be in the team's plans for next season. Two notable exceptions are LHP Wilson Alvarez and LHP Tom Martin. The team also might make a pitch to keep RF Jeromy Burnitz. 1B/3B Robin Ventura could be offered a contract, most likely in a reserve role.

San Diego Padres: The Padres already have $42 million committed to 12 players for the 2004 season. $57 million is expected to be the Padres' target player-payroll figure in 2004, so they have $15 million for the remaining 13 players of the roster. The Padres still need a starting catcher, two starting pitcher, at least two relief pitchers, preferably setup men.

The leading candidate for a setup man role appears to be RHP Rod Beck, who was 20-for-20 in save chances with the Padres from last June 2 on. Beck said he would still consider returning to the Padres even though Trevor Hoffman is returning as the club's closer. Beck declared free agency at the end of the season and wants to see what closer jobs might be open. The Phoenix resident is said to be very interested in Houston. "But I also owe the Padres and Kevin Towers a lot," said Beck. "Kevin gave me a chance when no one else was ready. I want to get 14 more saves, reach the 300 mark and be happy. I can see that still happening as a Padre." In addition, Scott Linebrink is already talking to the Padres about returning in 2004 as the long man and possible spot starter.

The Padres are looking to sign a Greg Maddux or another No. 1 to go with their three "cornerstone" young starters - Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton, and Jake Peavy. Padres owe Kevin Jarvis $4.25 million in 2004 and would love to trade him. But he finished the year with soreness in the elbow that was surgically repaired in 2002 (flexor tendon) and was 0-6 with 8.28 ERA over last eight starts (also allowed 11 homers in those games. Their best hope is that he begins strong in the bullpen and is traded.

Finding front-line catcher is possibly Padres' highest offseason priority. However, outfield will not, with the multitude of potential starting outfielders on the roster - Brian Giles, Mark Kotsay, Ryan Klesko, Xavier Nady. Lost in the shuffle is Gary Matthews Jr., whom the Padres would like to keep, but he still believes he's a starter, a common ailment among professional athletes. With the Padres, he might be the fourth or fifth outfielder, depending on what happens with Mark Kotsay, who had an extremely disappointing season and might be traded despite a contract through 2006. He's also arbitration eligible, and the Padres aren't likely to go to arbitration -- meaning he'll be signed, traded or released before the deadline.

San Francisco Giants: The Giants have already announced that their payroll budget is being reduced from last year's $83 million down to $76 million, stating that the gravy train is over. The ironic thing is that $76 million was their target for last year's offseason as well and so there is really no change versus the last off season beginning; the only difference is that Sabean was eventually allowed to go above it last year. Perhaps the Giants will allow it again if Barry's successor is inked to a contract? However, the Giants already have 10 players on contract for $68 million, leaving only $8 million for the remaining 15 players to round out the roster and a need for a starting rightfielder, starting firstbaseman, starting catcher, starting shortstop, and two starting pitchers, so a big free agent signing does not look to be in the cards.

As a result, there appears to be another round of wholesale player changes again for the 2004 season because of the budget restraints. The Giants had 15 days after the World Series to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents. And all they did was re-sign Alberto Castillo, a reserve catcher. That means a vanload of Giants are now on the open market. The list: Benito Santiago, J.T. Snow, Rich Aurilia, Jose Cruz Jr., Marvin Benard, Eric Young, Jeffrey Hammonds, Sidney Ponson and Tim Worrell.

All this player movement leaves MLB Executive of the Year general manager Brian Sabean with another busy winter ahead. Last year, he had to replace four players from the lineup, and it could be ditto this winter, especially with so little budget left and so many spots to fill. A possible result of their second straight offseason shuffling: Bonds could be the only everyday player still around from the 2002 World Series team when they take the field next year. But what most writers and analysts forget to note when discussing this huge change is that the most important player is still there and still producing at a high rate: Barry Bonds.

Sabean's goal this offseason is to keep the pitching and defense as strong as possible while still obtaining a presence in the lineup. In regards to resigning players, the Giants will investigate where they can upgrade and where they can retain and then go from there. They will let the free agents investigate what the market is bearing in terms of salary and then see which ones who wish to return is within their budget as well as whether there is someone better for the same salary. In addition, ideally, the Giants would like to obtain the player whom they think would succeed Barry after he retires. But right now it looks like any player of that ilk would have to be extremely flexible in how the contract is constructed if he is to be signed this year. However, that most probably will be true of any free agent signing with the Giants this off season becaue of their budget constraints. Most probably the roster will be in flux up to opening day, and perhaps even after that, just like it was in the 2002 and 2003 seasons.



Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@yahoo.com if you have a question or comment.

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