Game on: Free-agent Madness commences

Game on: Free-agent Madness commences

While a Facebook campaign for Brian Wilson to host Saturday Night Live gains steam -- the San Francisco reliever's beard had 24,000 votes by midday Saturday -- perhaps another headlining pitcher should be on the third-floor stage at 30 Rock.

Lorne Michaels, a renowned baseball aficionado, whiffed by airing a repeat hosted by Jane Lynch with musical guest Bruno Mars. Imagine Cliff Lee, whose dry wit would play well on that stage anyway, doing a duet of Mars' hit "I Want to be a Billionaire" as the calendar flipped to Sunday and the clock ticked to 12:01 a.m.

Soon after the clock struck midnight on the East Coast, Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre and 165 other free agents could strike for free-agency gold and 30 clubs could strike for improvements.

The roll of available free agents rose by one late Saturday when Edgar Renteria, encouraged by his MVP performance in the World Series, backed off an earlier decision to retire, telling Spanish-language ESPNdeportes.com, "I'm staying, I feel that I still have a lot of baseball in my body."

Before the five-day window limiting negotiations with their 2010 clubs shut, rare was the free agent who re-signed, as is the norm: Omar Vizquel with the White Sox and Jay Gibbons with the Dodgers. Additionally, Jhonny Peralta, who became a free agent after Detroit declined his option, was said to be close to agreeing to a new two-year deal with the Tigers. (Last year's pre-opening traffic was comparable, with new deals reached only between the Cubs and right-hander John Grabow, and the Reds and catcher Ramon Hernandez.)

Otherwise, it's game, and romancing, on.

While Lee will fall short of Mars' lyrical ambition, he is the glamor boy of this free-agent market and will land one of the most lucrative deals. It may not be the most lucrative deal, however. That could fall to the outfielder Crawford, an everyday player who at 29 is three years younger and much more in demand.

A clarification of that last statement: Every team would desire Lee, but 28 of them seem resigned to let the Yankees and the Rangers battle it out for him. The attitude is the same toward three others who appear to be free agents only namely, not realistically: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte; it doesn't feel right even calling them ex-Yankees, as they now officially are.

Conversely, the Yankees' initial disinterest in pursuing Crawford makes him an accessible target for multiple clubs eager for help in their outfields and atop their lineups -- foremost among them the Angels, the Red Sox, the Tigers, and the World Series champion Giants.

All that can change down the road if Lee decides to remain in Texas and help the Rangers take the one missing step to a World Series crown. Then, looking for a replacement splash, the Yankees might turn to Crawford.

Werth and Beltre -- both represented by a perennial offseason lead actor, agent Scott Boras -- top the A-1 List of an overall mediocre free-agent pool, cream but not quite crème de la crème.

Scouts clearly consider Werth a valuable, versatile star, but not quite the superstar his opening target of a Matt Holliday-type contract (seven years, $120 million) would reflect. And some teams may be leery of Beltre simply because of his startlingly poor track record playing on a multiyear contract, which he did in Seattle between career years for the Dodgers and for the Red Sox.

None of the top-tier negotiations will be resolved quickly. For sure, the vast majority of free agents are not expected to come off the market prior to the Dec. 6-9 Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. In other words, MLB executives do not really need the extra hour given them by the overnight onset of Standard Time.

Two years ago, with a comparable Big Three in free agency, the Yankees reeled in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett within days of the end of those Winter Meetings, in Las Vegas, then finished with Mark Teixeira the day before Christmas Eve. Last year's top free agent actually didn't sign until this year, with Holliday making his deal with St. Louis on Jan. 5.

So, the Hot Stove will be on simmer for quite a while. The logs in that Hot Stove of course will remain to be round-the-clock reports from MLB.com and other news outlets, despite a recent agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association to curb negotiations through the media.

The general manager of the newly-enthroned World Series champs likes that idea. Giants GM Brian Sabean still bristles at the memory of having been a lever for Sabathia. At his state-of-the-Giants media conference this week, he told Bay Area reporters that the Giants this offseason "do not want to be somebody's fallback or stalking horse to be used as leverage."

So, within hours, the San Francisco Chronicle was tossing out the thought "that the Giants will keep an eye on Derek Jeter's negotiations with the Yankees [because] Sabean ran New York's farm system when Jeter was drafted."

The escalating free-agent market will hold your interest, but don't hold your breath for that one.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.