Big names left out in the cold this spring

Big names left out in the cold

SCOTTSDALE -- Never before in the history of free agency, perhaps, has this happened: Cactus and Grapefruit League games already in full swing with so many name veteran players unsigned and seemingly unwanted.

Their average age is 40.3 years old, but Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza have hit 1,798 homers between them, and Roger Clemens, David Wells and Jeff Weaver have combined for 686 victories. Yet, they're all still out there.

"It was weird, I can't explain it," said Trot Nixon, the former Red Sox and Indians outfielder who was signed to a Minor League contract recently by the Diamondbacks. "There are a lot of good ballplayers still out there [who] are unsigned or got signed late. It's rough going in the market this year for [me] and a lot of guys."

Bartolo Colon, Mike Sweeney and Shannon Stewart, to name a few, are in the same predicament as is Nixon: they each recently signed Minor League deals with Boston, Oakland and Toronto, respectively, in an attempt to salvage their careers.

Looking for a closer? How about Armando Benitez, who has struggled with injuries the past few seasons but has 289 career saves? Want a 49-year-old pinch-hitter? Julio Franco would fill that bill. Need a starter? Freddy Garcia, Russ Ortiz and Eric Milton are there for the taking.

Preston Wilson? Might as well be Woodrow Wilson, for all the interest the veteran outfielder is drawing.

General managers canvassed this past week in the Cactus League say the market is bearish because teams are going younger, particularly when it comes to designated hitters and bench-type players.

To wit: When the Athletics were competitive last season, they paid $8.5 million for Piazza to DH. In this rebuilding year, the A's have shunned the possibility of landing Bonds for the much less costly but highly productive Jack Cust.

"I think most of the teams now are starting to commit to some of their own young players," said Dan O'Dowd, the general manager of the defending National League-champion Rockies. "I think the success of the Diamondbacks and the Indians and our run last year has put people in a different frame of mind about opportunities being presented to younger players. I think those guys [older free agents] are getting caught in the squeeze because of that."

Bonds had 28 homers, 66 RBIs, 132 walks and a .480 on-base percentage in 126 games last season, his last of 15 with the Giants. Bonds, 43, and his agent, Jeff Borris, think he should still have a job.

Despite a report that the Rays were internally talking about signing Bonds, no offer is currently on the table. Not from Tampa Bay, not from anybody. The fact that Bonds is currently fighting a five-count indictment regarding his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs in a San Francisco court certainly complicates matters. The fact that Clemens, now 45, is also being investigated for perjury regarding the same matter may now make him untouchable. Neither has formally retired.

Then again, the fact that Mike Cameron is suspended for the first 25 games of the coming season after failing a pair of amphetamine tests last year didn't stop the Brewers from signing him.

The Padres had a chance to re-sign Cameron and then balked at the end, deciding that a player's personal history mattered.

"It's always been very important to us the individuals we bring into our clubhouse," said Kevin Towers, the Padres general manager. "Character is very important. Almost as important as skill set. We don't want somebody to come in who has some baggage and is suddenly going to become the face of our organization. We've got too many good guys."

As far as Bonds is concerned, Brian Sabean, the Giants general manager who was there for most of Bonds' tenure, said he was surprised Major League Baseball's all-time leader with 762 homers was still out there.

"Yeah, in some ways," he said. "He can still hit. You figure that he can still be productive [as a DH] over in the American League."

The Giants, who usually frolic in the free agent market, weren't very active this winter, signing only center fielder Aaron Rowand to a five-year, $60 million contract. Their player payroll -- even sans Bonds' $19.25 million -- is hovering at about $90 million, exactly where it was last year when they lost 91 games and finished last in the National League West.

Sabean admitted that he's not done building the '08 team.

"We need another hitter," he said. "How we're going to get there, we don't know. We're not trading away any of our young pitchers."

Clubs trying to copycat the success of smaller payroll teams by going younger, like Cleveland, Colorado and Arizona, is the reaction du jour, he agreed.

"It took Colorado five good years to develop the players that got them where they wanted to go," Sabean said. "You have to play in a market where you're able to do that."

San Francisco isn't one of them, he acknowledged. The Giants are under pressure from ownership and their fan base to be competitive every year, although they haven't been to the playoffs since 2003.

Sabean is certainly eyeing what's left of the free agent market even though he may not dabble.

"It's later than I ever remember to have this many players out there like this," he said. "Especially with the games already starting. In general, looking at the pool of players out there, most organizations needing an extra player aren't going to go into that pool. They're going to go with young kids."

Rule changes may be part of the equation. Prior to the present Basic Agreement, which was signed after the 2006 season, there were all kinds of drop-dead dates for the signing of free agents, the most important of which were these: if a team hadn't signed its own free agents by early January, that team couldn't bring them back until May 1.

That gave clubs incentive to get free agent deals done early. Now that those dates have been stripped from the agreement, the market is taking a different complexion.

"It's been sort of a defined market," said Josh Byrnes, in his third season as GM of the Diamondbacks. "There have been a lot of big trades and that affects everything. There was Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte staying with the Yankees and that was a lot of money spent by a large-market team.

"Obviously there's a pocket of teams that feel like they want to give opportunities to young players without creating competition. And there are some clubs that are sort of in a rebuilding process."

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of good players out there. Jeff Cirillo, Ryan Klesko, Jose Mesa, Damian Miller and Corey Patterson. Raise your hands if you're still looking for a job, please.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for reporters Thomas Harding and Steve Gilbert contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.