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New crop of free agents on the spot

New crop of free agents on the spot

Some 160 years after Sutter's Mill, California can still mount a pretty cool gold rush. More young men have gone West, among them teams' new centerpieces.

The gold standard is healthy in Los Angeles, with both the Dodgers' Andruw Jones and the Angels' Torii Hunter, and in San Francisco, with Aaron Rowand. All three, among the coming season's highest-profile free agents, earned Gold Gloves last season.

Factor in new San Diego center fielder Jim Edmonds, and that's a haul of 26 lifetime Gold Gloves. But fans up and down the coast are hoping against fool's gold, because playing in free agency's crosshairs is nobody's comfort zone.

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It isn't easy being in the green. Just ask Barry Zito, Gary Matthews Jr., Gil Meche or any of the high-profile free agents who spent 2007 squirming under the microscope, like germs in a petri dish.

The big bucks come with big expectations that are virtually impossible to meet, sabotaged by either individual or team travails. Or, both.

After last winter's biggest payday, Zito, the former left-handed ace of the Oakland A's, stumbled miserably on the National League side of The Bay. He had a losing record (11-13) for the first time in his career and an ERA (4.53) a run above his lifetime mark, while the Giants were the only NL West club with a losing record.

Stung? You bet.

"Last year I felt singled out on the team and didn't feel like one of the guys. It's tough enough coming to a new team," Zito said earlier this spring, "and with the contract, you almost feel more singled out."

Matthews felt it with the Angels -- very literally in his case, after his name surfaced in the probe of an HGH-dispensing online pharmacy just as Spring Training was getting under way. Although he went on to post run-production numbers nearly identical to his 2006 output in Texas, his average dipped 61 points.

Alfonso Soriano felt it on the North Side, where he again was one of the game's lowest-impact clutch hitters (.248 with men in scoring position, explaining how he had 33 homers but only 70 RBIs). J.D. Drew felt it in Boston, at least until his ALCS grand slam gave people amnesia.

And Meche felt it in Kansas City, which gave him as many millions (55) as he had Major League wins. He had a tough time rationalizing a career-worst 9-13 record with poor run support. Even though that's what he had -- at 3.92 runs per nine innings, it was officially the worst in the AL.

But no one wants to hear it.

Free Agents on the Spot
Player
From
To
Contract
Stats*
Mike CameronPadresBrewers1 yr, $7M.343, 3, 8
Kosuke FukudomeChunichiCubs4 yrs, $48M.224, 1, 5
Jose GuillenMarinersRoyals3 yrs, $36M.176, 1, 4
Torii HunterTwinsAngels5 yrs, $90M.375, 3, 10
Geoff JenkinsBrewersPhillies2 yrs, $13M.218, 2, 5
Andruw JonesBravesDodgers2 yrs, $36.2M.244, 3, 8
Jason KendallCubsBrewers1 yr, $4.25M.317, 0, 1
Mike LambAstrosTwins2 yrs, $6.6M.367, 0, 1
Kazuo MatsuiRockiesAstros3 yrs, $16.5M.333, 0, 4
Aaron RowandPhilliesGiants5 yrs, $60M.309, 2, 10
Francisco CorderoBrewersReds4 yrs, $46M7, 2.57
Octavio DotelBravesWhite Sox2 yrs, $11M7 1/3, 11.05
Eric GagneRed SoxBrewers1 yr, $10M6, 7.50
Livan HernandezD-backsTwins1 yr, $5M18, 8.00
Hiroki KurodaHiroshimaDodgers3 yrs, $35M14, 5.14
Scott LinebrinkBrewersWhite Sox4 yrs, $19M8 2/3, 3.12
Ron MahayBravesRoyals2 yrs, $8M6, 7.50
Troy PercivalCardinalsRays2 yrs, $8M6, 12.00
David RiskeRoyalsBrewers3 yrs, $13M7 2/3, 2.35
Luis VizcainoYankeesRockies2 yrs, $7.5M2 2/3, 16.87
*Batting average, home runs and RBIs for hitters; innings and ERA for pitchers. Spring stats through Sunday.

Just like they'll be all captive, but not all ears, when this year's big-ticket free agents camp under the spotlight.

Despite frequent portrayals of the most recent free-agent market as weak, it wasn't totally barren. While there weren't any nine-figure contracts like those of Zito and Soriano, enough bills were peeled off to create some marked men.

The half dozen featured here collectively bagged $336 million, a tidy one-third billion that will get anyone's attention.

From the get-go, no one will have more on him than Kosuke Fukudome, because he had fueled one of the offseason's most competitive recruitments and because he's the Next Big Thing from Japan. Also, because the Cubs' own new center fielder hasn't showcased his myriad of talents during a trying spring.

Fukudome is key to Lou Piniella's lineup, ideally the No. 5 left-handed bat breaking up an all-righty heart featuring Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. But the 30-year-old hasn't looked comfortable, and while the proverbial "period of adjustment" might fit, it will be a lot more challenging in Chicago than it has been in Mesa, Ariz.

"In his defense," Piniella said, "we've been moving him around in the lineup. I think maybe he's putting a little pressure on himself to do too many things early. If he just relaxes and plays, he'll be fine."

Agreeing from a knowledgeable perspective is Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman who had come form his Japanese roots to play, and excel, on Chicago's other side with the White Sox.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

"I don't think he'll have too much trouble making the transition," Iguchi said. "He's a very mentally tough guy, so I don't think he'll have any trouble with Cubs fans."

Piniella doesn't have to be sold on Fukudome's toughness. The manager was impressed when he chose No. 1 for his uniform.

"I love the fact he took that number. That tells me a lot about the individual," Piniella said. "He's a very confident young man; I don't think you do that if you have doubts."

Confidence is also most important in the repertoires of the two pitchers who went Meche this winter -- cashing in with contracts that baffled cynics.

Carlos Silva, the former Twin, followed Meche a little too literally for some people. He and his 55-46 lifetime record were nailed by the Mariners -- who the year before had passed on Meche and his 55-44 lifetime record.

Seattle GM Bill Bavasi likes Silva's stuff, and the attitude that could become contagious.

"This team brought me here for one reason, and it wasn't just to be a good guy on the team,'' said Silva, who has already impressed new teammates with his work ethic. "I want the entire Northwest to feel, 'This is what we paid all that good money for.'"

Anointed Cincinnati savior Francisco Cordero has an even bigger show-them task. He got the richest-ever deal for a closer 18 months after virtually being drummed out of Texas. Yet, while many wilt in the heat of impending free agency, the 32-year-old righty did dial up 44 saves and 86 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings for Milwaukee.

"An amazing situation for me, having my best season. I helped [the Brewers], and they helped me by giving me a second chance," Cordero said.

Did Milwaukee help Cordero even more than he realizes? In 42 home games, he sported a 1.09 ERA while holding opponents to a .143 average; the numbers for 24 road games were 6.55 and .337.

Those doting too much on that split could get the same treatment from Cordero as he gave the Rangers: "I guess they thought that I was finished. I proved them wrong."

Disproving critics is a challenge also facing the Golden Guys.

Jones needs to show that his nosedived production -- .232 in 257 games since June 2006 -- hasn't been the onset of a premature career decline.

"I don't make excuses. I just didn't produce the way I was supposed to," Jones said. "Those years happen sometimes. But you learn from it and move on. It was a bad time to struggle, but what can I say?"

Outfielder George Lombard, in the Dodgers' camp as a non-roster invitee, came up through the Braves' system with Jones and thinks motivation will provoke him into a monster season.

"He's the best player I've ever been on the field with," Lombard said. "If he feels he needs to have a big year to prove something, he can do it."

In contrast to Jones, Rowand approached free agency with his absolute best season. People are wondering whether it was wise of the Giants to commit $60 million to an outfielder who had averaged 11 homers and 43 RBIs in the six seasons before breaking out for 27 and 89.

Although, even the cynics must love the idea of the Giants following Bonds with Aaron.

His Giants teammates already sense that Rowand's influence will extend beyond whatever numbers he puts up.

"He's changed the energy," said Dave Roberts, the left fielder. "That's one thing he brings every day, and it's contagious. Guys will feed off that."

As unlikely as it must seem, Hunter shares this burden of proving people wrong. You expect a gentleman with his golden personality and outfield acrobatics coming off a career offensive season (.287, 28 homers, 107 RBIs) to have rose petals strewn in his path, but his signing by the Angels provoked mostly sneers.

When new general manager Tony Reagins unexpectedly swooped in and bagged Hunter, owner Arte Moreno's vow to land an "impact bat" was derisively thrown back into the club's faces.

The skepticism so weighed on Hunter, the Angels were in their fifth exhibition before he made an out, and it was game No. 8 before he stopped getting two hits a day. Heck, Torii had consecutive 2-for-3 games in early March -- and his average dropped both days.

"This team can play," Hunter said of the Angels. "It's an easy transition. I want these guys to like me, and when I got here, they embraced me. I love it."

What he most loves is no longer having to trot out to Angel Stadium's center field in the bottom of the eighth with that Rally Simean leaping around on the scoreboard.

"I'm happy to be on the monkey's side," said Hunter, who like all of this season's marked free agents knows that having the monkey next to you is better than having him on your back.

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

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