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Ramirez remains top free-agent hitter

Ramirez remains top free-agent hitter

With little more than two weeks to go before Spring Training camps open in Florida and Arizona, there is one dominant position player remaining among a still-rich group of free agents: Manny Ramirez.

But like neat bookends to this strange offseason, the free agency signing period began with little talk about anyone except Ramirez and should end on the same note, whether he re-signs with the Dodgers or not.

In between, the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira, the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez, the Cubs signed Milton Bradley and the Rays signed Pat Burrell. Still out there is a veritable who's who of former All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers: Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, Garret Anderson, Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Hudson, Jason Varitek, Ken Griffey Jr., Ivan Rodriguez and Frank Thomas.

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But the big surprise?

"Well, Manny, of course," said agent Barry Axelrod, who represents the Padres' Jake Peavy and unsigned free agents Rich Aurilia and Mark Sweeney. "But that's a whole different scenario with Manny and who he is and the way he handles things.

"Manny was going to be a circus no matter what. That's the way Manny is and who he is. Yeah, I am surprised he isn't signed. But then again, as they say, that's just 'Manny being Manny.'"

While the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a seven-year deal worth $161 million (a record for a pitcher), Teixeira took home what was by far the biggest bag of loot for any position player this offseason when he inked an eight-year deal for $180 million.

From there, the drop-off was precipitous, with Ibanez and Bradley each signing for three years at $30 million and Burrell taking two years at $16 million. Abreu, another Type A free agent corner outfielder, may have to be content with a similar deal.

"If you're used to making -- and I'll just use $10 million as an example -- and then all of a sudden the market's only $5 million, you're not usually jumping on those things," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager.

"It takes a while for that to sink in. Now in some cases, some players have done very well, too. But what's happened is the star players have received their dollars, and then there are a lot of other guys who are still available."

Despite the focus on the economy, a change in free agency actually began to take shape last year, when a number of older free agent position players still were on the market as Spring Training started. That group included Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Kenny Lofton. None of them ever signed, and Piazza retired before the season was out.

A significant alteration of the rules governed by the latest Basic Agreement led to this sea change in the free-agent climate. Until last year, teams had until Jan. 7 to re-sign their own free agents, or they couldn't negotiate with them again until May 1. That resulted in a flurry of signings in December and just after the New Year.

Now, in the Basic Agreement that was collectively bargained prior to the 2007 season, there is no such deadline. Thus, teams can continue to talk to their own free agents. That change alone has led to some players making mistaken judgments.

"You could go back and look at the Kenny Lofton scenario from a year ago," said Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' new GM and a special assistant to Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin for the past two seasons. "Kenny had offers and didn't sign, and he didn't play. As we move forward in the next few weeks, players might have to settle for something. Not that they necessarily want to, but that might be the reality we're in."

Hot Stove

And that brings us back to Ramirez. The veteran slugger is -- like Teixeira and the unsigned Varitek, Anderson, Rodriguez, Joe Crede, Andruw Jones and Brad Wilkerson -- represented by agent Scott Boras, who now says other teams aside from the Dodgers are involved in the Manny derby and that Ramirez will be signed by the start of Spring Training.

"I can't put a timetable on this, but I know that Spring Training is a long time away," Boras told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "At this pace, I anticipate that we would have something done by then. Things are progressing for Manny."

In November, just before the full free agent signing period began, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti made a two-year guaranteed offer worth $45 million to Ramirez at the General Managers Meetings. When Boras didn't respond, the offer was taken off the table.

During those meetings, Boras said his 36-year-old client should be paid until he is 42, like Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, former and current clients of his. That came after a season in which Ramirez fell out of favor with the Red Sox and had a torrid two months of hitting for the Dodgers. Thus, Boras told the baseball world he was looking for a six-year contract in the neighborhood of $25 million a year.

"[In 2007], when we did [Alex's deal], the key negotiating point was that he be paid to the same age that Barry Bonds was paid. And so we have two extraordinary hitters in Bonds and A-Rod that were paid to the age of 42," Boras said at the time.

"Bonds was a franchise player who literally paid for himself with the people he put in the seats and his historic home run performance. Those players are like Manny Ramirez."

Instead, it was the 28-year-old Teixeira who received that kind of contract. The Dodgers' offer to Ramirez is the only one that publicly has come to the forefront. The explanations have included Manny's sometimes brooding personality, his temper and his forced departure from the Red Sox, who were so anxious to get rid of him at the non-waiver July 31 Trade Deadline that they paid his salary for the remainder of the year, during which he took the Dodgers into the second round of the playoffs.

In addition, teams have been reluctant to meet the demands of a long-term contract for a player who could be hobbled in his 40s. Note that Bonds suffered through three knee surgeries at that advanced age, forcing him to miss almost the entire 2005 season for the Giants.

During the course of the negotiations, Boras has used the Giants as Ramirez bait, but there seems to be little interest there at that price and length of deal. Ditto the Mets, whose general manager, Omar Minaya, is focusing on adding more pitching.

"I know the perception out there again is that ownership said no," the Mets' chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon, told Bloomberg News last week. "I don't have the opportunity to say no because Omar hasn't brought it to me as an option. Omar and the baseball staff aren't interested."

The Dodgers have made it plain they still want Ramirez, but not at the accelerated payment plan Boras is seeking. And Boras isn't budging -- not yet, anyway.

"I have made clear the proposal we would have to have to make a deal with a Major League team," Boras said. "Ned has a very clear understanding of what it would take to sign Manny."

He (as do the others) has about two weeks until Spring Training comes around -- and counting.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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