As of 12:01 a.m. today, the free-agent market officially opened, meaning clubs no longer have exclusive negotiating rights to the players who wore their uniforms in 2009. In other words, the wheeling and dealing is about to begin, and for all the answers we'll learn over the next few months, there figure to be just as many questions.
Take, for example, the statements of Angels general manager Tony Reagins on Thursday when asked what he expected to see once those Friday floodgates opened.
"It remains to be seen," Reagins said. "I know everybody is taking into consideration what the economic environment is, not only in baseball but in the country. The economy has improved, but not drastically, so I think it's going to be interesting how the next 30 days play out."
He certainly made it interesting last winter.
Reagins was the astute executive who took advantage of the chilly offseason climate and signed Bobby Abreu to a one-year, $5 million deal mere days before pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training. Abreu hit .293 and drove in 103 runs in 2009 as the Angels advanced to the American League Championship Series, making his late signing the steal of the season and making his two-year, $19 million re-up with the Angels a no-brainer.
We'll see if the rest of the big-name signings are as quick, decisive and comparatively lucrative.
The marquee player on the grid seems to be right-hander John Lackey, a big, strong starting pitcher who's only 31 years old and already has World Series experience and over 100 Major League wins to his credit. In short, he's the closest thing to this year's version of CC Sabathia, who set the tone for the 2008 offseason by signing a seven-year, $161 million deal with the Yankees and paving the way for the other star signings that followed.
Already, Lackey's potential price tag has scared away teams that could have been viewed as suitors. As recently as Thursday, Dodgers president Dennis Mannion told the Los Angeles Times that his team was most likely out of the running for Lackey, and even Angels owner Arte Moreno, who said his club won't lower its payroll for 2010, conceded to the paper that the Angels also probably won't be able to afford Lackey and their free-agent third baseman and leadoff man, Chone Figgins.
Where does that leave the other free-agent headliners, such as slugging outfielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay? Well, probably with teams that can afford them and need big bats in the middle of contending lineups.
That's why it's not surprising that the Red Sox are still viewed as the favorites to re-sign Bay, and that's why Holliday's name has been linked to such high-payroll clubs as the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets, although the Cardinals are holding out hope that they can re-sign the player that energized their pennant race after arriving from the Oakland A's in a July trade.
But there are a lot more quality names out there on the big board, 171 of them in all after Andy Pettitte and Fernando Tatis were the last two to officially file Thursday, so a lot of teams will be scouring the list for the most performance at the best price.
If you're looking for pitching, you can choose from starters Erik Bedard, Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, Randy Wolf, Pettitte, Jon Garland, Justin Duchscherer, Joel Pineiro, Brad Penny, Kelvim Escobar, Jarrod Washburn, Jason Marquis, Carl Pavano and maybe even Randy Johnson. And don't forget about relievers Jose Valverde, Billy Wagner, Rafael Soriano, Darren Oliver, Fernando Rodney, Brandon Lyon and Mike Gonzalez.
Hitters and position players not named Holliday and Bay include former Yankees Johnny Damon and World Series MVP Hideki Matsui plus Figgins, Nick Johnson, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Delgado, Vladimir Guerrero, Felipe Lopez, Adrian Beltre, Bengie Molina, Orlando Hudson, Ronnie Belliard, Miguel Tejada, Adam LaRoche, Orlando Cabrera, Marco Scutaro, Craig Counsell, Marlon Byrd, Mike Cameron, Rick Ankiel, Aubrey Huff, Xavier Nady and Russell Branyan.
Teams expected to show some level of interest include the Mets, whose visions of October were quickly dashed in a 2009 season full of injuries and underperformance; the Angels, who could end up losing Lackey, Figgins and Guerrero; the Yankees, who might have to replace Damon and Matsui; the Red Sox, who need a big bat; and the Dodgers, who have lost to the Phillies in the National League Championship Series the last two years.
So who will go first, what will the market show, and how will this winter proceed?
It's anyone's guess, especially after last year, when over 100 free agents of a class of more than 200 were still available a month before teams reported to their spring camps.
"I have no idea what will happen," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "From our perspective, you just don't know what players or teams are going to do until everything happens, so you can't predict anything.
"You target a player or two or three players, whatever your needs are, and you see what happens. Everything else is pure conjecture and it happens the way it happens."
Agent Barry Meister, who represents Randy Johnson, Counsell and Lyon, said he's already seen some positive signs.
"At least now, in the very short period that we've had, I can't really identify a trend, but there has probably been more activity and I've been getting more phone calls," said Meister, who also said he was encouraged by the recent re-signings of starter Tim Hudson by Atlanta (three years, $28 million) and shortstop Jack Wilson by Seattle (two years, $10 million).
"Then again, I am an optimist by nature."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.