Who knows. Maybe Alfonso Soriano will prove such a free-agent prize over the next eight years that the Cubs won't even mind paying the slugger a mind-numbing $17 million at the age of 38.
Probably not, but hey, who knows.
On the surface, Soriano looks to be a good signing for Chicago, which finished 2006 next-to-last in the National League in runs scored. But consider the long-term salary commitment to a guy who will enter 2007 at the age of 31, and it's a virtual guarantee that the Cubs will not receive a top-of-his game Soriano for the life of his eight-year, $136 million deal.
Soriano's agreement likely will send ripples across the free-agent market, as the going rate for outfield help has now been set with Soriano’s deal. And it may have already sent certain ramifications into the trading market for power sluggers who represent better options than the free-swinging Soriano, namely finally opening the door more than a crack for Manny Ramirez to get his ticket out of Boston.
This, of course, puts the Red Sox in a major predicament as they look to retool for 2007. While the rate for JD Drew may have just gone (implausibly) even higher, the Sox possess a relative bargain in Ramirez in comparison to some of the numbers his colleagues and less-than-equals are pulling in this offseason. Is it viable to sign Drew for more or similar dollars to those of Ramirez, then turn around and trade a player who, though superior to Drew, is most recently remembered in Boston for effectively quitting on his team down the stretch? How much more will it cost to replace Ramirez than to keep him? And is it worth the headache either way?
With Soriano gone a serious market may now open for Ramirez's services, or so it would seem, with the Angels likely at the top of the list after Los Angeles lost out on the Soriano sweepstakes. They reportedly offering a five- of six-year deal worth around $14 million annually.
"That's a big number, and beyond where we thought his value was," Angels GM Bill Stoneman told the LA Times after inking relief pitcher Justin Speier to a costly four-year, $18 million deal.
Speier is a pitcher the Red Sox had shown interest in over the last week. Now, the Sox could ironically be looking instead at some of the Angels' surplus of bullpen arms, possibly in a deal for Ramirez. Ervin Santana's name will certainly come up yet again, but Brendan Donnelly (6-0 with a 3.94 ERA in 62 games), who could double his $950,000 salary in arbitration next season, could certainly be had in any potential deal. The Baltimore Sun also suggests that the Angels would deal one of the best setup men in the game, Scot Shields (7-7, 2.87 ERA in 87.7 innings last season), as part of any deal for a slugger.
Three years after their failed attempt to land Ramirez (a short, quiet, period you might remember involving Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra), the Rangers might want to make another go at it. Before signing Frank Catalanotto to a rather cost-effective three-year, $13 million deal, the team contacted the Red Sox about Ramirez, but certainly any Red Sox interest in shortstop Michael Young would need to involve a blockbuster, multi-player deal in both directions. And with the Rangers also in desperate need of stockpiling pitchers, there doesn't seem to be a great fit here.
If the Red Sox were more apt to ship Ramirez off to the National League, where his bat would have limited impact against them over the course of the season, there might be options as well. In Houston, they aren't quite grasping at desperation yet after losing Soriano, what with Carlos Lee still there for the taking, but the Houston Chronicle's Jose De Jesus Ortiz suggests the team ship reliever Brad Lidge, outfield prospect Hunter Pence, and outfielder/infielder Chris Burke along with $4 million in cash to Boston for Ramirez. As interested as the Sox might be in Lidge to be their closer, that's probably not enough to pry Ramirez away.
Perhaps the only place more frightening to see Ramirez go as a pitcher other than the tiny confines of Houston would be the thin air of Colorado. The New York Daily News' Bill Madden rightfully points out how interested the Sox have been in starter Jason Jennings, and wonders if the teams could pull off a deal involving Ramirez, Jennings, and Todd Helton. The sticking point in any such deal for Boston would certainly be the massive amount remaining on Helton's deal ($16.6 million per season 2007-10, $19.1 million in 2011, $23M club option ($4.6M buyout) for 2012), not to mention his startling power decline the past two seasons.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jim Salisbury pushed Phillies GM Pat Gillick toward a Ramirez trade, suggesting it might be time to accept the headache. The Phillies would love to ship Pat Burrell to Boston, but it remains to be seen how the Sox would react to such a vanilla option. Righty Geoff Geary (7-1, 2.96 ERA in 81 games) might be a good fit in the Red Sox' pen.
As a 10-5 player (10 years in the league, five years with the same team), Ramirez would need to approve any deal. While he has specifically mentioned the West Coast and New York as preferred destinations (and don't forget Cleveland), it might take a significant contract extension for him to consider Houston, Denver, or Philadelphia. And with Ramirez, who has mentioned retirement at the end of his current deal, who knows if even that is enough to sway him there.
In the end, the destination that makes the most sense is again the Los Angeles Angels, as it was a year ago when the Red Sox sniffed around as to the interest in Ramirez. No other team can offer the arms that the Angels can, while at the same time providing Ramirez with a preferred destination, Southern California, where a laid-back fan base would go hand-in-hand with Ramirez's nature.
But while Theo Epstein can certainly get legitimate value in exchange for Ramirez's bat this winter, the prevailing question needs to be: Is trading your offensive cornerstone, at $34 million over the next two seasons, an intelligent move based on the going rate for what it might cost to replace him?
Once we see what kind of money Lee gets from somebody, get set to begin this watch in earnest.