The Week That Was in Baseball: January 26-February 1, 2009
Sweating Time for Baseball's Free Agents Joe Torre Rocks the Yankee Boat
Joe Nathan: Relieved
If Barry Bonds' Ex-Teammates Could Talk (Oh, They Are)

Money Balks
In the annual winter war of baseball’s free agency, the balance of power has clearly shifted to the owners, using the sinking economy as an excuse that’s as convenient as it is realistic. If unsigned marquee free agents like Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu still think they can command top dollar in the remaining two months before the season starts, they may need a reality check after what happened this past week to Andy Pettitte and Jason Varitek—both of whom learned a hard lesson in playing hardball amid a panicked economy. Pettitte originally said he would not take a pay cut from the $16 million he earned last year, turned down a $10 million deal with the incumbent New York Yankees last fall, then had to settle for $5.5 million with the Yankees when no other team was interested. Varitek, the veteran Boston catcher seeking an annual fee of $10 million-plus, also had few if any takers and could only command a take-it-or-leave it, $5 million contract for 2009 from the Red Sox. Varitek and his agent—good ol’ Scott Boras—initiated a staredown over who would blink first. But with no Option B—or, to borrow from Boras’ playbook, that “other interested, mystery team”—available, Varitek caved at the 11th hour and took the Red Sox’ offer. Wisely, Pettitte and Varitek have not publicly complained, likely noting that tens of thousands of newly unemployed American workers can only dream of raking in $5 million in guaranteed yearly income.

Meanwhile, the Manny Watch continues, and no one may be more depressed about it than Manny himself, who confided this past week that nobody wants him. Or so claims Albert Pujols, who occasionally chats with Ramirez. Pujols used Ramirez’s statements to nudge the St. Louis Cardinals into giving him a look, but management doesn’t appear interested. Nor does the front office of the New York Mets, despite the presence of what the New York Post described as a “Million Manny Watch” in downtown New York consisting of Met fans pleading with the Mets to sign Ramirez; the estimated crowd count fell short of the million mark by about 999,960. Perhaps Met manager Jerry Manuel was part of the gathering, as he expressed his public support for signing Ramirez. Easy for him to say; he’s not the one who’d be paying the checks.

Timing is Everything
It turns out that the one major leaguer who came away feeling very happy about a new contract—outside of anyone who signed with the Yankees—was Minnesota closer Joe Nathan. The 34-year old pitcher, who’s been consistently tough as nails since being stolen from San Francisco to become the Twins’ closer in 2004, signed a four-year, $47 million deal early last season, before the economic storm hit; his deal nets him $10 million more in guaranteed wages than Francisco Rodriguez, who set the season save record in 2008 with 63—yet could only get a three-year deal with the Mets. Between the downturn and the glut of free agent closers this winter, there’s no doubt that Nathan would have commanded far less had he waited until the end of the season.

Aaron the Side of Futility
It’s not good news for fans of the Chicago Cubs when the team’s new ownership thinks Aaron Heilman can make it onto its starting rotation. The 30-year old right-hander, who became the poster boy for the Mets’ bullpen collapse of 2008, was earlier traded to Seattle after he all but demanded to the Mets that he become a starter. The Mariners then turned around and dealt Heilman to Chicago when they felt benchwarming infielder Ronny Cedeno and pitcher Garrett Olson (career 6.87 ERA), who they received from the Cubs, would make for a better contribution. The Cubs are optimistic that Heilman, who owns a career 5-13 record and 5.93 ERA as a starter, can break in as the number five starter in the rotation. Maybe they’ll think national unemployment will fall to 1.0% next month, too.

Unfashionably Early
Even though players are not asked to officially report to major league spring camps until mid-February, the Florida Marlins already have 40 of their players, including all five of their projected starting pitchers, warming up at their spring training site in Jupiter, Florida. Of course, early arrivals are easy when your spring camp is less than 100 miles away from your regular season home base.

He Said What?
Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan on Jason Varitek’s free agent experience: “Jason Varitek wanted to test the waters. He’s lucky he didn’t drown.”

Coming This Week to TGG
Look for our Yearly Reader update with a review of the 2008 season, and with it our supporting cast of "It Happened In...", "Leaders and Numbers" and finals standings.

Torre's Tales of Terror
Kirk Radomski would really like to give Joe Torre a good kick in the you-know-what for stealing his thunder. While Radomski’s newly-released book Bases Loaded got mild attention and lots of shoulder shrugs from a general public showing major symptoms of steroid fatigue, Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years—which also debuted—created a firestorm of controversy for comments the former Yankee skipper made about numerous people within the organization. Had it been a manager tattling about his days with, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks, it may have stirred a little local attention but little else. But this is New York, and these are the Yankees.

In Torre’s book, which he recalls his time as Yankee manager from 1996-2007, he criticizes Alex Rodriguez for not being a team player, general manager Brian Cashman for abandoning him while fighting to keep his job after 2007, outspoken pitcher David Wells for intentionally making his life “miserable,” and so on and so on. Torre saved his most poisonous venom, however, for Yankee president Randy Levine, calling him his “enemy” in the organization hell-bent on getting rid of him. The various New York media outlets had a field day in responding to the book, a ruckus so loud that it not only surprised Torre but probably made him happy, because any publicity is good publicity when it comes to selling a book. Especially when it lands you a Friday night appearance on Larry King Live.

This Week in Steroids
Thing are not looking so hot for Barry Bonds with the opening statements of his perjury trial just a month ahead. There was plenty of news related to the Bonds case this past week, and none of it was terribly favorable toward the disputed home run king. Early on, the New York Times reported that authorities reviewing evidence for the trial discovered that urine samples given by Bonds contained traces of anabolic steroids, which would contradict claims by Bonds denying such use at his 2003 grand jury appointment. Then, his former trainer, Greg Anderson, had his mother-in-law’s residence raided by Federal authorities in what was said to be a financial matter unrelated to Anderson, Bonds or BALCO—though some saw it as a pressure tactic whipped up to corner Anderson and, finally, force him to rat out his former client and friend. Perhaps the most damaging news was the release of the prosecutor’s witness list, which includes former teammate Bobby Estalella (who admitted during the BALCO hearings to being a steroid user) and both Jason and Jeremy Giambi—who admitted to having Anderson provide doping calendars similar to one the Feds claim Bonds received.

Citi Limits
There was new pressure on CitiGroup, who signed a $400 million naming rights deal for the new Met ballpark, to void the deal and save the money while taxpayers continue to help finance their bailout. But whereas previous criticism of the deal came from New York state politicians, this volley comes from U.S. Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking that the deal be killed. The Mets, of course, will do anything to head off any political attempt to nix the agreement—because if Citigroup decides to pull the plug, it will cost the Mets $20 million in annual revenue until they could find a new sponsor.

Wounded of the Week
The Texas Rangers don’t need this. The team whose 5.37 ERA last season was the majors’ worst has now lost their second pitcher to season-ending injury—even before the season has begun. Earlier it was Eric Hurley who was declared out for 2009 after rotator cuff surgery; this week it was announced that Joaquin Benoit would undergo the same procedure and would likely not be available until 2010. Neither hurler was considered critical components to the Rangers’ upcoming season, but it must be raising the paranoia factor among Ranger management in Arlington—especially as they weigh in on whether to sign injury-prone free agent pitcher Ben Sheets, as has been widely reported.

Now We Can All Breathe Easier
During Yankee Stadium’s final home game, a long-standing sign containing a Joe DiMaggio quote, “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” was stolen from its long-standing place above the runway to the Yankee clubhouse. So who took it? Was it a fan who knew his way through the bowels of the Stadium, or an opportunistic janitor, or was it privately removed at the request of George Steinbrenner? This past week, the New York Times revealed the culprit: Derek Jeter. The Yankee captain said he took the sign along with a few other items, and has no plans to do anything else but to keep them for himself. No word on whether the Yankees will reprimand Jeter or just don’t care.

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.