From Mike Mussina to Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have captured a major prize in each of the past four offseasons. Though little figures to change this winter, rival clubs will provide more competition than in the recent past -- and not even George Steinbrenner can sign every star.
The Yankees remain the favorites to land free-agent center fielder Carlos Beltran and trade for Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson. But it takes only a little imagination to conjure up matches that would exclude the Yankees and redistribute top players -- if teams open their wallets and their minds:
* Carlos Beltran and the Cubs. Until the Cubs trade Sammy Sosa -- and make no mistake, they would need to dump Sosa before signing Beltran -- this notion will remain closer to fantasy than reality. Even then, it's difficult to imagine the cost-conscious Tribune Co. outbidding Steinbrenner and other clubs.
The Cubs' needs include second base, shortstop and relief pitching. But if they can acquire Beltran and a low-budget outfielder to replace Sosa and Moises Alou, their nucleus of position players would consist of first baseman Derrek Lee, 29; Beltran, 27; third baseman Aramis Ramirez, 26, and outfielder Corey Patterson, 25. Pretty darned good.
To make it all work, the Cubs likely would need to take back contracts in a Sosa deal and/or pay a large portion of the $43 million that Sosa is owed over the next two seasons if he's traded -- and pay the $15 million-plus salary that Beltran almost certainly would command long term. Agent Scott Boras will seek the highest bidder, and the Phillies, Orioles, Angels and Red Sox all could be in the mix.
* Adrian Beltre and the Orioles. Beltre could be this year's Ivan Rodriguez, lingering on the market until a surprise bidder emerges. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt figures to balk at re-signing Beltre, citing Beltre's lack of track record and Boras' high price tag. The Mariners and Tigers are among the teams that could use Beltre. But the Mariners rarely spend big and play in a park that neutralizes right-handed power. The Tigers' park is a similar deterrent.
The Orioles, seeking a right-handed slugger, would prefer a first baseman or outfielder to avoid disrupting third baseman Melvin Mora. Free-agent third baseman Troy Glaus would be ideal if he were willing to move to first. A better plan would be to sign Beltre and stick Mora back in center field. Beltre would join shortstop Miguel Tejada in providing dynamic leadership, superior defense and big-time power.
* Randy Johnson and the Cardinals. The Cardinals' embarrassing four-game loss in the World Series underscored their need for dominant starting pitching. A healthy Chris Carpenter would have helped, but a rotation fronted by Johnson and Carpenter would give the Cardinals a 1-2 punch to rival any in baseball.
The question ultimately might be whether the Cardinals would sacrifice two young pitchers that the Diamondbacks likely would demand -- right-hander Dan Haren and left-hander Rick Ankiel -- for one year of Johnson at $16.5 million. Haren shows promise, but most teams view him as a No. 3 starter. Ankiel, who knows?
For Johnson to waive his no-trade clause, he might require a contract extension that would begin when he's 42. The risk would be substantial, but the Cardinals can afford it -- they will open their new revenue-producing ballpark in 2006.
* Troy Glaus and the Red Sox. Change is inevitable for the Sox because of their large number of free agents. Club officials don't want to overdo it, knowing they need to address their starting pitching and sign a shortstop before adding excess at first base or third. But imagine Glaus batting fifth behind Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, especially if the Sox lose catcher Jason Varitek. Glaus might knock down the Green Monster.
Glaus is a lifelong Southern Californian, but his wife, Ann, is an equestrian rider who spends a good part of her summer competing on the East Coast; that could be a "huge factor" in his decision, a friend says. Coming off shoulder surgery, Glaus hit well as a DH for the Angels down the stretch, and he resumed throwing this week, intending to return to third.
If the Sox sign Glaus, they could trade third baseman Bill Mueller, whose $2.5 million salary is attractive. They also could move Mueller to second, but that would mean displacing Mark Bellhorn, who led AL second basemen with an .817 on-base plus slugging percentage.
* Magglio Ordonez and the Giants. This would take some work. The Giants' No. 1 priority is a closer, and free agent Armando Benitez might relish pitching for manager Felipe Alou, a fellow Dominican. The problem is, Benitez or another closer would cost at least $4 million, and as usual with the Giants, money is tight.
The team needs to clear payroll by trading one or more players from a group that includes catcher A.J. Pierzynski, second baseman Ray Durham and third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo.
* Pedro Martinez and the Padres. First, the Padres would need to unload left fielder Ryan Klesko, who will be paid $10 million next season. The Padres are talking about attaching third baseman Sean Burroughs to Klesko as an enticement, but they wouldn't trade Burroughs and Xavier Nady for Beltran last summer. Even if San Diego reverses direction on Burroughs, which would free up third for Nady, it probably would redirect its savings toward an outfielder, not a pitcher.
Martinez, though, is a special case, and the Padres -- an NL team that boasts a strong bullpen and a pitcher-friendly park -- represent an unusually good fit. Martinez would benefit from the warm climate and would work deeper into games against weaker NL lineups.