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MLB Executives Head to Disney World

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) _ Baseball's top executives have converged on Disney World for the sport's winter meetings, and they brought their checkbooks.

Not for the theme parks _ which manage to separate the surplus cash from many a tourist _ but for the annual free agent bazaar that has seen prices rise this offseason like no other since December, 2000.

``The market has definitely spiked. There's no doubt about it,'' said Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who arrived with his top lieutenants on Sunday. ``It's clear that there's a lot of available money to be spent, probably more holes on teams than players to fill them.''

The Red Sox figure to be in the middle of things again this year as they shop enigmatic outfielder Manny Ramirez, whose eight-year, $160 million contract was part of the 2000 bull market. That same year, Alex Rodriguez signed a record 10-year, $252 million deal with Texas.

Both contracts proved regrettable when the market cooled in subsequent years. But that hasn't stopped the Chicago Cubs from giving Alfonso Soriano a $136 million deal or the Houston Astros from throwing $100 million at Carlos Lee.

``I don't know that we're back to the days of 2000-01,'' Epstein said, noting that the new collective bargaining agreement has increased revenues throughout the sport. ``There can be big contracts signed that aren't necessarily irresponsible signings. It seems players and teams are both doing well right now.''

Among the top free agents available are Barry Bonds, who is closing in on Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, and Oakland lefty Barry Zito.

Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris, was angry that the Giants didn't offer salary arbitration to the 42-year-old left fielder, coming off a $90 million, five-year contract with San Francisco. Scott Boras represents Zito, who spent his first seven seasons with the Oakland Athletics and is the top free-agent pitcher in a market desperately seeking arms.

Boras, known for pushing for high prices, also represents Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka. Boston bid $51,111,111 just for the right to negotiate with the Seibu Lions' ace under baseball's posting system; they have a Dec. 14 deadline to reach an agreement or he will return to Japan and Boston would keep its bid.

The New York Yankees offered $26,000,194 for Kei Igawa, projected as a No. 4 starter. Jason Schmidt is among the other big-name pitchers on the market.

But some teams are staying away from big-name free agents, preferring to concentrate on lower-priced players and trades.

``We're going to sign them to the value we think is right, not what the market is dictating,'' St. Louis Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. ``The market right now is kind of silly, and it may continue to be silly.''

Some players regarded as less-than-top-line stars have gotten huge contracts, a group that includes outfielders Gary Matthews Jr. ($50 million over five years from Los Angeles Angels) and Juan Pierre ($44 million over five years from Cubs). After opting out of the final three years and $33 million of guaranteed money from the Los Angeles Dodgers, J.D. Drew is in the final stages of completing a $70 million, five-year agreement with the Red Sox.

``I don't think anyone anticipated this spike a year ago. Otherwise they would have locked up all their players,'' Epstein said. ``There are a lot of clubs with holes to fill so it should be an exciting meeting.''

All that money has caught the attention of commissioner Bud Selig, who repeatedly has warned teams about making lengthy big-money deals. But he said he isn't ready to draw any conclusions on whether teams have gone too far.

``I want to let this whole thing play out, then I'll make a judgment,'' Selig said. ``It's a little too early yet.''
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