Four years ago it was Jose Contreras, a year later came Alex Rodriguez, following the 2004 season Carl Pavano was the man and last winter Johnny Damon provided center of intrigue.
So what player is going to serve as the proverbial rope in this offseason's tug-of-war between the Red Sox and Yankees? His name is Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he is about to add a whole lot of spice to baseball's hot-stove season.
Matsuzaka is a 26-year-old right-handed starting pitcher who has shown big league scouts enough to lump him in with Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt on the very short list of available free-agent hurlers who could slide into the top of a team's rotation.
"He's the real deal," said one National League general manager. "We thought we might have some interest in him but then it started to come out what the posting price might be, and it got too expensive for us."
When it becomes too pricey for most, that's when you can count on the Sox and Yanks to be involved.
Sometime in early November, the mere rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka (and his soon-to-be agent, Scott Boras) will be pursued by interested major league clubs via sealed bids. Word throughout baseball is that the winning bid, or posting fee, will be between $15 million and $30 million and is slated to be awarded to the highest bidder in mid-December. The posting fee goes to Matsuzaka's Japanese League team, the Seibu Lions.
The highest posting fee ever paid for a player was to Ichiro Suzuki in 2000, when Seattle doled out $13.125 million to negotiate with the outfielder.
The winning organization will have 30 days to talk with Matsuzaka, who made slightly less than $5 million this past season with the Lions. Preliminary estimates suggest that the pitcher, who introduced himself to U.S. baseball fans by earning the MVP award in the World Baseball Classic last March, will garner a four- to five-year contract, paying out between $10 million to $12 million per year.
In the end, whichever team claims victory in the Matsuzaka Sweepstakes will have potentially invested $80 million to $90 million in a pitcher who hasn't thrown a single major league pitch.
But the Red Sox and Yankees have a need, and, by most accounts, this is the guy who just might be best suited to plug whatever hole either team is saddled with.
"It might depend on the team, but he could potentially be a No. 1 (starter)," said Kat Nagao, a writer for Monthly Major League, a Japan-based magazine, who has seen Matsuzaka pitch eight times over the past five years. "He has the best slider in Japan right now. His fastball was clocked at 96 mph in the WBC, but that was just in spring training time. Usually, it's in the low to mid-90s. The only thing that worries me about him is that he has pitched a lot."