Premier names spark Hot Stove discussions
Pujols, Fielder, Reyes and Wilson among most coveted
The final out of the World Series signals a green light for all 30 Major League teams to get back in the game and think about 2012, as baseball's second season -- the Hot Stove league -- begins in every city.
Star players will be wooed to new uniforms, general managers and agents will be tethered to cell phones, and reporters across the country will try to keep up with the latest drips from that faucet of free agency.
As per recent changes to baseball's Basic Agreement, free agents have five days to negotiate exclusively with their current clubs, shortened from the previous time frame of 15 days. Starting with the sixth day, those players can negotiate and sign with any club.
This means that it will soon be open season for the coveted cream of this year's free agency crop, as players like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson could be trying on new caps by the turn of the new year.
Pujols peeled off his Cardinals jersey for what might have been the final time as the World Series ended. The 31-year-old slugger will now face a much more pressing dilemma than to call his own hit-and-run, as he did in Game 5 of the Fall Classic.
St. Louis reveres Pujols, but it will wait as the three-time MVP ponders his opportunity to shop the open market -- just after joining Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to homer three times in a World Series game.
He reportedly turned down a nine-year offer from the Cardinals worth more than $190 million last offseason, and has emphatically side-stepped any questions concerning just how stratospheric his demands might be.
"Let's talk about something else," Pujols said during the World Series. "Let's talk about baseball."
Fielder offers company in the department of first basemen who can bash the ball a long way. The Brewers lined up to hug Fielder after their elimination in the National League Championship Series, uncertain if it was his final game representing Milwaukee.
Fielder had one of his finest all-around seasons in 2011. His agent, Scott Boras, will not negotiate with the Brewers during the post-World Series period of exclusivity, ensuring Fielder will hit the open market.
"Obviously, everybody knew it was my free-agent year," Fielder said. "But the amount of fun ... it's been the easiest year I've ever had, for some reason."
There are big names on the pitching front. Within three days of the World Series, Yankees ace CC Sabathia must decide if he will opt out of the remaining four years and $92 million on his contract.
Sabathia could command upwards of six years and $150 million in a new deal, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman said of Sabathia, "No doubt, it'll be the No. 1 thing to deal with and talk about."
Across town, Reyes will set the tone for the Mets' winter. Reyes is coming off an NL batting title (.337), but GM Sandy Alderson said they'll have to weigh his injury history against paying the shortstop in the ballpark of $20 million per season.
"We were fortunate to experience an outstanding year from Jose," Alderson said. "There's obviously uncertainty about where he'll be next year, but we will see where that takes us."
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is also set to hit the market and could be cheaper than Reyes, and though he is looking for a five-year deal, Rollins said there is a "good chance" he'll stay in Philadelphia.
Teams in search of starters will take a long look at the Rangers' Wilson, who was 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA. He'll be 31 and is left-handed, but may have cost himself with a relatively subpar postseason -- not that he's been thinking about it.
"As soon as the question gets up, I start thinking about something else," Wilson said. "I don't even pay attention to it. ... I just picture myself, like, surfing or whatever, somewhere else."
Wilson heads a list of starters that includes White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle, the Cardinals' Edwin Jackson and -- possibly -- Japanese standout Yu Darvish, if he goes through the posting process.
There should be considerable interest in Chicago and Boston, as Theo Epstein vows to end the Cubs' World Series drought and Ben Cherington takes the reins at Fenway Park, looking to erase the disappointment of the Red Sox's September collapse.
Both may need to make a splash for their fan bases. Cherington said the Red Sox would like to keep both closer Jonathan Papelbon and DH David Ortiz, the latter of whom recently told ESPN there is "too much drama" in Boston, while Aramis Ramirez has demanded a multiyear deal from the Cubs.
The Twins' Joe Nathan, the Indians' Grady Sizemore, the Braves' Nate McLouth and the Phillies' Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt are among the names who have had their 2012 options declined, making them free agents. Meanwhile, the Padres are working on a new deal for closer Heath Bell, the Reds have had preliminary talks with Brandon Phillips and the Indians have picked up the 2012 option on Fausto Carmona, as the Yankees have done with Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher.
What's next? Names may have already started to settle into place by the time the General Managers' Meetings kick off Nov. 15-17 in Milwaukee, with baseball's wheelers and dealers beginning to cross items off their to-do lists.
Those phone calls and text messages can again be swapped for in-person negotiations come Dec. 5-8, when representatives for all 30 clubs will meet in Dallas for the Winter Meetings.
It's a process that invites long pauses interspersed with brilliant bursts of activity. In that way, it can be like the game itself. And by the time pitchers and catchers report to camps in February, all of our questions should be answered.