Hot Stove heat likely to intensify in coming days
Market activity could spike ahead of next week's Winter Meetings
Coming out of the Thanksgiving-weekend turn into the straightaway leading to the Winter Meetings, baseball usually dials up the temperature of the Hot Stove League. Club officials spend the week making preemptive strikes on their targeted free agents and cornering potential trade partners.
Last year, no fewer than 17 free-agent signings and six trades were consummated on the ramp to the Meetings. The total expenditure for those free agents was $65 million, and the biggest deal, by far, was San Diego's trade of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston.
This time around, the action could be even more frenetic. Both news and deals will be made -- but don't expect prime free agents Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle or C.J. Wilson to come off the board before the game pulls into Dallas next Monday for the opening of the Winter Meetings.
The leadoff development will be the overdue unveiling of the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. With a consensus that the two finalists are a pair of 60-something veterans -- Gene Lamont and Bobby Valentine -- freshman Boston general manager Ben Cherington could announce his choice as soon as Monday.
For the record, Monday is Day 59 of Boston's managerial vacancy. It took only 17 days to select the last Pope, when Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul II -- even though the Vatican's process is slightly more complex.
Cherington is only one of six new general managers, a potentially volatile combination. That's six men with trigger fingers itching to make some noise, and to dramatically improve the lots of the sluggish teams that turned to them for help. Baltimore (Dan Duquette), Minnesota (Terry Ryan), the Angels (Jerry Dipoto), San Diego (Josh Byrnes) and the Cubs (Jed Hoyer) also have new men at the controls.
An interesting sidebar there is the falling dominoes linking the transitions of the Red Sox, Padres and Cubs -- all prompted by Theo Epstein's decision to leave Boston for Chicago. How will these three men, of common backgrounds and philosophies, interact?
Although there were some lesser Thanksgiving-week moves that you may have missed while weighing the choices between light and dark meat, they were nothing on the scale of Boston's pilgrimage of 2003. That was when Epstein, as Boston's fresh-faced GM, showed his gizzards by dropping in on Curt Schilling in Arizona and convincing him over Thanksgiving dinner to accept a trade to Boston -- which was announced on Black Friday.
Last week's drizzle-before-the-deluge transactions:
Infielder Ty Wigginton and $2 million of his $4 million salary for 2012 was sent by the Rockies to the Phillies, for a player to be named.
The Marlins dealt catcher John Baker to the Padres for lefty Wade LeBlanc.
Second baseman Luis Valbuena's contract was sold by the Indians to Toronto.
The Royals re-signed free-agent right-hander Bruce Chen to a two-year, $9 million deal.
Free-agent Freddy Garcia and the Yankees struck a new deal for 2012, at $5 million.
The Rangers got their new closer in Joe Nathan, signing the ex-Twin to a two-year, $14.5 million contract that will allow incumbent Neftali Feliz to transition into the rotation in '12.
Grady Sizemore re-upped with the Indians for an incentive-laden $5 million pact.
The market for closers is the most intriguing, and figures to be the most dynamic -- with teams eager to quickly match up with the available talent. Philadelphia and Texas both made quick strikes -- for Jonathan Papelbon and Nathan, respectively. Those still in the hunt -- Red Sox, Reds, Marlins, Blue Jays, possibly the Angels -- have a lot of premium options.
The A-list of free agents includes a trio (Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson) who had 112 saves among them, an average of 37. Others with extensive experience closing are Kyle Farnsworth (25 saves last season), Francisco Rodriguez (23) and Matt Capps (15).
The demand for blue-chip closers is driving up their market to blue-blood levels and, to the dismay of at least one shopping GM, teams may have to swallow hard and overpay to get what they want.
"Basically," said Toronto's Alex Anthopolous, "giving out a five-year deal will only get you a player for four seasons."
The rocketing value of relievers is also tempting some teams to make their own arms available for trade, which further complicates the market. Colorado's Huston Street and Oakland's Andrew Bailey fall into this category.
Among starting pitchers, Wilson retains his popular rank as the top available free agent. He is next on the courting list of the busy Marlins, who have a meet-and-greet session with him on tap for Monday. The 31-year-old could be an American League East difference-maker: the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays are among his ardent suitors.
Wilson, however, may no longer be the most popular. That distinction now belongs to Buehrle, another lefty who is two years older and has as many as a dozen teams on his trail.
The interest reflects teams' confidence that plenty of life remains in an arm that has logged 200-plus innings in 12 straight seasons, and has effectively muted Buehrle's talk about early retirement. Does Buehrle's stunning success in Interleague Play now make him more attractive to National League teams? With the White Sox, Buehrle went 24-6 lifetime in Interleague action, and is undefeated in his last 15 starts against the NL.
Also in wide demand has been Roy Oswalt, the veteran right-hander whose 2012 option was declined by the Phillies, who then also made him the only one of 20 eligible Type-A free agents not to be offered arbitration (two others, reliever Takashi Saito and outfielder Carlos Beltran, had contract clauses preventing the Brewers and Giants, respectively, from limiting their market with the arbitration offer).
By comparison, it has been a stealth market for the biggest names. Pujols' and Reyes' only known offers both came from the Marlins, and Fielder has been even more surreptitious. A first baseman could be the new Cubs front office tandem's first impact. The M.O. of Epstein/Hoyer may be to make a play for Pujols -- such an addition would also subtract from the rival Cardinals -- and, if that fails, turn the heat up for Fielder.
The AL champion Rangers, unstable at first base, are considered to be in the background of the Pujols picture. Texas isn't likely to make a play for Pujols, however, unless and until his market trickles down to them -- as was the case last winter with Adrian Beltre. That is not likely to occur with Pujols.
Some have an interesting theory on Fielder's possible destination: That because of his well-known alienation from his father, Cecil, Fielder wouldn't want to play on one of his dad's former teams and expose himself to more comparisons. That would rule out the Tigers, Blue Jays, Yankees, Indians and Angels.