Hamilton, Greinke top offseason storylines as Hot Stove begins
Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke are the two best bets for $100 million deals
Teams might be willing to trade established young players like Justin Upton
There should be plenty of options for teams that seek proven outfielders
The Giants haven't even had their World Series parade, but it's already time to turn our attention to the Hot Stove, just as two-thirds of baseball's teams have already done for the past month. Here are five thoughts on the big storylines to watch this offseason:
1. The mercurial superstars
Free-agent markets are typically defined by their superstars, and this winter features two: Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, a former MVP, and Angels starter Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young winner. The talents of each are unquestioned, but both also come with well-documented off-field concerns. Still, these are the market's two safest bets for nine-figure contracts
At his best, Hamilton may be baseball's most potent hitter, as we saw when he hit 21 homers with a 1.184 OPS in April and May, but he's also prone to long slumps, such as his .607 OPS in July. There's also a durability question. Hamilton played 148 games in 2012 at age 31 but averaged only 125 games his four previous seasons in Texas. How his market will take shape is among the offseason's great unknowns. Will clubs be sticklers on length, given his injury past, his well-known fight against addiction and that this contract will take him into his mid-to-late 30s? Will teams in certain markets be dissuaded from pursuing him?
That last question is also pertinent about Greinke, after he managed a social-anxiety issue several years ago in Kansas City, but that hasn't publicly resurfaced. After a July trade from Milwaukee, Greinke thrived down the stretch while pitching for the Angels, a big-market club under a lot of pressure to make the postseason. Greinke's Cy-winning season in 2009 -- which included a big league-best 2.16 ERA -- remains an aberration, but he's still been a very good pitcher while working in both leagues, averaging a 3.42 ERA in the last six seasons while pitching for three teams.
2. Trading players with years of team control?
Last December the Reds packaged four prospects to the Padres for starter Mat Latos, an unexpected deal involving a young ace-in-training with multiple years under contract ahead of him. Latos, though, is off to a strong start at proving worth his price, after helping pitch Cincinnati to the NL Central title.
Will Justin Upton, Elvis Andrus or Alex Gordon follow suit this winter? All three have been rumored to be trade candidates at various times of the year.
According to some reports, the Diamondbacks began listening to offers on Upton last year. Upton, a two-time All-Star who finished fourth in the NL MVP voting in 2011, had a disappointing season in 2012, but he finished with a flourish (.884 OPS in Sept./Oct.), is still young (turned 25 in August) and has a team-friendly deal ($38 million due through 2015). Even after trading Chris Young, Arizona has a surplus outfielder, given its quartet of Upton, Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and rookie Adam Eaton. Upton is the best, but also the most expensive, and one who'd carry plenty of trade value.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have one of the game's top two prospects in shortstop Jurickson Profar, who debuted this season at age 19. He may not be ready as an everyday player on Opening Day, but he's not far off. Of course, Texas already has one of the game's best young shortstops in Andrus, a 24-year-old two-time All-Star who batted .286 last year and is owed $11.3 million over the next two years. Might Texas be willing to move Andrus, who'd surely fetch a bounty, to fill other needs? GM Jon Daniels recently told Boston's WEEI that he doesn't expect to make the trade, but the paucity of available shortstops other than Oakland's Stephen Drew means Daniels will still receive several phone calls.
The least likely to be traded is the Royals' Alex Gordon, who at 28 is also the oldest of the trio, though he was a bit of a late bloomer. Including a player option, he's likely owed $44 million over the next four years, but his production (.850 OPS the last two seasons) and age make him a safe bet for several years. But moving him would stunt Kansas City's growth and signal more years of waiting -- unless the deal was for another proven player rather than prospects, of course -- so he'd probably only be moved if the Royals are blown away by a proposal.
3. New faces at the free-agent table?
Each year and with each notable free agent, the list of likely suitors is seemingly copied and pasted. The big buyers are almost always the same, but the emergence -- or prospect of emergence -- of several small- or medium-market teams could alter the landscape somewhat this winter.
The Royals have signaled an interest in spending on at least one free-agent starter to help fill a glaring need: Kansas City's rotation ERA over the last three years is 5.02, the worst in baseball. The AL Central was the only division whose champion didn't reach 90 wins, and if a few of the Royals' young hitters (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, et al.) start producing more consistently, their leap to contention may happen quickly, as long as the pitching doesn't hold them back.
Toronto also plans to step forward this winter. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos admitted as much to The Star in Toronto recently, and the Jays are likely to shop hard for a starting pitcher this offseason to slot in alongside Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.
One of its division rivals may also be in the mix, though Baltimore hasn't been as forthright about its plans. The Orioles accelerated their development schedule by making the playoffs and winning the AL wild-card game. Having already extended centerfielder Adam Jones, they will probably approach catcher Matt Wieters about doing the same, but the timing would also seem to be right to add a big chip from outside the organization to continue that growth and maybe help Baltimore snag its first AL East title since 1997.
4. Second-tier starters
Greinke may be the only ace available this winter, but clubs looking to bolster the middle of their rotation will have other names to choose from. The Rangers' Ryan Dempster, the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse, the Angels' Dan Haren (whose contract options will reportedly be declined), the Yankees' Hiroki Kuorda, the White Sox' Jake Peavy, the Tigers' Anibal Sanchez, the Athletics' Brandon McCarthy and the Nationals' Edwin Jackson are all strong candidates to fill Nos. 2 and 3 starting staff vacancies.
Those are just the free agents. Few expected the Latos deal last year or the Mariners' trade of Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Jesus Montero. The Rays will always be mentioned as a possible match, given their seeming abundance of starters. Veteran James Shields has a $9 million option this year and a $12 million option next year, while David Price is about to get a huge raise in arbitration on his $4.35 million salary, so those two -- especially Price -- would return huge bounties should Tampa Bay make them available, while some of their younger arms could also be attractive.
5. Outfield options
Hamilton isn't the only difference-maker available in the outfield, the deepest position group this winter. Two true in-their-prime centerfielders -- the Rays' B.J. Upton and the Braves' Michael Bourn -- are set to cash in, while the Angels' Torii Hunter and the Yankees' Nick Swisher are steady run producers. Several others, such as the Dodgers' Shane Victorino, the Yankees' Ichiro Suzuki, the Red Sox' Cody Ross and the Tigers' Delmon Young, all ought to be contributors on short-term contracts. The Giants' Melky Cabrera, meanwhile, might be worthwhile one a low-risk, one-year contract as he tries to rebuild his value following a PED suspension.
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