Pujols, Fielder top free-agent market

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder are the top free agents on the market this offseason.

Beginning next Monday in Dallas, the baseball industry will swarm about the Hilton Anatole in Dallas for four frenetic days. Every text message, phone call and footstep by the high-powered agents and executives will nudge the sport a little closer to spring training.

The winter meetings are romantic that way, a convenient week between Thanksgiving and Christmas when fans neglect fantasy football rosters and dream about summer. They imagine Scott Boras marching through the lobby to distribute gold-embossed binders extolling the historic accomplishments – and bright future – of free agent Prince Fielder.

OK, maybe it's not quite that dramatic. But as he did with superstar free agent Alex Rodriguez 11 years ago, Boras will bring his best fastball to the Anatole.

"This guy has done so much at a young age," Boras said over the telephone Sunday, when asked about the Fielder thesis. "I've pared it down – and I've still got 70 pages."

The tome is a lock for the Winter Meetings Bestseller List, required reading for owners pondering whether to plop down $200 million.

But in reality, these days before Dallas are equally significant to baseball's offseason business. The winter meetings aren't the summit where every key decision is made. They are the midpoint of a tense three-week period that will shape the sport's landscape for the following year.

And that three-week period begins today.

With that in mind, here are the important storylines that will evolve before the decision-makers talk face-to-face next week.

Albert and Prince: Who are the players?

We're past the point of teams "expressing interest" in the big free agents. Just about every team in baseball would love to have Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder at first base. The relevant question is which teams are willing to pay the market price for their services.

There are two key differences between the slugging first basemen: Fielder, 27, is considerably younger than Pujols, who will turn 32 before spring training; and Fielder isn't being seriously pursued by his longtime employer, opening a broader competition for his services.

Both factors point to Fielder having more suitors than Pujols.

The Cardinals and Marlins appear to be the strongest candidates to sign Pujols, with each team known to have offered a nine-year contract during the last year – St. Louis in spring training, Miami earlier this month.

Fielder, meanwhile, has been pursued by a group believed to include the Cubs, Nationals, Rangers and Mariners. Boras declined to say which teams have offered Fielder a contract, but he pointed out that his biggest free-agent hitter last offseason (Jayson Werth) signed the night before the winter meetings began – with a team (Washington) no one expected.

"People were still at the airport," Boras said. "The most predictable part of the winter meetings is the lack of predictability."

With starting pitching, will trades precede signings?

Let's not forget the fundamental truth of this offseason: The Yankees and Red Sox are the economic drivers in the baseball industry, and right now neither has the starting rotation of a World Series favorite.

The Yankees re-signed Freddy Garcia last week. Garcia was a solid contributor for the 2011 Yankees rotation – but the 2011 Yankees rotation wasn't good enough. So, the work continues.

Both teams are interested in the top free-agent left-handers, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle. But if they aren't eager to meet the free-agent prices, trades will become the more appealing avenue.

Sources say several teams are open to moving starting pitchers, including the Braves (Jair Jurrjens); White Sox (John Danks, Gavin Floyd); Cubs (Matt Garza, Randy Wells); Athletics (Gio Gonzalez); Diamondbacks (Joe Saunders); and Orioles (Jeremy Guthrie). One source said the Angels and Orioles have discussed the possibility of a Guthrie trade in recent days.

In an attempt to secure cost certainty, some teams may strike quickly via trade instead of waiting for what the free-agent market bears.

Will the Astros hire a new GM quickly?

A winter of almost unprecedented turnover in the industry continued early Monday morning, when the Houston Astros confirmed a FOXSports.com report by announcing that team president Tal Smith and general manager Ed Wade had been dismissed.

When the Astros hire their new general manager, they will become the seventh team to do so since the end of the regular season. Put another way, roughly 23 percent of all big-league clubs will have a new GM.

It's likely that new owner Jim Crane and president/CEO George Postolos have been working on their candidate list for months. While their search is sure to be thorough, it shouldn't take too long. The key question is whether interim general manager Dave Gottfried will remain in control through the winter meetings.

Some potential intrigue: The meetings will be held not far from the home ballpark of the soon-to-be division rival Rangers. Will Crane grab some headlines by courting current Rangers executives Thad Levine and A.J. Preller while the eyes of baseball are upon the state?

How large is the international market going to be?

With a combination of Japanese and Cuban players, this is the deepest pool of international talent during a single offseason in recent memory – even if we can't be sure that Yu Darvish is coming at all.

Darvish, the Japanese pitching star, will "more likely than not" pitch in the major leagues next year, according to one source with close knowledge of his thinking. But the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters – Darvish's current team – have yet to announce that he will be posted, leading some in the industry to wonder if he will remain in Japan.

Meanwhile, at least four players can begin negotiating with Major League Baseball clubs after free agency in Japan commences Thursday: right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, left-handers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen, and second baseman Kensuke Tanaka. Also, the Yakult Swallows plan to post outfielder Norichika Aoki for MLB clubs after the winter meetings.

Multitalented outfielder Yoennis Céspedes is the best of the Cuban defectors; he has attracted interest from a wide range of clubs, although he has not been declared an official free agent. Corner outfielder Jorge Soler, center fielder Yeral Sanchez, and right-handed starter Armando Rivero also may join MLB organizations this winter.

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