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Which team will ignite MLB Hot Stove?
In baseball, November is like the first quarter of an Alabama-LSU game: amid great anticipation, very little scoring.
But this year was supposed to be different, remember? Because of new television money and revised draft-pick compensation, the Hot Stove would turn into a blazing fire pit long before it was time to roast the Thanksgiving turkey.
Instead, the industry is at a simmer.
Sure, we had the mass immigration to Toronto. Torii Hunter is a Tiger. Jake Peavy, David Ortiz and Hiroki Kuroda reupped with their teams. Other than that, the chess board hasn’t changed that much since Miguel Cabrera took the called third strike from Sergio Romo.
In all likelihood, we will witness a flurry of activity during next week’s winter meetings in Nashville — and perhaps even before then. For now, everyone is waiting for an alpha team to emerge and (directly or indirectly) influence where the big free agents sign. The marketplace needs a successor to the Marlins — who don’t appear to be running for a second term after their extravagant showing in Dallas last year.
Here are the top candidates, because they are trying to win now and have the combination of resources and need to invest heavily in free agents.
1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Amid reports that the Dodgers are in discussions with FOX about a local television rights package worth more than $6 billion, they are the most obvious candidate to dominate the free-agent market with their financial might.
It’s a testament to how thin the farm system became in the last years of Frank McCourt that the Dodgers could acquire Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford over the past six months and still have significant needs. But with Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly coming off injuries, and Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang both 34 years old, the Dodgers need more pitching – even if they agree on a contract with Ryu Hyun-Jin, the Korean left-hander whose rights they obtained through the posting process earlier this month.
So, they are in the market for Greinke, because … well … why not?
We can probably say of the Dodgers what we used to say about the Yankees: If they decide they absolutely need to have a player, they will get him unless he decides to take less money elsewhere.
2. NEW YORK YANKEES
Speaking of the Yankees, it’s rarely wise to bet against them making a big move.
Yes, team officials are adamant that their payroll won’t exceed $189 million in 2014. But that is 2014, when they have $68.1 million committed, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. A general manager can do a lot with the $120.9 million difference between those numbers, such as build the 2012 Oakland Athletics … twice … with money to spare.
I realize Derek Jeter’s player option and Robinson Cano’s next contract probably will account for a substantial portion of that $120.9 million. But even when taking that into consideration, it would be absurd for any Yankees fan to bemoan a lack of payroll flexibility. Look at the numbers. They have it.
Even with Kuroda and Andy Pettitte returning on one-year deals, it is hard to argue the Yankees have a championship-caliber rotation at present. They also need an everyday outfielder, with Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo among the trade possibilities.
3. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Both the Dodgers and Angels want to sign Greinke. To miss out on him would be far more devastating to the Angels, who spent three prospects to acquire him from Milwaukee in July and have less big-league rotation depth.
After spending so lavishly on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson last offseason – and witnessing the emergence of iconic center fielder Mike Trout during the year – the Angels can’t allow a potential world champion to be undermined by a thin pitching staff in 2013.
Now that Greinke and Haren are free agents – and Ervin Santana a Kansas City Royal – the Angels have only three pitchers who started more than 10 games in the majors this year: Wilson, Jered Weaver and Jerome Williams.
One rival team official speculated that the Angels could sign two less expensive pitchers – such as Lohse and Ryan Dempster – if Greinke lands elsewhere. This much is clear: The Angels probably need two starters, and they will need to spend tens of millions to do it unless they want to peel away even more prospects from their farm system.
4. BOSTON RED SOX
The Red Sox have been active so far this offseason, but with complementary players like David Ross and Jonny Gomes. That could change at any moment, given that their current 2013 payroll obligations – $68.2 million, according to Cot’s – amount to roughly $100 million less than this year’s Opening Day payroll. A large arbitration raise awaits Jacoby Ellsbury, but general manager Ben Cherington has enough money to make multiple free-agent splashes.
“They’re very busy looking for creative ways to spend money,” one rival executive observed.
Earlier in the offseason, one school of thought held that the Red Sox would be disinclined to invest heavily in free agents, since that sort of activity helped cause their disastrous 2012 season. But they haven’t seemed timid so far. Besides, when else would they look to be aggressive on the market than after three straight years without a playoff berth?
The Red Sox need a starter – notice a theme? – and Sanchez is a natural fit, as he came up through the Boston organization and proved with the Tigers this year that he can succeed in the American League. Napoli is among their targets, too, which should tell you something about their spending power because the Red Sox don’t technically need a catcher. Cherington may be able to address other needs via trade, and Cleveland remains a logical trading partner with Choo and starter Justin Masterson.
5. WASHINGTON NATIONALS
During a July interview, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said something that I immediately put in the “Quotes for the Offseason” bin.
“We’ve never let dollars get in the way of us making decisions that will help this organization,” Lerner told me then. “That will always be our philosophy. We don’t look at it like a $100 million benchmark, or $90 million, or $120 million. We try to do smart things.”
Hmm. For one of the wealthiest ownership groups in pro sports, $120 million sounds about right – after this year’s Opening Day payroll was close to $90 million.
Line up the factors – ample cash on hand, a young and relatively inexpensive core, the disappointment of a first-round playoff exit – and you have the sort of cocktail that begets an offseason spending spree.
The Nationals’ roster doesn’t have a glaring hole, which is part of the reason they are such a dangerous participant in the marketplace. They can shop for wants, not needs. Greinke, with a pristine arm, would offer reliable innings and the chance to move Jordan Zimmermann (and maybe even Stephen Strasburg) lower in the rotation. General manager Mike Rizzo could sign the center fielder he’s coveted (Upton or Bourn) and move Mike Morse to first base, or re-sign free agent Adam LaRoche and keep Morse in left.
The Nationals no longer need to overpay veterans, as they did with Jayson Werth two years ago. But now that they harbor realistic World Series ambitions, it won’t be hard for them to find ways to spend money.
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