In a typical offseason, most teams would be done making big moves by now.
This is not a typical offseason.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day tends to be quiet in the baseball industry, when front offices sit empty and trade chatter is silenced.
That’s not necessarily the case this year. A number of factors — the new collective bargaining agreement, the availability of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish’s protracted posting process, the delay in government approval for Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes — have pushed important decisions into 2012.
Turns out, the Hot Stove is a slow cooker.
Here’s a rundown of baseball’s unfinished business as the sport prepares for a quasi-vacation:
1. Prince Fielder
You were expecting someone else?
The Big Guy is still out there, and officials with a number of clubs are saying they will be very intrigued to see what sort of contract Scott Boras procures for him. At this point, it’s not known if any team has made Fielder an offer in the range of Pujols’ 10-year, $254 million deal.
Fielder might need to choose between the biggest offer and best opportunity to win. The Mariners and Orioles are interested, but neither can guarantee Fielder a chance to reach the postseason in 2012 or 2013. The Cubs are involved, but they don’t have the desperation of a team trying to win the World Series next year; besides, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer could pry former Boston prospect Anthony Rizzo away from San Diego and pay him the league minimum.
The Blue Jays are saying they won’t guarantee more than five years to a hitter. To get Fielder, they might need to violate that policy.
We can’t rule out the Nationals, who have a strong relationship with Boras, or the Rangers, who have reacted boldly to being one strike away. (Washington’s acquisition of Gio Gonzalez should improve the team’s chances of signing Fielder; by acquiring a low-salaried starter, there is more money left to sign a big bat.)
If Fielder remains unsigned after a few more weeks, prepare for the rumblings that he might have no choice but to take a short-term, huge-dollar deal. In that event, additional suitors could emerge.
But Boras’ history — including last offseason with Jayson Werth and Rafael Soriano — suggests there might be more suitors than we know.
2. The non-Fielder first basemen
I’m starting to feel badly for Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman. They are legitimate first basemen, but Fielder is blocking their spotlight. If anything, their continued availability is confirmation that teams are holding out hope that Fielder will fall into their price range.
The list of teams considering (non-Fielder) upgrades at first include the Brewers, Cubs, Nationals, Indians, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, Rays and Pirates.
There’s also a robust trade market at the position. In addition to Rizzo, Carlos Lee (Astros), Mark Trumbo (Angels) and Billy Butler (Royals) could be available.
“Because it’s so late, not all of those teams will find their long-term first basemen this offseason,” one National League executive said. “There’s going to be a need a year from now, too.”
With the exception of Carlos Lee, who is entering the final year of his contract, the likes of Rizzo, Trumbo and Butler could be available via trade next offseason, too.
3. Late-developing market for late-inning types
Yes, Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero are still out there.
“The trade market snuck up on these free-agent closers,” the NL executive said. “They should have taken the money and ran. All of a sudden, (Huston) Street, (Andrew) Bailey and (Brandon) League are out there. That’s a significant impact on the free-agent pool that’s normally not there.”
Street was dealt from Colorado to San Diego. Bailey (A’s) and League (Mariners) are still available. Some in the industry believe Joakim Soria (Royals) and Carlos Marmol (Cubs) could be had for the right price.
With those cost-controlled alternatives, it’s understandable why clubs have been reluctant to offer Madson a four-year contract.
For now, the buyers are in control because there aren’t very many of them. The Red Sox, Angels and Reds are likely to add closers before Opening Day. The Rays, Rangers, Dodgers and Orioles could, too, but those clubs are browsing as opposed to shopping under duress.
The Red Sox and Reds have been among the most active pursuers, with each team looking at Bailey and Cordero, among others.
(Two thoughts on the Angels: If owner Arte Moreno was willing to plop down more than $300 million for Pujols and C.J. Wilson, why not spend what it takes to get Madson, a native of Southern California? Failing that, a trade of Trumbo for League would make sense for both the Mariners and Angels.)
4. Who will gamble on the right starter?
Free-agent starters are notoriously risky investments, but the market can swing back into the teams’ favor at this time of year. Edwin Jackson could be the last starter (aside from Darvish) who signs a contract of three years or longer. The right pitcher, on the right short-term contract, can push a team into the postseason.
Hiroki Kuroda, who had a 3.07 ERA in 202 innings for the Dodgers this year, might be the best available starter. If he’s truly willing to leave the West Coast — and the National League — the Red Sox and Yankees are viable options for him. (The Rockies are unlikely to land Kuroda unless his asking price comes way down, a major league source said Friday.)
Meanwhile, just about any team in need of rotation help would have interest in Roy Oswalt on a one-year deal.
The Red Sox, Cubs, Tigers, Marlins and Mariners have varying degrees of interest in adding a left-handed starter, and there is ample supply: Joe Saunders, Paul Maholm and Jeff Francis.
As with closers, the trade market is a strong alternative for interested buyers: Matt Garza, Jair Jurrjens, Gavin Floyd, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are available, sources say. The Rangers might be willing to move left-hander Matt Harrison, their starter in Game 7 of the World Series, in order to acquire a more established pitcher.
5. Cespedes, the latest international sensation
Cespedes, the talented Cuban defector, is expected to establish residency in the Dominican Republic and be cleared to play by US officials soon after the New Year. And then he’s likely to sign for more than the $30.25 million countryman Aroldis Chapman received from the Reds, according to nearly all of the dozen executives I polled.
The reasons for such a large contract, according to one team official, include a lower injury risk than Chapman, a larger number of interested teams, the new CBA and hype created by YouTube videos showcasing Cespedes’ superlative athletic ability.
Baseball officials with expertise in Latin America believe the Yankees, Cubs, Phillies, Blue Jays, Rangers, Tigers, Marlins and White Sox will pursue Cespedes next month. The Nationals can’t be ruled out because some scouts believe Cespedes will be a center fielder — a position Washington has been unable to fill for the long term. (Other evaluators believe Cespedes, who possesses a strong throwing arm, is a better fit in right field.)
One scout who has seen Cespedes said he’s best suited to hit fifth or sixth, with the expectation that he could hit home runs, collect RBI and steal bases without the scrutiny that would come in the leadoff or cleanup spots. “That way, you don’t put added pressure on top of what will come with all the money he gets,” the scout said. A relatively low number of scouts view Cespedes as a potential leadoff man.