Questions rampant at winter meetings

Before Scott Boras calls his first news conference, before mystery teams wrest Albert Pujols from the Marlins’ moneyed hands, before caffeine-fueled conversations beget multimillion-dollar deals, I’d like to offer the following advice:

If you want to follow the winter meetings the way baseball insiders do, then you will pose the following question upon learning of every transaction, no matter how minor:

What does this mean for my team?

Welcome to the most frenzied week on baseball’s offseason calendar, a 30-way Jenga tournament unfolding in real time. Every block counts. With the right strategy, you win. With the wrong strategy, you are left to clean up the mess.

Here’s a handy guide to the key figures you’ll be hearing about over the next four days — along with the teams with which they should have the biggest impact.

1. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder

What? You thought I would start with the return of Manny Ramirez?

Pujols and Fielder remain the unquestioned headliners of the 2011-’12 Hot Stove. At the outset of free agency, I believed Pujols would sign before Fielder — and that he would return to the defending-champion Cardinals. One month later, my opinion remains the same.

Boras, Fielder’s agent, will be able to argue that his client — who is four years younger — deserves more total dollars than Pujols. So Boras should wait for Pujols to sign and then attempt to one-up Albert. Boras being Boras, I believe he will be successful.

At this point, Fielder has more suitors than Pujols, and the Cardinals aren’t believed to be among them. So once Pujols signs, the spotlight will shift to Club Fielder — the Brewers, Nationals, Cubs, Mariners, Rangers and hard-to-decipher Blue Jays.

Fielder is said to prefer teams that (a) play east of the Mississippi and (b) can win the World Series in the very near term. That would eliminate the Mariners.

There’s also doubt within the industry about how much money the Cubs are willing to spend this offseason under new club president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer; they might not be a serious player.

Fielder, then, is most likely to wind up with the Brewers, Nationals, Rangers or Blue Jays.

And if one of the Fielder runners-up is serious about acquiring an All-Star first baseman, then they will phone the Reds to see whether Joey Votto is really, truly unavailable.

2. Jose Reyes

Reyes is likely to be the first major signing of the offseason, as our Ken Rosenthal reported Sunday night that he has agreed with the Marlins on a six-year, $106 million contract. The Marlins’ pledge to draw big-league talent to South Beach is being fulfilled.

As a result, we could learn very quickly whether Hanley Ramirez is ready to accommodate Reyes by moving to another position — or if a trade will be necessary. The latter scenario would be a downer for the Marlins, since it’s hard to imagine they would be eager to move Ramirez coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season.

Reyes has every reason to sign with the Marlins: He should be comfortable in South Florida, playing relatively close to his native Dominican Republic while remaining in the division he has called home for his entire career. The Mets simply did not have the money to compete with the Marlins, and the Tigers never emerged as the serious suitor that many observers (myself included) expected them to be. 

3. C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle

In some respects, the markets for Wilson and Buehrle are more interrelated than those for Pujols and Fielder. Buehrle, 32, and Wilson, 31, are closer in age than you might think, and both are left-handed.

At the outset of the winter meetings, sources say, the suitors for Wilson include the Nationals, Marlins, Rangers, Angels and Red Sox.

The Angels could act quickly on Wilson. New general manager Jerry DiPoto traded away right-hander Tyler Chatwood last week, a move DiPoto would not have made without knowing the acquisition of another starter was close at hand.

It’s not known whether Wilson is that pitcher. However, the signing of Wilson — a Southern California native — could be a “swing” move in the American League West, because it would take away a key contributor from the rival Texas Rangers.

Wilson’s departure could be the domino that compels the Rangers to redouble their efforts to sign Buehrle. My colleague Ken Rosenthal reported over the weekend that the Rangers, Nationals and Marlins were the most aggressive teams in courting Buehrle.

Once Buehrle and Wilson are off the board, expect Boras to start a public-relations campaign on behalf of his free-agent starter, Edwin Jackson. Jackson is only 28 years old, something Boras is certain to highlight. And Jackson has averaged more than 200 innings per season with a 3.96 ERA over the past three years.

The Twins, who are in desperate need of rotation upgrades, are among the teams interested in Jackson, a source said.

4. Andrew Bailey, Huston Street and Brandon League

The market for closers remains crowded, even with Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan and Heath Bell off the board. One reason is that the trade alternatives are especially rich, with Oakland’s Bailey, Colorado’s Street, and Seattle’s League all available for the right price.

Meanwhile, a number of closers (or could-be closers) remain available via free agency: Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Matt Capps and Brad Lidge.

The agents for those relievers could start scrambling to place their clients if Bailey, Street and/or League are traded early in the week, thus removing potential landing spots. The most astute — and most patient — general managers could opt to wait out the market and see whether a veteran such as Cordero, Francisco or Lidge is available for a reduced rate in late December or January.

Teams looking for closers include the Orioles, Red Sox, Reds, Twins, Mets, Padres and Blue Jays.

5. Yoennis Cespedes

There’s plenty of mystery surrounding the Cuban defector, but here’s what we know: He’s an exciting outfield prospect, and he’s not officially a free agent because he has yet to establish residency in the Dominican Republic.

But the teams are lining up already: Sources say the Yankees, Tigers, Marlins and Nationals have been the most active teams in evaluating him.

It’s possible Reyes, Pujols and Fielder will sign new contracts by the time Cespedes is cleared by immigration officials. That could actually help his cause by clarifying the marketplace. If the Nationals miss out on their big free-agent targets, for example, they will be more likely to pursue Cespedes.

The Tigers, meanwhile, could attempt to box out the competition if they are convinced Cespedes can bat leadoff in the major leagues right away.

6. Yu Darvish

As you read in Ken Rosenthal’s column over the weekend, the case of Darvish is complicated indeed. Teams such as the Rangers and Blue Jays are known to have interest in him, but they’re waiting to see when — or if — he will be posted by his club, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

A resolution isn’t expected during these meetings, but his status will remain a subject of debate for clubs in need of pitching — including the Red Sox and Yankees.

“Still no word on Darvish,” Robert Whiting, the author and expert on Japanese baseball, told me over the weekend. “Everyone was sure he was going to go, but now nobody knows. I don’t even think Darvish knows yet.  . . . I’m not sure he really wants to go to MLB.”

Whiting said Darvish is disillusioned with the Japanese posting system, in part because of Hisashi Iwakuma’s failed attempt to come to the major leagues last offseason. Whiting added that Darvish earns excellent money in Nippon Professional Baseball, the equivalent of $8.4 million per year. He’s popular and comfortable in Japan. In the US, he would need to adjust to different ballparks and a new culture.

"Also,” Whiting added, “he has seen how other highly paid NPB stars, like Dice-K, have stumbled (in the US) and the ridicule they have had to endure as a result. So, there is not a great motivation to go.”

It adds up to even more intrigue during winter meetings that won’t be short on storylines.