Offseason arms race will be hot

BY foxsports • November 7, 2011

Cliff Lee was the face, or at least the left arm, of baseball’s 2010-2011 offseason. He carried the Rangers to the World Series. He was supposed to rescue the Yankees’ rotation. Every executive, every sportswriter, every casual fan knew that he was the No. 1 pitcher available.

Well the ’11-’12 offseason started more than a week ago, and we’re still looking for a golden arm to put on the cover of the Hot Stove Preview.

C.J. Wilson? Mark Buehrle? Yu Darvish? James Shields? Gio Gonzalez?

Perhaps "The X Factor" judges can help us sort through the candidates.

Sure, the biggest winter questions revolve around Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. But fewer than a dozen teams have the wherewithal and need to involve themselves in the market for the slugging first basemen. They are the Lamborghini and Ferrari of the Hot Stove. Only the true car aficionados in Warren Buffett’s tax bracket will bother to check the prices.

Pitching is different. There are two types of teams — those who acknowledge they must upgrade their pitching staffs, and those who are kidding themselves.

There ought to be no pretense in Boston and New York. The industry’s biggest bank accounts are linked to rotations with yawning needs for veteran starters. If the Red Sox and Yankees are wise, they will each acquire two credible starting pitchers before Opening Day. Yet, there isn’t a must-have pitcher on the market this year. Preference lists and valuations could vary considerably from team to team.

And before you accuse us of an East Coast fixation, this would be a good time to point out that the Orioles, Royals, Twins, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Reds, Rockies, Marlins, Pirates and Nationals are among the teams expected to seek rotation upgrades.

Combine the intense demand and uncertain supply, and this is destined to be one of the most chaotic offseasons we’ve ever seen.

In two very important respects, baseball hasn’t had a winter like this since 2006. That was the last time the sport experienced the economic reboot that comes with a new collective bargaining agreement. And that was the last time both the Red Sox and Yankees were out of the playoffs by the end of the first round.

We can’t measure the impact of the new CBA now, because the parties have yet to agree on one. That isn’t a huge issue — yet. But stay tuned. If Major League Baseball and the players’ union can’t hammer out a new deal by the time the league’s general managers meet in Milwaukee next week, the major wheeling-and-dealing will be delayed, however temporarily. (Why offer someone a $50 million contract if you don’t know the conditions attached?)

The other circumstance is less murky. The Red Sox have two pitchers who gave them 30 or more starts with an ERA below 4.00: Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The Yankees have one: CC Sabathia, who preserved some sanity in the marketplace by re-upping with the Steinbrenners.

When the American League East superpowers were in similar positions after the ’06 season, both signed starting pitchers from Japan — Daisuke Matsuzaka for Boston, Kei Igawa for New York. Neither investment worked out in the long run, which makes Darvish a fascinating case. Darvish has a larger body frame and firmer fastball than Matsuzaka or Igawa. He’s viewed as a No. 2 starter, maybe better. But will that be enough for either team to earmark tens of millions (in posting fee and salary) for a player with zero North American big-league experience?

We don’t know. And we may not until very close to Christmas — which could push many pitching moves into late December and even January.

Here’s why.

The Nippon-Ham Fighters (Darvish’s Japanese club) are finished playing for the year but have yet to declare whether they will “post” the right-hander, the first step in his move to the major leagues. Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, believes the Fighters will wait until after the Japan Series to make any such announcement, out of respect to the competition. Normally that wouldn’t cause much of a delay. But this year’s Japan Series has yet to begin because of scheduling changes arising from the Tohoku earthquake in March. The series may not end for another 10 days or so.

Even then, there are questions about whether Darvish will come to the majors for the 2012 season. One source with close knowledge of the process said the Fighters will “more likely than not” post Darvish — but cautioned that it’s “not definite.”

For teams who view Darvish as an alternative to domestic free agents Wilson and Buehrle, the doubt could be enough for their pitching plans to remain in neutral for several weeks.

Wilson, by the way, remains one of the most hotly debated players on the market. The lefty sputtered at times in the postseason this year, but he actually has a 2.95 ERA in four career World Series games. Some question whether he would handle the pressure of playing for the Yankees or Red Sox, but it’s not as if he would come in as the staff ace. (The Yankees have already called to express interest.)

“C.J. lived in Manhattan last offseason — he’s very familiar with the lifestyle there,” said Bob Garber, Wilson’s agent. “Yes, he’s a California guy who’s played in Texas, but I don’t think the region is going to be a factor in where he wants to play.”

Wilson, who turns 31 later this month, is younger than fellow free agents Buehrle and Roy Oswalt, which should boost his market value. But if teams are leery of handing Wilson an $82.5 million guarantee — the amount made dubious by A.J. Burnett and John Lackey — then the trade market could develop more quickly.

The sellers should be there, willing to move starters who have grown too expensive for their payrolls: Shields or Wade Davis (Rays); Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill (A’s); John Danks or Gavin Floyd (White Sox); Jair Jurrjens or Brandon Beachy (Braves); Matt Garza (Cubs); Wandy Rodriguez (Astros); or Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles).

For now, the Hot Stove is like a coffeehouse at 6 a.m. — technically open, but not really. You can thank the CBA negotiations for that, along with the Red Sox, Yankees, and, of course, the Nippon-Ham Fighters. The simplicity of Cliff Lee is gone. This is a very different offseason. And a few weeks from now, it’s going to go from 0 to $60 million like we’ve never seen before.

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