November was big, but December could be huge
There was no November lull in Major League Baseball this year. None whatsoever.
We're still a week away from the start of the Winter Meetings, and we've already seen multiple prominent free agents (Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche, Michael Cuddyer, Billy Butler and Cuban import Yasmany Tomas, to name a few) come off the board, a couple blockbuster trades (involving Josh Donaldson and Jason Heyward), the largest contractual guarantee in the history of American professional sports ($325 million to Giancarlo Stanton) and a major managerial move (Joe Maddon to the Cubs).
So let's just go ahead and take the "off" out of "offseason" and embrace the crazy of this Hot Stove season. As December dawns, these are the 10 biggest storylines still in play.
1. How does the top-tier starter market shake out?
One would think Jon Lester is nearing a decision, for we know he's already received offers from the Red Sox and Cubs. But the Giants are now among his suitors, and there's always the possibility of another team or teams (Dodgers? Cardinals? Blue Jays?) swooping in. The Max Scherzer market is significantly more mysterious, and his agent, Scott Boras, has been known to prolong this process. And James Shields will likely have to wait until at least one of those two dominoes falls before he has a complete feel for his market. All along, the assumption on the outside has been that Scherzer will get the longest contract of the three, but don't discount the lack of a Draft pick attached to Lester and how that impacts things.
Also, don't forget about the other top-of-the-rotation types in play in the trade game, which could heat up once Lester and/or Scherzer sign. Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner -- all of these guys are at least open for discussion.
The depth of the starting market stands in direct contrast to the dearth of big bats. With Nelson Cruz reportedly on his way to the Mariners, Melky Cabrera is the top offensive weapon still available in free agency. This only adds to the allure of the trade market, which inspires our next few questions.
2. Do the Braves move Justin Upton, too?
When the Braves dealt Jason Heyward to the Cardinals, the return (four years of control of Shelby Miller, plus prospect Tyrell Jenkins) signaled a greater emphasis on 2017 (when SunTrust Park opens) than 2015. If that holds true, then it makes all the sense in the world to dangle Upton, who, like Heyward, is a pending free agent. It would be interesting to see if Upton fetches an even bigger return, given his established, if streaky, power (he's averaged 26 homers per 162 games in his career). Whatever the case, Upton would bring Atlanta controllable building blocks, and he'd be a huge addition for any of the many teams looking for right-handed power.
The Braves could also move Evan Gattis, though he is under control for four more years and they seem to think he could play a corner outfield spot for them.
3. Which Red Sox player(s) gets shipped off?
All rational speculation points to pending free agent Yoenis Cespedes, because the Red Sox seem intent on keeping Mookie Betts in right field, and Cespedes is a rather redundant asset for them now that Hanley Ramirez is aboard long-term. Cespedes would certainly fetch an impact starter of some sort, but the greater the impact, the less contractual control they'll be able to bring back. But Cespedes is far from Boston's only trade chip, as Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, Will Middlebrooks, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brock Holt are all possibilities.
4. What about the Dodgers' outfield excess?
Something is bound to happen here, too. The Andrew Friedman regime has been fairly quiet thus far, but Friedman has acknowledged the obvious that moving one of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford or Yasiel Puig (with prospect Joc Pederson knocking on the door) is the "best course of action" for the organization. And knowing Friedman's pragmatic style, it would not be a shock to see the Dodgers move Kemp at a time when his trade value has risen back to a high level.
5. What's next for the Blue Jays?
From their experience two years ago, Blue Jays fans know all too well how little November/December hoopla means, but there's no denying that top half of the order -- Jose Reyes, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin -- figures to be something special in today's run-starved environment. The switch-hitting Cabrera could also return. The rotation of Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and J.A. Happ (with top prospect Daniel Norris impacting things eventually) could be good enough, though I wouldn't be surprised to see the Blue Jays target another veteran starter. But relief pitching is still the bigger priority as Toronto tries to overcome the longest playoff drought (21 seasons and counting) in baseball.
6. What other non-playoff clubs from '14 are pushing particularly hard for '15?
Here's what we know so far:
The White Sox have already been pretty frisky with the signings of Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke, and there was talk over the weekend of them possibly bringing Samardzija back to Chicago. They've got a really tantalizing trade chip in Alexei Ramirez, if they decide to go that route, but they've also got the financial flexibility to pursue somebody like Cabrera to help balance out their lineup.
The Mariners are searching high and wide for an impact right-handed hitter to slot in between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. If they find it, they could emerge from this winter as favorites in the American League West.
The Padres were in on Sandoval, which suggests new GM A.J. Preller is given some financial sway to find ways to improve the Friars' futile offense from 2014.
The Mets and Marlins both appear committed to rising up the ranks in the National League East -- the Mets with the Cuddyer contract and the Marlins with the Stanton extension. The Mets have rotation depth to dangle to further improve their lineup (shortstop, primarily), and the Marlins are in the market for a veteran starter to lend a hand to their young, high-upside rotation.
And then there's the D-backs, who, under new leadership (Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart) already added Tomas and Jeremy Hellickson. They can now use Mark Trumbo as trade bait as they continue to address their pitching staff.
7. How do the Giants respond to the Panda's departure?
They put their best foot forward for Pablo Sandoval -- a five-year, $95 million offer, with a club option for a sixth year -- and Sandoval was well within his right to take similar money elsewhere. That leaves a hole in the lineup and the field for the defending champs, but it also leaves them the financial flexibility to scour both the free-agent and trade markets. Whether it's a front-line pitcher like Lester or Scherzer or the market's best-remaining third baseman in Chase Headley or trade possibilities like Upton, the Giants are going to be almost as interesting to watch in December as they were in October.
8. Will Kenta Maeda be posted?
Now that Tomas has signed, Maeda looms as the most highly regarded international possibility on the open market. But at this point, he's still a mere possibility, as it is not yet clear if the Hiroshima Carp will make him available. Though the starting market is loaded with free-agent and trade possibilities and Maeda's secondary stuff is not considered to be as strong as that of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, he'd still be a rare find in free agency -- a 26-year-old who could slot into the top half of a rotation.
The five scoreless innings Maeda pitched against the traveling MLB team in the All-Star Series only added to the intrigue surrounding him.
9. Which quiet major-market club will awake first: Dodgers, Yankees or Cubs?
I mentioned the Dodgers' outfield trade situation, but they've also got the prospect pieces to pull off, say, a Hamels trade, and the financial might to take on, say, a Lester contract. So we'll see what the new front office has up its sleeve.
The Yankees, so far, have stuck to their new mantra about fiscal responsibility in free agency, as they've got several bad contracts on their hands. But they also have a history of doing everything in their power to contend, and right now it's hard to look at that roster and see a serious contender.
As for the Cubs, there was a lot of hype surrounding that team going into the offseason, especially once Maddon came aboard. But internally, the Cubs acknowledge that their strong collection of young position players will need time to mature at the Major League level, especially in a division as deep as the NL Central. So we'll see if they ultimately land a marquee guy like Lester, but they've also emphasized the importance of "the next 15 months" in their process, so they might not make too many meaningful additions in the immediate.
10. What are we missing?
This speculation and reading of tea leaves is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that there are so many transactions in the Hot Stove season that you just don't see coming. The A's-Blue Jays trade over the weekend is a great example, because, up until mere days ago, Oakland was adamant about keeping Donaldson.
Things evolve. Situations change. Trade possibilities present themselves. Owners feel money burning a hole in their pocket. And the truth is that it's never too late in the winter to find ways to make a major improvement to your club, especially at a time when competitive parity is so strong. Look at the Orioles, who didn't sign Cruz until the last week of February and rode him to an AL East title. The winter is as unpredictable as the season that follows, and we wouldn't have it any other way.