If it seems that the baseball season just ended, well, it did. But guess what: the hot stove is already warming up.
The compressed free-agent calendar that Major League Baseball recently implemented means that the offseason no longer contains a two-week stretch for teams and agents to catch their breath. Free agents are eligible to begin signing with teams on Saturday, six days after the Giants celebrated in Detroit.
Unlike other sports, it's unlikely that many significant signings will take place on the first day, but it's definitely not too soon to start talking about where the big names will land. MLB.com decided to take a look at where 10 of the top available players might fit.
This isn't a projection, necessarily -- history has taught us that strange things happen in the offseason. Instead, it's simply a look at what teams might have the means, needs and opportunities for the players in question.
Josh Hamilton: Without question, the top hitting free agent on this year's market is also the hardest to figure. Hamilton turns 32 early next season, has serious durability questions and is coming off a season where he fell off drastically after a torrid start. He's also by far the greatest pure talent on the market, and was the American League MVP just two years ago.
Hamilton is one of several top players for whom a personal fit will be an essential consideration, making him a difficult player to forecast. The Braves will likely have interest. So will the Red Sox. The Rangers will surely at least check on what it takes to keep their star. The Orioles could use a corner bat and have pursued big-time free agents before. But for a fit of comfort, opportunity, financial wherewithal and competitiveness, Atlanta seems to make the most sense for the North Carolina-born slugger.
Michael Bourn: Bourn hasn't yet turned 30 (though he will next month), he's durable, and he's fast. As a general rule, that combination of traits makes for a pretty appealing free agent. He's a legitimate leadoff man and center fielder, and while he doesn't put up star-level offensive numbers, he's certainly a good fit for a team that needs that combination of skills.
The Nationals have been looking for a center fielder/leadoff man for what seems like ages. With the emergence of Bryce Harper, it seems they've answered part of that equation. They have several movable parts, though -- Harper could move to a corner and Mike Morse to first base if Adam LaRoche leaves, just to name one possible scenario. There may be competition, but the Nats seem natural for Bourn.
B.J. Upton: Often, players at similar positions must be viewed in context of one another. That's very much the case with Upton and Bourn. It's likely that both hold some appeal to the Nationals, and to the Phillies. But Upton seems a better fit for the Phils, who seem less fixated on a leadoff man and who could also use some right-handed balance for the middle of their lineup.
Upton would also look a lot better plying his trade in Citizens Bank Park than at Tropicana Field, although he hit better at home than on the road in 2012. He's young for a free agent, athletic, and a good defender -- almost the exact prescription for what the Phillies' offense needs.
Nick Swisher: Swisher will be an interesting test case, since he's a better player than he often gets credit for. He's a solid defender and a player who gets on base and hits for power, even when he doesn't hit for average. He's also known as a colorful character, and that doesn't necessarily work everywhere.
One team could use a corner outfielder with offensive and defensive ability, and is known for colorful characters: the World Series champion Giants. Melky Cabrera pretty clearly won't be back, and the outfield at AT&T Park isn't the easiest place to play. Swisher could end up in a number of different places, but don't be surprised if he returns to the Bay Area.
Zack Greinke: Just as with the hitters, the top pitcher on the market is a bit hard to figure. Greinke has been pursued like a No. 1 starter, and as a former Cy Young winner, he's performed like a No. 1 in the past. Over the past three seasons, though, he has a 3.83 ERA that's not a lot better than league average, despite eye-popping strikeout and walk rates. So the question teams must answer is whether Greinke is an ace or a very good No. 2 starter.
The Rangers are one team that seems to value Greinke extremely highly, regardless of the number next to his name. They pursued him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Besides, they could have the chance to do what the Angels did to them last winter: improve their own roster and hurt a rival with the same move.
Anibal Sanchez: One way or another, the Angels are almost certain to sign a starting pitcher. If that's not Greinke -- and it may very well be Greinke -- the next-best option could be Sanchez. The right-hander has mostly been a National League pitcher, but he showed he could hold his own in the AL down the stretch and in the playoffs for Detroit.
Because of his age and his strong finish, Sanchez may be the second-most expensive starter on the market. He could well return to Detroit, and Greinke could well return to the Angels. However, the Angels will likely be aggressive in pursuing a starting pitcher, and Sanchez will be one of the most-desired pitchers on the market. It's easy to see the fit.
Kyle Lohse: Lohse is represented by Scott Boras, so the immediate first thought for many fans is that he'll go where the money is. And that's certainly possible. But remember, Lohse is the rare Boras client who once turned down the option to hit free agency in order to stay in a place where he was happy. Given that the next deal for Lohse, 34, will likely be his last big one, he might well again put comfort at the top of his priority list.
And while ideally he'd love to stay in St. Louis, the next best fit for the right-hander would be somewhere on the West Coast. He's from California and makes his home in Arizona. Conveniently, there are teams in the West with money and with needs in the starting rotation. Lohse might be best served to stay in the National League, and the Dodgers are at the top of the list of teams with money to spend. Lohse in L.A. makes an awful lot of sense.
Edwin Jackson: Jackson will be looking for multiple years this winter after taking a one-year deal with Washington. And though he didn't put up huge numbers, he was quite effective. Besides, as a 28-year-old, 10-year veteran with some of the best pure stuff in the game, Jackson remains a highly desirable quantity.
There's already some early rumor buzz about Jackson to Toronto, and it makes a great deal of sense. He's bounced around enough that the move north of the border shouldn't faze him. Toronto, meanwhile, urgently needs quality innings, and if there's one thing you know you're getting from Jackson, it's durability. The Jays have money to spend, and Jackson has actually been more effective in the American League than the NL. He could end up a lot of places, but Toronto definitely makes sense.
Hiroki Kuroda: Kuroda, frankly, is a good fit nearly anywhere. He's proven he can pitch in arguably baseball's toughest division, and there are no indications he's looking for a long-term deal. The combination of a quality pitcher on a one- or two-year contract holds appeal for pretty much every team in the Major Leagues.
Still, it's easiest to envision him with one of the two teams for whom he's already pitched. The Dodgers rate starting pitching as a top priority, so Kuroda could certainly return. The Yankees would seem to make the most sense, though, especially given that Kuroda was issued a qualifying offer of $13.3 million on Friday.
Rafael Soriano: It's not a great market if you're looking for an established closer. Of course, that's probably good news for teams in the long run, since they'll avoid giving out the kind of contracts to 'proven closers' that so often end up looking so bad.
One big name on the market is Soriano. (Another, by the way, is Mariano Rivera, but it's difficult to imagine Rivera pitching anywhere but New York in 2013; he'll be a Yankee or he'll retire.)
If you watched the postseason, you know there's one very good club in very real need of relief help: the AL champion Tigers. Detroit is not shy about spending money, and while the Tigers would love to upgrade in other areas, it's an open question what kind of upgrades are available. They might choose to make smaller bullpen improvements, but it's very easy to see Soriano as a Tiger in 2013 and beyond.