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Hot Stove picture about to come into focus

Free agents can begin negotiating with new teams after five-day period

List of free-agent eligibles

The seasons blend seamlessly in baseball. With the last pitch in Game 7 of the World Series, thrown by the Giants' Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night in Kansas City, fall turned into winter in a heartbeat, the focus shifting to preparations for next spring and summer.

Before the celebrating was over in the clubhouse of the three-time-champion Giants at Kauffman Stadium, the Hot Stove season already was heating up. Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings are scheduled to be held in San Diego on Dec. 8-11, but the wheeling and dealing will already be in full swing by then.

The final out of a riveting Fall Classic brought free agency to eligible players and all the speculation that goes with it. But not until after a five-day exclusive negotiation period for players to talk with the clubs they finished the season with can free agents hit the open market.

Clubs have until Monday to determine whether to make a one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer to their own free agents. Players who receive offers have a week -- Nov. 10 -- to decide whether to accept. If a player rejects the offer, his former team will receive a Draft pick as compensation if he signs with another club.

For prime-time stars certain to appeal to a number of teams, the qualifying offer is considered a mere formality. None of the 22 qualifying offers made over the past two seasons were accepted.

Highlighting the potential free-agent class this winter are some top-shelf starting pitchers, always in heavy demand given what a Bumgarner can -- and did -- mean.

"Pitching is a global issue in baseball," new Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said. "Any team, any organization, never feels like they have enough pitching. Ever."

Established aces Max Scherzer (Tigers), Jon Lester (A's) and James Shields (Royals) figure to headline the group. The Reds exercised an option to keep Johnny Cueto in 2015, and the Brewers are expected to follow suit with Yovani Gallardo.

Video: [email protected]: Scherzer whiffs nine over six innings

Scherzer, Lester and Shields could be joined in free agency by the likes of Ervin Santana (Braves), Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong (Giants), Jason Hammel (A's), Chris Young (Mariners), Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy (Yankees), Justin Masterson (Cardinals) and Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez (Pirates).

In addition, the latest arm from Japan drawing interest is Kenta Maeda, a 26-year-old right-hander who has excelled in the World Baseball Classic while going 82-58 with a 2.43 ERA in seven seasons for Hiroshima of Japan's Central League.

Proven closers such as David Robertson (Yankees), Koji Uehara (Red Sox), Francisco Rodriguez (Brewers), Casey Janssen (Blue Jays), LaTroy Hawkins (Rockies) and Sergio Romo (Giants) could be available in the open market.

Among position players, the potential free-agent standouts include infielders Pablo Sandoval (Giants), Hanley Ramirez (Dodgers), Aramis Ramirez (Brewers), Asdrubal Cabrera (Nationals), Jed Lowrie (A's), Stephen Drew and Chase Headley (Yankees); catcher Russell Martin (Pirates); first baseman/outfielder Michael Cuddyer (Rockies); outfielders Nelson Cruz (Orioles), Melky Cabrera (Jays), Nori Aoki (Royals) and Torii Hunter (Tigers) and designated hitters Victor Martinez (Tigers) and Kendrys Morales (Mariners). Pending option decisions, right fielders Nick Markakis (Orioles) and Alex Rios (Rangers) also could be available.

Video: Pablo Sandoval after World Series win

Perhaps the most intriguing position player on the marketplace is Yasmany Tomas, a power-hitting Cuban outfielder who turns 24 on Nov. 14.

When he gains official clearance, Tomas is expected to set off a bidding war that could take him into the $100-million range, surpassing such countrymen as Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes. Another Cuban outfielder, Rusney Castillo, signed with the Red Sox in August for seven years and $72.5 million.

The qualifying offer of $15.3 million represents an increase of $1.2 million from last season, an 8.5-percent rise. The figure is set by the average of the 125 most lucrative contracts.

A qualifying offer can be made only to a free agent who was with the team for the entire season. A club that signs a player who received an offer loses its first-round pick in next year's Draft -- unless that pick is among the first 10, in which case the signing club loses its next-highest pick.

From Nov. 10-12, the General Managers' Meetings will be held in Phoenix, where free agency will pick up serious steam.

Another significant deadline will arrive on Dec. 2. That is the last date for teams to offer contracts to unsigned arbitration-eligible players. Players who do not receive offers become free agents.

Quality players have been known to slip through the cracks by not being offered contracts. David Ortiz was signed by the Red Sox for one year and $1 million after the Twins elected not to tender him in 2002. Is there another Big Papi out there somewhere?

The Red Sox, 2013 World Series champions, will be looking for similar good fortune this winter as they go about the business of retooling. With Clay Buchholz their lone established starting pitcher, they figure to be in the hunt for a free-agent starter or two -- including Lester, the dominant lefty they sent to the A's in exchange for Cespedes. Boston also could be in the market for a closer if it chooses not to extend a qualifying offer to Uehara, the 2013 savior who struggled in the second half this past season.

Always in the headlines, along with their rivals to the north, the Yankees are even more intriguing than usual this winter with Derek Jeter's retirement and the uncertainty surrounding the potential return of Alex Rodriguez.

Video: Cashman looks to be active this upcoming offseason

With the Yankees obviously in the market for a shortstop to replace Jeter, the Orioles moved swiftly to take J.J. Hardy out of circulation, signing him to a three-year, $40 million extension.

The biggest name among potential free-agent shortstops is Hanley Ramirez, who is coming off a subpar season. The Dodgers must decide whether to offer a long-term extension, extend the $15.3 million qualifying offer or let him walk without compensation. Cabrera, Drew and Lowrie also are potential free-agent shortstops. Drew played 46 games for the Yankees after arriving in a July 31 deal with the Red Sox.

On the heels of a disappointing finish, the Dodgers could be rerouting toward building from within after rolling up an unprecedented $240 million payroll in 2014. It paid off with a National League West title, but the runner-up Wild Card Giants -- with a payroll of about $150 million -- stole their thunder in the postseason. Furthermore, the Royals' Opening Day payroll was a shade over $92 million. The bulk of their roster was homegrown.

"It's a world-class organization with world-class expectations," said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' new president of baseball operations by way of Tampa Bay. "Our goal is to be as good as we can be in 2015 and play much deeper into October. We also need to be very mindful about sustaining this. If we have to go to free agents constantly to rebuild, that's not a viable business model to be competitive every year. A robust farm system is important in a lot of different ways."

The Phillies, looking to get younger and more athletic, have a fleet of high-end stars to dangle in trade talks -- Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon and Marlon Byrd.

Video: 120 Sports looks forward to the Phillies' 2015 season

Few clubs have more challenging work ahead than the AL Central-champion Tigers with the uncertainty surrounding the free agency of Scherzer, Martinez and Hunter and the state of their bullpen, which includes the club holding an option on Joakim Soria for $7 million.

"I would think that right after the World Series will be a very busy time for us," Tigers president, CEO and GM Dave Dombrowski said.< /p>

Following the Winter Meetings in San Diego, which promise to be full of activity and conclude with the Rule 5 Draft, the next date to keep in mind is Jan. 13. The filing of salary arbitration begins that day, with figures exchanged by players and clubs on Jan. 16.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for
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