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Saturday, December 1, 2012
Updated: December 5, 10:04 AM ET
Grand ole winter meetings preview

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

I got quite the cheery email the other day from the always-ecstatic folks at Opryland, the sprawling hotel/resort/winter wonderland that will host this year's baseball winter meetings.

Turns out they just wanted to pass along a helpful tip for how I could enrich my stay … by, uhhh, hanging out with Shrek and 2 million pounds of ice. Or something like that.

Well, speaking for all the baseball folks who are about to descend on Opryland, we greatly appreciate the recommendation. But somehow, I have a feeling that Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and their agents have other ideas for how they can enrich their stays.

Just a feeling.

Then again, you never know what madness is about to unfold when the winter meetings come to town. Do the Toronto Blue Jays have another 12-player trade in them? Will the Dodgers buy Greinke, Graceland and the entire Grand Ole Opry, just for fun?

Will the Braves collect the entire set of Upton brothers? Will the Marlins unload both of their humongous fish tanks for six guppies to be named later?

Well, this is the column where we answer those and all your pressing winter meetings questions. In the past few days, we have surveyed 17 prominent executives, agents and scouts about the hot baseball storylines that are about to explode over the next week. Now heeeeeeere they come:

Free-agent frenzy

The free-agent negotiating season is a month old. And once again, we've been reminded that this ain't the NFL, where the top free agents all seem to sign in approximately the first 11 minutes of free agency.

Just two of Keith Law's top 10 free agents -- B.J. Upton and Hiroki Kuroda -- have signed anywhere. And only six of his top 50 have changed teams. But that's about to change. And soon.

Once the biggest agents in baseball arrive at Opryland and get inspired by their first look at the spectacular dancing waters, that transactions column will never be the same. So let's preview that action by revealing the results of our annual What Date Will They Sign survey, as picked by those same 17 baseball gurus:

Josh Hamilton, OF: Almost nobody foresaw Hamilton marching to the podium at the winter meetings. What most members of the panel did foresee was this guy winding up back in Texas eventually, once he had finished assessing the market.

Josh Hamilton
Hamilton

"I'm going to say he gets four years and $100 million from Texas," one AL executive said. "I know they said they'd only go three years. But the conspiracy theorist in me says they threw that out there to temper everyone else's enthusiasm so they didn't go crazy. Then they'd swoop in and get their guy."

But we did get a handful of forecasts that Hamilton would wind up in Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia or maybe someplace no one has even talked about: "I've been thinking since the beginning of the offseason," another AL exec said, "that this could go kind of like last year, where nobody seemed to know where the top guys were landing, and once some midmarket team got a whiff that they might be able to sign this guy, they'd decide to overpay and do it."

That team hasn't surfaced yet, from all indications. But stay tuned.

Zack Greinke
With the Angels and Dodgers in pursuit, Zack Greinke may not have to leave Los Angeles after all.

Zack Greinke, RHP: Fifteen people who took part in this survey took a guess at where Greinke would sign -- and 14 of them picked the Dodgers, maybe as soon as this week. But the 15th, an agent, predicted he would go back to the Angels, using this logic:

"I think the Angels are acting like they're out because they don't want to get in a bidding war with the Dodgers. So they'll let the Dodgers go to their top dollar -- and then come in over that. They've got too much money invested in that team, and not enough pitching. They can't let him get away."

But if that's really the Angels' strategy, a second agent said, it's dangerous: "They're [competing] with a behemoth, in the Dodgers," he said. "They're the ultimate Goliath. So you can't play possum if you want the player. You've either got to be aggressive or you'll get killed."

Michael Bourn, OF: He and Scott Boras want lots of years and lots of dollars. So, more than half of the gurus polled predicted Bourn would still be sitting on the shelves in January. One agent even guessed he might not be signed by the first day of spring training -- especially now that his most likely pursuers, the Nationals, are no longer an option.

Michael Bourn
Bourn

And when they were asked to predict where he eventually would land, it was amazing how many of these men -- who talk to everyone in the business every day -- replied: "I have no idea." Five of them guessed the Phillies, who seem wary of committing to Bourn past his early 30s. But here are a couple of outside-the-box predictions to file away:

• Giants: "They're the sleeper on him for me," one NL executive said. "He's the perfect Brian Sabean signing. Let [Angel] Pagan go to Philly or somewhere else and sign a guy who's a perfect fit for their team."

• Mariners: "He'll be out there a long time," one prominent agent said, "and they'll be the only team left with money to spend."

Nick Swisher, OF: All but two of the folks we polled expect Swisher to sign in the next couple of weeks. But where? Three teams got multiple votes -- the Red Sox, Orioles and Mariners.

Nick Swisher
Swisher

The people who picked the Red Sox, however, saw Swisher as one of four or five free-agent bats they're pursuing -- along with Mike Napoli, Cody Ross, Adam LaRoche and Shane Victorino. So a lot depends on how those pieces ultimately fit together.

In the meantime, the Orioles "have to add offense," one exec said. "They don't have a lot in their system they can plug in. They won last year, and they need to build on that. They're in the AL East, so they can't sit back. I'm sure they'll sign a bat."

And Seattle "is going to do something," an AL executive said. "They're going to spend money on somebody. And they want a guy who can hit."

Rafael Soriano
Soriano

Rafael Soriano, RHP: There's still a lot of amazement out there that Soriano opted out of a deal with the Yankees that would have paid him $14 million next year. So now, as he and Boras search for bigger and better dollars, and multiple years, we hope Soriano is a patient man -- because not one participant in this survey guessed he would sign before Christmas.

We heard "halftime of the Super Bowl." We heard "Inauguration Day" (Jan. 20). We heard a smattering of dates in February. But outside of a couple of guesses that he would land in Toronto, everyone else who made a pick predicted Soriano eventually would sign with the Tigers: "Mike Ilitch steps up to the plate and saves Scott's butt again," one exec said.

Who's most likely to get traded?

Who's the best bet to get traded during the winter meetings? We posed that question and got this response (with some panelists picking multiple players):

James Shields 5
Asdrubal Cabrera 4
Shin-Soo Choo 2
Luke Hochevar 2
R.A. Dickey, Elvis Andrus, Michael Morse, Josh Willingham, Jed Lowrie, Bruce Chen, Andrew Bailey 1 apiece

James Sheilds
At $4.25 million for 2013, Rays starter James Shields -- a 15-game winner last season -- is a bargain.

Shields: We've been listening to those James Shields trade rumors for two years. But this might be the year. Really. Seriously.

"Just look at the contract," one AL exec said. "He's got this year and next year left. So he's got more value now than he'll have a year from now. They're very analytical about everything they do. It just makes sense that now's the time."

An official of another team wasn't so sure, though. He's convinced, he said, that "the odds are better than 50-50 that they'll move 'a pitcher.' But not necessarily James Shields. And not necessarily next week."

In fact, other teams report the Rays have been listening on just about all their potential starters: Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Chris Archer, Jeff Niemann, and even David Price and Matt Moore. There's almost no chance they'll trade Price or Moore, unless they're offered the deal of the century. But almost any other scenario is possible -- especially when the alternative for the clubs they're talking to might be handing Anibal Sanchez $80 million.

It will take a monster offer to persuade a team that still plans to contend to move a top-of-the-rotation force such as Shields, who offers so much dependability and leadership. But if the Rays come out of this with a package centered around a Wil Myers kind of guy, it's far from out of the question.

Asdrubal Cabrera
Cabrera

Cabrera: There's a feeling out there that the Indians are ready to hit the reset button and move a bunch of familiar faces -- from Choo to Chris Perez, from Ubaldo Jimenez to Justin Masterson, and maybe more. But thanks to a grim free-agent shortstop market, Cabrera is at the top of this list.

"I know the direction they're going and what they're looking for," one AL exec said. "And I think they find a taker. When Stephen Drew is the best [free-agent] option out there, they've just got too many ways to go [to move Cabrera]."

The Diamondbacks, Rays and A's have all been connected to Cabrera this winter. And given that the Indians want young, high-upside pitching back, all those teams are excellent fits. But the price might actually be so high that, as one NL exec said: "In the end, he ain't going anywhere. I know what they're looking for. And if the price stays the same, I can't imagine he'll get traded."

Who's most likely to sign this week?

Which free agent has the best shot to show up on a winter meetings podium near you (and Shrek) in the next few days? Here's how the poll participants voted on that question:

Zack Greinke 7
Cody Ross 3
Anibal Sanchez 2
Mike Napoli 2
Michael Bourn (surprisingly) 2
Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster, Kyuji Fujikawa 1 apiece

Greinke has been described, by interested clubs, as a guy who has been in no hurry to sign before the meetings. But that's not necessarily because he and his agent, Casey Close, want to use the traditional winter meetings hysteria to stoke a good old-fashioned Pujols-esque bidding war.

It's just Zack Greinke, taking his time to think it all through.

"He wants to think about it," said one exec who kicked the tires on Greinke last month. "He wants to take his time, talk to people, learn about everybody. He really wants to understand what he's getting himself into before he makes a decision."

But Greinke met with the Dodgers and Angels last week, according to ESPN Los Angeles, and he also is believed to have done extensive homework on the Rangers and Nationals. So it wouldn't be a shock if he wrapped up the process this week -- and spent the holiday season counting his 150 million dollar bills.

Who will be the Human Trade Rumor?

Speaking as someone who has chased a few thousand winter meetings trade rumors in my day, I have a confession to make:

It doesn't matter to us professional rumor chasers whether a big name actually gets traded at the winter meetings. It just matters that somebody -- anybody -- helps us manufacture enough juicy rumor morsels to help us survive the nuttiest week of the year.

So who will be this year's Human Trade Rumor -- a player who won't necessarily get traded this week but will get talked about nonstop anyhow? Here's how our panel voted on that question (with some casting votes for multiple players):

James Shields 6
Justin Upton 5
R.A. Dickey 2
Wil Myers 2
Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Morse, Jeremy Hellickson, Giancarlo Stanton 1 apiece

Shields, we've covered. Dickey is a guy the Mets still seem focused on signing. So let's take a look at Upton and Myers.

Justin Upton
Upton

Upton: Has any set of brothers in history gotten more attention in Rumor Central than Justin and B.J. Upton? In the past two years, wouldn't you estimate they've been the subject of more rumor mongering than Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and the Kardashians combined?

Well, B.J. might be off the rumor board, now that he has signed on with Atlanta. But here's a prediction: Justin-mania is about to fill that void.

For the third straight winter meetings, the Diamondbacks will spend the week listening on their intriguing 25-year-old right fielder. And although, as one AL exec put it, they might not be "aggressively shopping him, they've definitely done a good job of letting teams know they will listen."

Hey, ya think?

The official line is that the Diamondbacks are no more motivated to trade Upton now than they were last year or the year before. But do the math. At $9.75 million in 2013, Upton is an excellent buy. At $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million the year after that, he starts getting a little pricey. So the money is talking. Isn't it?

Arizona is also a team that suddenly has more depth in the outfield than anywhere else on the diamond. So to the half-dozen clubs that have been talking to D-backs GM Kevin Towers, this seems like the optimum time for Arizona to pull the lever on a deal for this guy. Finally.

But Towers has made it clear to those teams that he's doing this only if he gets exactly what he's looking for -- a top-of-the-rotation arm and/or an impact shortstop. A bunch of teams are hovering. But the consensus among execs we talked to is that the team to watch most closely on this front -- this week and this winter -- is Texas.

Wil Myers
Coming soon to a major league ballpark near you: Wil Myers.

Myers: Ten months ago, the Royals' latest, greatest mega-prospect ranked 13th on Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects list. But nine of the 12 studs above him have already reached the big leagues. So there is no more attractive trade chip in any team's portfolio than Myers, who turns 22 next week and is coming off a dazzling .304/.378/.554/.932 season in Triple-A.

We know the Royals have dangled Myers to the Rays for Shields, and to the Red Sox for Jon Lester. But other clubs portray them as actually being torn about whether they want to trade a guy like this at all.

And, if they do, should they deal him for an equivalent young high-end starter they can control for years? Or would it make more sense to move him for a more established top-of-the-rotation arm who could enable them to contend right now?

That's a question they need to answer themselves -- and soon. But an exec of one club predicts that, ultimately, they're going to "use Wil Myers as a chip to dramatically improve their starting pitching. They know they can't get in on Greinke. And they feel like they have a shot to win that division if they get the right guy. So I think they pull the trigger."

Which team will be this year's Angels?

Angels GM Jerry Dipoto spent so much time at the podium at last year's winter meetings that you almost suspected he slept there. So, which team will dominate the headlines, and the action, at Opryland? You won't be shocked by the results of this sector of the polling (again, with some voters casting multiple votes).

Dodgers 12
Red Sox 4
Rangers 4
Indians 2
Phillies, Royals, Orioles 1 each

The Red Sox? They "have the most holes to fill," one GM said. The Rangers? They "have more balls in the air than anyone," an AL exec said. The Indians? "Ready to retool and get younger," another AL exec said.

But the winner? When in doubt, always pick the team with the most money -- those spend-it-if-ya-got-it Dodgers That was the motto of most of these voters.

"There's really only one reason not to pick them," said an executive of one club. "They don't have many spots left to fill anymore. That makes it harder. But at this point, I wouldn't put anything past them."