Major League Baseball's general managers will gather next week in Milwaukee as a prelude to the quarterly owners' meetings. Before everyone leaves town, owners will address a potential Houston Astros sale and the Los Angeles Dodgers' post-McCourt transition and, in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement, will receive an update on the status of labor talks. The current deal is scheduled to expire Dec. 11, and the commissioner's office and players' association are pushing hard to get something done.
Meanwhile, we're already seeing some trade activity. Last week the Atlanta Braves sent veteran starter Derek Lowe to Cleveland for a minor leaguer, and on Monday, San Francisco traded lefty Jonathan Sanchez and a minor leaguer to Kansas City for outfielder Melky Cabrera.
What's the outlook for the other big items this winter? ESPN.com polled 28 general managers, assistant GMs, scouts and player personnel people by phone and email on the condition of anonymity. Here are their responses to seven Hot Stove questions that will be dominating the news in the coming weeks.:
Responses: Fielder 20, Pujols 3. The other five voters were undecided about the two.
This year's free-agent crop isn't especially deep, but it's crammed with star power at the top. In one corner you have Pujols, a three-time MVP, nine-time All-Star and St. Louis civic treasure. With 445 career home runs, he can also help sell tickets in the pursuit of some major milestones in the coming years.
In the other corner, there's Fielder. Since 2007, he ranks second in the majors to Philadelphia's Ryan Howard with 200 homers and is fourth in slugging percentage (.553) behind Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun.
The handful of voters who backed Pujols pointed to his unparalleled drive and Hall of Fame résumé.
"It's hard to dethrone the king, and that's Albert," an American League scouting director said. "Prince is the prince, and Albert is the king, so I'd probably defer to him. But he's no spring chicken going into free agency, either."
The age gap between the two stars swayed most respondents toward Fielder. Pujols, who turns 32 in January, is four years and four months older than Fielder. Although Pujols steadfastly maintains that there are no surprises on his birth certificate, he's had to deal with questions about his age since he took St. Louis and baseball by storm a decade ago. Several respondents raised the issue without prompting in the ESPN.com survey.
Pujols showed impressive healing power in recovering so quickly from a fractured wrist in June, but he's had back problems and was bothered by a heel injury late this season. Although he put up huge numbers after the All-Star break, he also drew a career-low 61 walks this season. Sometimes a declining walk rate is a sign that a hitter's bat is slowing and he needs to start his swing earlier to catch up to the heat. Pujols' bat speed is fine -- as pitchers throughout baseball will attest -- but it's a development that merits watching.
The biggest knock against Fielder, naturally, is his weight. But his wide-bodied physique hasn't hurt his durability: Since his rookie year, Fielder has appeared in 157, 158, 159, 162, 161 and 162 games. "He's been fat since he was born, so he knows how to play with fat," said an American League scout.
The consensus is that both players could benefit from signing with AL teams where they could eventually transition to DH if necessary. Executives point to Ryan Howard's five-year, $125 million deal with Philadelphia as an example of the risks inherent in giving long-term deals to sluggers on the wrong side of 30.
"Free agency is about paying for what somebody is going to do and not what they have done," an NL executive said. "Pujols is the best player of this generation, but he's on the backside of his career, whereas Fielder is in his prime."
Responses: Nathan 13, Rodriguez 12. The other three voters were undecided.
Nathan, 36, will be two years removed from Tommy John surgery on Opening Day. He returned this season and posted a 2-1 record and a 4.84 ERA in 48 appearances as a closer and setup man for the Twins. Nathan's fastball averaged a tick above 92 mph -- or about 2½ mph lower than his career peak.
Rodriguez, 29, is now three years removed from breaking Bobby Thigpen's record with 62 saves. His fastball isn't what it used to be, either, but he's remained effective while relying more on his secondary stuff. K-Rod throws his changeup and breaking ball about 40 percent of the time now.
Two NL executives used the phrase "high-wire act" to describe Rodriguez. But he still averaged 9.92 strikeouts per nine innings this season, and his swing-and-miss rate was identical to his 2008 peak in Anaheim. He's done an admirable job reinventing himself as a deception and location guy.
"He's already proved his ability to command the zone and pitch successfully with diminished velocity," an AL scout said. "I don't think Nathan has proven that yet. But if you're looking at a three-year deal for K-Rod and a one-year bounce-back deal for Nathan, then it becomes more of an even playing field."
Nathan, not surprisingly, scored big in the "makeup" department, while K-Rod needs to dispel his reputation as a diva. After the Brewers acquired him from the Mets in July, Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras counseled him on the importance of being a good teammate. The words appeared to resonate until Rodriguez groused publicly in September about his role as John Axford's setup man in Milwaukee. Coming in the heat of a pennant race, Rodriguez's declaration didn't exactly dispel the notion that he's a bit of an "I, me" guy.
3. Which 2011 free-agent signee has the best chance of rebounding next season? Adam Dunn (.159 with 11 home runs), Carl Crawford (.255 BA, .289 OBP, 18 stolen bases) or Jayson Werth (.232, 69 runs scored, 58 RBIs).
Responses: Crawford 22, Werth 5, Dunn 1.
Werth posted disappointing numbers in the first year of a $126 million contract, substantiating the notion that he's a very good complementary player rather than the centerpiece of a franchise with title aspirations. He suffered from playing in a weaker lineup in a more pitcher-friendly venue at Nationals Park. In 2009, Werth hit 11 home runs to right or right-center field with the Phillies. Last year, he hit only four in that direction.
"I think he's going to struggle in that ballpark," an AL scout said. "I saw him play last year for five games and he hit at least five balls that died on the warning track in right-center field."
A few poll participants liked Werth's ability to come back because of his all-around skill set. He's an-above average right fielder with a strong arm. He can steal bases, draw walks and wear out the gaps, so even if he doesn't hit 30 homers, he has several ways to help a team. "He's too good of a player and he's too athletic," a scout said. "I think he'll figure it out."
Crawford is the youngest of the three players at 30. His work ethic has never been an issue, and maybe he'll relax and be more comfortable with life in a fishbowl after a year in Boston. Critics of his seven-year, $142 million contract figured it would look worse with time as Crawford's speed diminished, but they didn't expect it to be an issue this quickly.
"Keeping him healthy is a key, and learning the [Fenway] wall is a key," an NL scout said. "He put a lot of heat on himself when he got the big money. Tampa Bay had grave concerns about him going to a big market and kind of falling down like he did. But I think he'll bounce back."
As for Dunn, his performance was so bad, it felt like a mercy benching when manager Ozzie Guillen sat him down in September. He's one of the most engaging, self-effacing players in baseball, but friends of the Big Donkey would feel better if he showed up a little trimmer and more resolute in spring training. Crawford and Werth need to show they haven't slipped; Dunn has a mandate to prove his career hasn't gone over a cliff.
"He's big and slow and he's not in very good shape," an AL scout said. "But a lot of clubs will remember Lance Berkman last winter. To his credit, he really committed himself to being in shape, and he did what he had to do. If [Dunn] really works hard to transform his body even a little bit, that'll be a promising sign for the season."
4. Which vacant managerial job poses the toughest challenge: Boston, St. Louis or the Chicago Cubs?
Responses: Boston 20, St. Louis 5, Chicago 3.
The new manager in St. Louis must follow Tony La Russa, who ranks third behind Connie Mack and John McGraw on baseball's career win list and just guided the Cardinals to two titles in a six-year span.
"Replacing a legend after they win a World Series is next to impossible," said a National League front-office man. The task could become even more difficult if Pujols leaves through free agency. But the St. Louis fan base is sufficiently rooted in reality that La Russa's successor can expect a bit of a grace period -- we think.
The next Cubs manager has to deal with the burden of the franchise's 103-year title drought and a roster that's short on talent. But much of the scrutiny for the next year or two will revolve around Theo Epstein and his rebuilding efforts in the quest to pull off a mind-blowing double and bring titles to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. The Cubs lost 91 games this year, and nobody is going to be picking them to win the NL Central come spring training.
That leaves Boston, the managerial meat grinder. When Terry Francona parted ways with the team a month ago, the fatigue on his face told you all you needed to know about the physical and emotional stress of running the Red Sox. Francona's successor will have to spend lots of time tending to clubhouse chemistry and answering questions about the 2011 club's issues, even though he wasn't a part of it. And if he isn't up to the task, the Boston Dirt Dogs, the Sons of Sam Horn and the city's legion of passionate sports radio talk-show callers won't hesitate to let him know about it.
"They have a veteran clubhouse in need of discipline," an American League scout said. "You walk in the first day, and where do you start? There are a lot of issues there outside of just winning games. And it's a media nightmare daily."
Responses: Buehrle 14, Wilson 8. The other six voters were undecided.
There's a perception that Buehrle is considerably older than Wilson, but in reality he's just been around a lot longer. Buehrle broke into the Chicago rotation in 2001, and he's working on a streak of 11 straight 200-inning seasons. He has made his mark dispensing comfortable 0-for-4's and sending everybody home in less than 2½ hours.
Buehrle's backers point to his reliability, guile and proven ability to thrive with the fourth-slowest fastball in the game (85.6 mph). He is widely regarded as the "safer" of the two choices.
In his second year as a starter, Wilson gave the Rangers 16 wins, 223 innings and a 2.94 ERA. He faltered in the postseason, but never used fatigue or a demanding workload as an excuse. Wilson's boosters love his work ethic, but have reservations about his occasional command issues. As one executive noted, Wilson also benefited from extraordinary defense on the left side of the infield with shortstop Elvis Andrus and third baseman Adrian Beltre.
"I think he's probably a No. 2," a scout said. "But for a championship club, a good 2 is just as valuable as a 1, really. You're more or less expected to win every time you go out."
The two pitchers also have different public personas. Outside of pitching a perfect game and a no-hitter, the biggest headline Buehrle has generated came when he lashed out at Michael Vick for his dogfighting operation. Wilson drives race cars, follows the "straight edge" lifestyle, believes in Taoism and seems to embrace his higher profile. A National League general manager half-jokingly said he wouldn't be surprised to see Wilson wind up on "The Bachelor" one of these days.
"I know C.J. Wilson is a great story, and he's obviously pitched well," the GM said. "But I don't see knockout stuff, and his arm action concerns me a little bit. Buehrle quietly has been pretty rock-solid for a long time. He works fast and throws with no effort. His recipe seems built to last."
The expectation in baseball circles is that Buehrle will sign a deal for three years or so, while Wilson might be looking at five or even six years. The length of their deals and total money invested will help determine the expectations each pitcher has to meet.
6. Which 2011 September-collapse team has a better chance of making the playoffs next year: Boston or Atlanta?
Responses: Boston 18, Atlanta 7. The other three respondents were undecided.
The Red Sox and Braves made some unfortunate history with staggering collapses in September. Boston blew a nine-game lead to lose out to Tampa Bay for the AL wild-card spot, while Atlanta squandered a 10½-game wild-card lead over St. Louis.
Atlanta has a lot of good young pitching, but some nagging questions: Can Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O'Flaherty come back from their oppressive workloads in 2012? And can general manager Frank Wren find a way to improve a lineup that ranked 10th in the league with 641 runs scored?
The Braves were 15th in MLB with an $87 million Opening Day payroll, so Wren has to deal with financial constraints. But Atlanta also plays in a less demanding division. The Phillies are a powerhouse, but they're getting older and showing signs of fraying around the edges. Washington and Florida are making progress, but they're not there yet, and the Mets are wading through a lot of post-Bernie Madoff drama.
The Red Sox have superior resources to Atlanta, but face tougher competition year in and year out. The Yankees are a lock to win at least 90 games annually, Tampa Bay will run out a rotation with David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore next year, and Toronto continues to improve under Alex Anthopoulos, one of baseball's most aggressive and innovative GMs.
Don't underestimate the value of the fatigue factor in the Boston clubhouse. If you think it's been tiresome to read about chicken, biscuits and beer in Boston, just imagine how Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and the boys will feel upon arrival at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
"They have a lot of bulletin-board material to motivate them," an AL personnel man said. "Let's write this down: By Feb. 24, it will be three days since the position players have shown up, and these guys are going to be sick and tired of answering questions about the previous season. It's going to keep motivating and motivating them. It's going to be a driving force."
Responses: Moore 13, Strasburg 12. The other three respondents called it a coin flip between Moore and Strasburg.
Several respondents called this the most challenging question in the survey. And the results were surprising, to say the least. Even though Strasburg is still 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery, who could have believed he would encounter a viable alternative among the 23-and-under set?
Moore earned points for his poise and ability to hit 95 mph on the gun without exerting a lot of energy. After striking out 700 batters in 497 innings in Tampa Bay's minor league system, he dazzled the Yankees in a late-September start and held Texas to one run over 10 innings in the division series. It also helps his cause that he's left-handed.
"If you can throw that hard with that little effort and bring three plus pitches to the table, you're a No. 1 starter," an AL scout said. "I saw him in spring training on one of the back fields, and he blew my doors off then."
Strasburg devotees contend that his stuff is still amazing, and he's almost all the way back from his elbow issues. The Nationals plan to monitor his innings closely in 2012. But if he stays healthy, we're talking about a front-of-the-rotation monster for years to come.
"He has stuff and fan appeal, and he's already had his Tommy John surgery," an NL scouting director said.
Darvish, the erstwhile Nippon Ham Fighter, ranked third behind Fielder and Pujols on Keith Law's recent ESPN.com top 50 free-agent list. He's physically impressive at 6-foot-5, and he has exceptional stuff and a feel for the nuances of pitching at age 25. But the checkered history of Japanese pitching imports leads to the inevitable questions about how Darvish will handle the transition to a new culture and all the baseball adjustments that go with it.
"This guy is impressive," said an American League personnel man. "He's more of a pitcher than you would expect him to be. But it's going to be a lot of work for whatever team ends up with him. It's more work taking a kid out of another country than, say, UCLA."
For what it's worth, we didn't encounter a single person in the survey who would be disappointed with any of the three pitchers.
"If you told me I would wind up with the worst one of those three, I'd be ecstatic," an AL executive said. "I would be doing cartwheels."
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.