MILWAUKEE -- As Major League Baseball's free-agent process transitions from idle chatter to the hard-core negotiating phase, it appears that two segments of the market will generate more hourly updates and hyperventilating on Twitter than the rest over the coming weeks.
We can start with the Albert Pujols-versus-Prince Fielder debate at first base, naturally. Then it's time to move on to the closer market, where big league teams can choose from a range of established names and potential comeback candidates this winter.
To no great surprise, agent Scott Boras is smack in the middle of both scenarios.
When Boras and his coterie of assistants arrive in Milwaukee for the annual general managers meetings this week, they'll bring along a stack of binders laying out the case for Fielder, a 27-year-old, three-time All-Star who ranks second in MLB to the Phillies' Ryan Howard with 200 homers since 2007. Boras' early pitch for Fielder doesn't include the words "special" or "iconic," but it does sprinkle in the adjective "amazing" and a reference to a certain "Dancing With the Stars" contestant and seven-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman.
"Prince is an amazing athlete," Boras said by phone last week. "This guy can fly. He's like Warren Sapp. That man was an athlete. People said he had this square body or he wasn't big enough or whatever, but he was still an All-Pro.
"Name me the player in Major League Baseball who is less than a six-year player who is going to have a five-year performance record that matches Prince. I don't see anybody in the big leagues who's going to come close to his production in home runs and RBIs, with a .400 on-base percentage. And remember: This guy is just beginning to step into his prime."
Boras' stable of clients also includes Ryan Madson and Francisco Rodriguez, who join Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton, Frank Francisco, Matt Capps and Brad Lidge on the spectrum of available closers, depending on how high teams want to aim and how much they want to spend. In addition, Colorado's Huston Street and Oakland's Andrew Bailey are among the relievers who could be available by trade this winter.
A week ago, it didn't appear that Madson would be in this position. Boras and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro made enough progress in talks to generate a spate of reports that they were closing in on a four-year, $44 million deal, only to hit a sudden, mysterious breakdown in discussions. A few days later, the Phillies reached agreement on a four-year, guaranteed $50 million deal with Jonathan Papelbon that includes a vesting option for a fifth year.
Amaro told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark that reports of a pending deal were "unequivocally false," then zipped it. As for Boras, he has declined to comment publicly on the discussions. But indications are that Boras and his group believed they were closer to a deal than the Phillies did, and felt blindsided by the late turn of events and the Phillies' shift to Papelbon.
ESPN.com's Jim Bowden gave an insightful take on the Madson-Phillies intrigue last week. Until Amaro and Boras hash things out in a room somewhere and come out in a raised fist salute, you can only wonder how the aborted talks will affect the dynamic in their future dealings.
Meanwhile, if Madson is disappointed by the prospect of leaving his close friends and his comfort zone in Philadelphia, he can take solace in the knowledge that other opportunities await. Madson converted 32 of 34 save opportunities this season, struck out 62 batters while walking only 16, finished with a solid 1.15 WHIP and held lefties to a miniscule .198 batting average. He also has a 2.31 ERA in 33 career postseason appearances, so he's proven he won't wilt under the heightened scrutiny of pitching in October.
And if Papelbon's contract is any indication, some teams still are willing to commit big dollars to elite relievers. Cost-conscious clubs like Cincinnati, Toronto, Minnesota and the New York Mets are looking for late-inning help this winter, but so are Boston, Washington and Texas, which will need a new closer if Neftali Feliz moves from the bullpen to the rotation in 2012.
Barely two weeks after the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated a title in the Busch Stadium infield, it's been slow going on the free-agent market in general. The Arizona Diamondbacks have signed infielders Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald, and the versatile and selfless Jamey Carroll has agreed to terms on a two-year, guaranteed $6.75 million deal with Minnesota. He's getting a chance to prove he can be the Twins' starting shortstop at age 38.
Most observers think the action will pick up with resolution of talks toward a new labor agreement, which could happen this week. "Right now you're dealing with the unknown, and any time that's the case people are going to be fearful of making significant commitments," said one player agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the absence of signings, we're seeing some interesting subplots. While St. Louis just hired Mike Matheny to be its new manager, Boston and the Chicago Cubs are still in the middle of manager searches. Those situations need to be resolved before the Red Sox and Cubs can plunge into the player-acquisition end.
The Miami Marlins have a new name, manager, ballpark, uniforms and logo, and they've created a buzz by inviting Pujols, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle to South Florida for meet-and-greets. Ozzie Guillen's club is one of several potential landing spots for Cuban outfielder Yoennis Cespedes, who became an Internet sensation thanks to a wildly popular video on Youtube.
It's not all about free agency this winter. Now that CC Sabathia has recommitted to the Yankees, the starting pitcher market is relatively thin, with C.J. Wilson, Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and former Nippon Ham Fighter Yu Darvish as the most attractive options out there. That's likely to make for some active trade discussions in the coming weeks.
Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens, Tampa Bay's Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, the Chicago White Sox's John Danks and Gavin Floyd, the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza, Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie, Florida's Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez and Oakland's Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez are among the starters whose names could be bandied around in trade talks. As Oakland assistant GM David Forst said, "We're willing to talk about anyone."
The general managers meetings will come before the quarterly owners meetings, which conclude Thursday at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. Along with an abundance of labor talk, owners are expected to address the proposed sale of the Houston Astros to businessman Jim Crane and the transition to life after Frank McCourt in Los Angeles. That day can't come soon enough for beleaguered Dodgers fans.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.