- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Less than a week after San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean stood before roughly a million adoring parade watchers and declared the city a "baseball mecca," executives throughout the game are taking aim at 2013. They'll begin assembling Tuesday for the annual general managers' meetings in Indian Wells, Calif. -- the land of Hope and Crosby.
In this case it's more about hope and faith, as teams begin laying the groundwork for moves that will shape the rosters we will see in spring training. With the exception of outfielders and starting pitchers, it's a thin free-agent crop this winter, so trade discussions will abound and teams will have to resist the temptation to overpay for mediocre talent. Stop us if you've heard that one before.
As the Hot Stove season gears up, we surveyed 22 general managers, assistant GMs, advisers, scouting directors and talent evaluators in the field for their opinions on seven questions that are likely to drive media coverage between now and New Year's Day -- or Valentine's Day. Here are their responses:
1) Which team will sign Josh Hamilton? For how much money and how many years?
Responses: Milwaukee 6; Don't know 6; Texas 5; Philadelphia 1; Baltimore 1; San Francisco 1; Seattle 1; Kansas City 1.
#32 Center Fielder
The estimates for Hamilton's next deal ranged from a low of three years, $60 million to a high of five years, $130 million.
In May, when Hamilton was carrying the Rangers' offense and making an early Triple Crown push, it was difficult to envision him leaving Arlington. He's been a pivotal piece of the Rangers' lineup since 2008, and Texas provided him with a support system and a personal comfort zone that allowed him to take his career to new heights.
Now not so much. Hamilton slumped badly in June and July, and at times he seemed distracted to the point of disengaged. He missed several games down the stretch with a case of blurred vision attributed to excessive caffeine and sports drinks, and contributed to the Rangers' late fade to wild-card status by dropping an easy fly ball in a loss to Oakland. Of the 22 people we surveyed, six wouldn't even hazard a guess where Hamilton might wind up. That reflects the industry sentiment that the Rangers are lukewarm about signing him -- or at the very least, hesitant to jump through financial hoops to get it done.
"This sort of reminds me of last year, when they made an offer to C.J. Wilson just to make an offer," an American League executive said. "They really didn't want him back. You get the same feeling this year on Hamilton."
Our poll featured lots of love for Milwaukee, where Johnny Narron, Hamilton's former "accountability coach" in Texas, now works as the Brewers' hitting coach. But Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin downplayed the speculation when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt, "We've got the connection with Johnny Narron, but we don't have the connection with U.S. Bank."
We did encounter a few non-traditional thinkers in our group. A National League executive suggested that Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore might dabble in the Hamilton sweepstakes, and an AL scout mentioned Seattle because Jack Zduriencik is entering his fifth season as the Mariners' GM, his team is offensively impaired and "he has to do something to make a big push, doesn't he?"
Two respondents characterized the Giants as a prime "darkhorse" candidate for Hamilton, given that Angel Pagan is a free agent, Melky Cabrera won't return, and the Giants could opt to non-tender Hunter Pence rather than pay him $12 million-plus in salary arbitration. The Phillies landed a vote from a scout who observed that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. "likes to pull off big deals, and they need outfield help."
2) Which team will sign Zack Greinke? For how many years and how much money?
Almost all of the respondents predicted Greinke will sign a five- or six-year deal, for a total payout in the $100 million to $150 million range.
#23 Starting Pitcher
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels should have derived a significant advantage when they acquired Greinke for the pennant push in August and September, and he got a chance to sample the surroundings and pitch in the AL West for two months. Greinke went 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP as an Angel and showed he's capable of handling the demands and the scrutiny of the Southern California market.
Recent events have increased the Angels' sense of urgency to re-sign him. Last week the Angels traded Ervin Santana to Kansas City and declined to exercise Dan Haren's $15.5 million contract option, thereby rendering him a free agent. In addition, C.J. Wilson is coming off three straight 200-inning seasons and an elbow cleanup in October. GM Jerry DiPoto told reporters the Angels aren't "isolated" on Greinke. But if Greinke doesn't return, they're going to have to snag two high-quality starters to be Jered Weaver's wing men in the rotation.
Greinke could be looking at a deal similar to the six-year, guaranteed $144 million extension that Cole Hamels signed with the Phillies in July. Still, there's room for debate over precisely what teams are getting in Greinke.
"He's an elite pitcher," a National League front office man said. "He's a different cat, but he's very meticulous and competitive. He has great command and great stuff and he's very athletic. As much as any of these guys, he will take his turn and give you a great effort. I don't think he's a gamble at all."
A National League scout was more circumspect.
"He doesn't dominate as much as he used to," the scout said. "The guy is a gifted pitcher, no question. But I don't think he's that shutdown, slam-dunk guy anymore. He has to work harder for his outs than he did in the past. The year he won the Cy Young [in 2009], he was the best pitcher in the American League by far. He was Maddux-esque with his ability to add and subtract off his fastball. It was absolutely incredible what he could do with the baseball. I don't know if it's age or innings or what, but I haven't seen him quite come back to that. He's more of a No. 2 now for me."
3) Given a choice between these two speedy free-agent center fielders -- B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn -- which player would you rather sign?
Responses: Bourn 14; Upton 7; no opinion 1.
The outfield position is well-stocked this winter, with Hamilton, Angel Pagan, Torii Hunter, Cody Ross, Shane Victorino, Nick Swisher and Ryan Ludwick all readily available for the right price. Upton and Bourn make for an intriguing debate because they're close in age, play a premium defensive position and provide different skills sets.
Upton, 28, has become a different hitter with age. Since 2008, his home run total has increased from 9 to 11 to 18 to 23 to 28. In that same span, his on-base percentage has taken a free fall from .383 to .298. According to FanGraphs, Upton swung at 15 percent of pitches outside the strike zone five years ago. Last season, the percentage spiked to a career-high 32.7. Although Upton's power contributes to his allure, his streakiness and lack of plate discipline detract from the overall picture.
Bourn, who turns 30 in December, leads the majors with 257 stolen bases since 2008, and is second in the big leagues with 59 bunt hits and 175 infield hits in that span. This year Bourn hit .311 before the All-Star break and .225 after it, substantiating the notion that he tends to wear down in the second half.
Although Upton has one of the best throwing arms among big league center fielders, Bourn grades out significantly better in the new-age defensive metrics. He has led center fielders in Bill James' runs saved rankings in two of the past three seasons.
The baseball people who preferred Upton believe his power tool will stand the test of time better than Bourn's speed.
"I would take Upton," an NL scout said. "I just think some stuff is still untapped there, even thought he can look terrible at the plate at times. Bourn is a great guy who does a good job in center field, but he's not a very good hitter for me. Upton could be a 30-[homer], 50-[steal] guy. If he figures it out, he'll be a scout's dream."
Upton is a more positive clubhouse presence than people give him credit for, but he's still battling a reputation for stubbornness and a failure to bring his "A" game to the park seven days a week. Several executives who chose Bourn praised his reliability, energy and upbeat attitude.
"Better defensively. Better OBP. Better makeup. Safer pick," an AL assistant GM said of Bourn.
4) Justin Upton, James Shields and Chase Headley all have been mentioned as potential trade candidates. Which player do you think is most likely to get dealt this winter?
Responses: Shields 15; Upton 5; Headley 1. One respondent split his vote between Upton and Headley.
After a flurry of Upton trade speculation died down in July, Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick and club president Derrick Hall said Upton was unlikely to be dealt this winter. But Upton's name has been bandied around twice now, and it's resulted in some collateral damage that's going to have to be mended moving forward.
Several people we spoke to said GM Kevin Towers is intrigued by the thought of moving Upton and getting a mother lode of talent in return. Towers is one of baseball's premier front office "gunslingers," and the rare GM with the chutzpah to move a budding superstar if he thinks it's in his team's best long-term interests.
"I think the Diamondbacks are motivated to move him and change the culture in their clubhouse," an NL assistant GM said. "They have a ton of depth in the outfield and can improve their club immensely because they should be able to get two or three quality players in return."
The Diamondbacks recently traded Upton's good friend Chris Young to Oakland, but they still have Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra on the roster and prospects Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock in the mix. Towers also might look to add a young outfielder in any deal involving Upton.
Padres general manager Josh Byrnes pried three prospects and Edinson Volquez loose from Cincinnati in exchange for Mat Latos, and the expectations are that he would aim very high for Headley, who hit 31 home runs and posted a higher Wins Above Replacement (7.5) than Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre and Yadier Molina in the FanGraphs WAR rankings.
"He's cost-effective," an American League assistant GM said of Headley. "He's an offensive player in a park where it's hard to get offense. He's homegrown, and he had an All-Star second half. It's not really enticing for them to move him."
Everyone expects Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman to shop pitching for offense, and he has lots of alternatives. Shields is reasonably priced at $10.25 million in 2013 with a club option for $12 million in 2014. Friedman also could move Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. Or if he wants to turn the entire baseball world completely upside down, he could entertain offers for David Price.
"I think it's Shields," an NL personnel man said. "The Rays might look into rebuilding the position prospect side of their ledger, and save money they don't have. That system, especially from a hitting standpoint, isn't what it used to be, and they're going to need bats to keep competing. You can't strike gold on Jeff Keppinger every year."
Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza are two other players whose names are likely to be bandied around in the media. But Garza ended the season on the disabled list with elbow problems, so the Cubs probably have to wait to see if he's healthy in spring training. And Ellsbury appeared in only 74 games because of injuries last season (and logged a .682 OPS), so the Red Sox would be moving him while his value is at an all-time low.
5) Do you think Alex Rodriguez will be traded this winter? If yes, where do you think he might go, and how much of the $114 million left on his contract will the Yankees have to pick up?
Responses: No 20; Yes 1; no opinion 1.
#13 Third baseman
New York Yankees
This story was on the front burner for about a day during the playoffs, when a rumor surfaced that the Yankees might try to send A-Rod to his hometown of Miami. But it died in a hurry. Manager Joe Girardi called Rodriguez to smooth over any lingering animosities, and judging from our survey respondents, A-Rod will be staying put in the Bronx.
Let us count the reasons. Rodriguez has a full no-trade clause and the ability to block any deal. He says he loves playing in New York, and you have to think he's motivated after an October marked by strikeouts and benchings. If Derek Jeter could resurrect himself as a hit machine at age 38, A-Rod can go home to South Florida, get healthy and come back stronger. No one has ever accused the guy of a subpar work ethic.
"He loves being the center of attention and the Yankees are the perfect team for that mindset," a National League executive said. "He wants to break the all-time home run record for baseball's most storied franchise."
Rodriguez's .783 OPS was the worst of his career, but he still ranked third-best among American League third basemen in that category, behind Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre. He doesn't have the bat speed to be a force against elite righties anymore. But the Yankees will face enough mediocre pitching for him to hit .270 with 20 homers, 80 RBIs and an .800 OPS. That's better than the vast majority of third basemen out there.
"The no-trade clause is a big factor, but the money is an even bigger one," an NL talent evaluator said. "How much would you pay for A-Rod right now as a free agent? I think the most crazy, optimistic answer is two years and $20 million. That leaves $94 million to pick up. That's crazy. They're stuck with him."
6) After Zack Greinke, which free-agent starter do you think will be the best signing -- Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster or Dan Haren?
Responses: Sanchez 14; Jackson 3; Haren 3; Lohse 1. One American League GM took a pass. "I'm not sure any of them will be good signs," he said.
Sanchez did himself a world of good after going to Detroit from Miami in a July deadline trade. In six September starts with the Tigers, he posted a 2.43 ERA, held opponents to a .224 batting average, struck out 37 and walked only five. Yes, that's a small sample size. But Sanchez's performance during the pennant race and the playoffs helped convince scouts and front office people that he can handle big-game pressure and succeed in either league. He expanded his universe of potential suitors in the process.
"His stuff is light-years better than anyone else on this list," an American League scout said.
Jackson's supporters would beg to differ. He ranked eighth among big league starters with an average fastball velocity of 93.5 mph last season, and is 16th among starters with 812 innings pitched the past four seasons. At age 29, Jackson has a 70-71 record and a 4.40 ERA for seven big league clubs. But some scouts still believe he's capable of a breakthrough season in the right setting.
"You never know what you're going to get with him, but he has electric stuff," a scout said. "If the right pitching coach can connect with this guy, he could really be something. Hitters hate facing him. It's just a matter of consistency."
Lohse, 34, wins points for reliability, but he's a pitch-to-contact guy who is probably best served staying in the National League. Haren, 32, has the best track record of this group, but some executives are wary because of his back problems last season and his workload. Since 2005, CC Sabathia leads major league starters with 1,788 innings pitched. Haren is second with 1,758 innings, and Roy Halladay is third at 1,712. Haren led the majors with 3,749 pitches thrown in 2010, and ranked second to Justin Verlander in that department in 2011.
Last week the Angels paid Haren a $3.5 million buyout rather than exercise his $15.5 million option. When a contending team needs starting pitching and backs off a proven winner rather than make a one-year, $12 million investment, it's bound to send out some yellow caution flags.
"It's a double-edge sword," an MLB personnel man said. "Someone can look at him and say, 'This is a guy you want to eat innings.' Or you could say, 'He's pitched too much.' It ultimately comes down to your scouts and what they're saying. You have to lean on those guys and what they're seeing."
7) How many years and how much money will Melky Cabrera get in free agency? What kind of deal would he have gotten before his PED suspension?
Responses: Most executives expect Cabrera to sign a one-year, make-good deal for a base salary of $2 million on the low side to $7 million to $10 million on the high side. Estimates of his contract before his failed drug test ranged from three years and $27 million to five years and $75 million.
#53 Left Fielder
San Francisco Giants
Cabrera crafted a feel-good storyline with 200 hits and 100 runs scored for Kansas City in 2011. When he got off to an even stronger start this season in San Francisco and won the All-Star Game MVP award, it was considered a tribute to his perseverance and dedication to a better fitness regimen. At 27, the former Yankees prospect had officially "arrived."
All of that goodwill evaporated in the time it took Major League Baseball to distribute a news release. Along with the burden of being labeled a "cheat," Cabrera is also a pariah in the clubhouse. His San Francisco teammates, by all accounts, weren't thrilled with the way he bolted the team sans apology after receiving his 50-game suspension, and the Giants passed on an opportunity to add Cabrera to the postseason roster. That sent out a message to teams wondering how he might fit into their clubhouse dynamic.
Any club willing to take a flier on Cabrera will have to deal with the public relations backlash and the fallout from the investigation into his fake website caper. But it also might land itself a motivated player and a hit collector in exchange for a minimal financial investment.
"He might be a good gamble for a team like the Astros or the Indians," a National League scout said. "If you give him a short-term deal and go year to year and keep the carrot in front of him, you might get a pretty productive player. Use it as a motivational tool. Control his ability to put his nose to the grindstone and get the most out of him. I wouldn't walk away from the guy, personally.'