Plenty of unfinished business
D-backs, Tigers and O's among teams that could be active in coming weeks
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For hard-core fans and casual observers who are wondering when baseball's Hot Stove season will escalate from intriguing to something more attention-grabbing, a general manager who's a prime driver of all the chatter suggests it won't be long.
"People are going to try to get most of their business done before Christmas," Arizona's Kevin Towers said, "although in baseball there's no such thing as a holiday. I once signed Rickey Henderson [in San Diego] on Christmas Day. People asked me, 'What did you get for Christmas?' And I said, 'Rickey.'"
This year one of Towers' colleagues could just as easily acquire a Josh, Zack or Asdrubal on Christmas, New Year's Day or Chanukah, which runs from sundown Saturday until Sunday, Dec. 16. At this stage of the winter, no day is immune from a major news flash.
As baseball's executives dispersed from the winter meetings Thursday, some rumors were hotter than others. The Texas Rangers are likely to sign Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke, or trade for Justin Upton, or some combination thereof relatively soon. Tampa Bay continues to field offers for pitching. Cleveland is listening on shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. The Phillies are trying to get something done with Michael Young, Seattle is working every angle in its pursuit of an impact bat, and the Adam LaRoche, Kevin Youkilis and R.A. Dickey rumors keep changing by the hour.
The list of teams anxious to make a move is extensive. For the sake of equal time, here are five other clubs that could do something significant in the coming days and weeks. They also have the latitude to wait for a trade or a free-agent deal that's in their comfort zone.
They've already changed backup catchers (David Ross is out, Gerald Laird is in), signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75 million deal and traded starter Tommy Hanson to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden. But general manager Frank Wren would still like to add an outfielder who can bat leadoff so the Braves don't have to shoe-horn Martin Prado or Andrelton Simmons into the No. 1 spot.
The Braves were in on Denard Span before Washington traded for him, and they inquired on Dexter Fowler before determining that the price was too high. They also have been linked to Emilio Bonifacio, who went from Miami to Toronto in last month's mega-deal but makes sense as a potential target for Atlanta on several levels.
Bonifacio is versatile enough to play third base or the outfield. He won't cost a fortune at a salary of $3 million or thereabouts, and could replace some of the speed the Braves will lose with Michael Bourn's departure. He also logged a .360 on-base percentage under Fredi Gonzalez, now Atlanta's manager, as a Marlin two years ago. But Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos aims high in trade talks, so it's hard to tell if the two sides have a match.
Wren will travel to the Dominican winter league this weekend to look at pitchers Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, outfielder Jose Constanza and third baseman Juan Francisco, who is the front-runner to play third base if the Braves decide to keep Prado in left.
"It's a bit of a fact-finding mission," Wren said. "We'll go down and see how guys are progressing in our eyes. Stats are one thing. Reports are another. This will give us some firsthand knowledge of how guys look."
The Braves love Francisco's power potential. But he needs an occasional boost to stay motivated and keep his weight in check, and last year he struck out 70 times and drew 11 walks in 205 plate appearances. If he's going to embrace the opportunity to be a 500 at-bat guy, now is the time.
With Torii Hunter in the fold and Victor Martinez returning from knee surgery, Detroit's offense has already gotten a whole lot better. The closest the Tigers came to a splash in Nashville was picking up infielder Jeff Kobernus and pitcher Kyle Lobstein in the Rule 5 draft. But several questions linger.
Are the Tigers really prepared to go into 2013 with rookie Bruce Rondon as their closer? Judging by their public comments, that certainly appears to be the case. If Scott Boras plans to get Rafael Soriano in a Detroit uniform, he might have to do a persuasive sales job on owner Mike Ilitch.
"We haven't anointed him our closer," Detroit GM David Dombrowski said of Rondon. "He has to earn that position. Anytime you put a guy in there who hasn't done it, there's always a little [question] of, 'How's he going to do?' But the reality is, this guy is a very talented individual. I feel as good with his opportunity as any young pitcher I've ever had coming in to get it done."
Although the Tigers have expressed a desire to get more athletic in the field, they say they're OK with the range-impaired Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Peralta is in South Florida working out with Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila, looking to rebound after his OPS dipped from .824 in 2011 to .689 last season.
Finally, what's the plan for the rotation beyond Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister? The Tigers say they're ready to go with Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly in the 4-5 spots, although that plan could change quickly if Anibal Sanchez is available at a price they deem reasonable. Sanchez is going to try to piggyback off Greinke's deal, and if Greinke signs for something in the $160 million range, that's likely to complicate matters.
General manager Ned Colletti's first order of business is to reach an agreement with Boras on pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin. Colletti declined to assess the chances of signing the Korean free agent by the 2 p.m. Pacific time deadline Sunday.
"I don't live in the 'cautiously optimistic' world," he said. "I live in a world where you've got a deal or you don't have a deal."
The Dodgers' outlook with Greinke ebbs and flows by the day. Now that the Los Angeles Angels have added Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson to the rotation and are ready to shift their resources to a different area, the Greinke chase appears to be down to the Dodgers and Rangers.
Colletti already has Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang in the rotation mix. Despite the health concerns surrounding Lilly and Billingsley, the Dodgers will have a surplus of starters if they sign Greinke and Ryu and would probably have to trade a pitcher to make room.
Beyond adding a utility player to the mix, the Dodgers are set on the position player front. As Colletti points out, the landscape changed considerably last summer when the Dodgers added Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, Beckett and Brandon League in trades.
"If we hadn't done what we did in July and August, we'd have a lot more work to do," Colletti said. "We checked off five spots back in the summertime. We would have had a much more active winter meetings if we hadn't done that."
During the meetings in Nashville, we kept hearing that the Orioles were motivated to add a big middle-of-the-order bat via free agency or trade. But Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and Billy Butler rumors failed to gain any traction.
If the Orioles decide to stand pat, they would begin the season with an outfield contingent of Nick Markakis in right field, Adam Jones in center and a Nolan Reimold-Nate McLouth platoon in left. Chris Davis, Alexi Casilla, J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado slot in around the horn, and Matt Wieters behind the plate. The big mystery item is whether Dan Duquette, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations, will add to the position player stockpile by moving Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman or one of organization's other young starters not named Dylan Bundy.
"We have a full complement of players in the field, and we have a good pitching staff that's returning," Duquette said. "So we have a very competitive club as it's currently constituted. We're going to continue to look and try to add a couple of things to our ballclub. But if we were to break today, we would have everybody returning except [Mark] Reynolds and [Joe] Saunders. I think we have some capable people who can do the job they did for us."
Towers signed third baseman Eric Chavez, utility man Eric Hinske and catcher Wil Nieves in Nashville. The search for a shortstop upgrade remains a top priority, with Asdrubal Cabrera mentioned most prominently in trade speculation.
After many of Towers' colleagues fled the Opryland Hotel for the Nashville airport, the always-congenial D-backs GM dropped by a TV set for an interview, then spent 10 minutes updating reporters on his plans. It didn't take long for the conversation to drift to familiar turf -- with a barrage of questions about Justin Upton.
Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Diamondbacks say they value Upton highly and aren't looking to move him, but are obligated to listen to offers. Upton is under contract for $38.5 million through 2015. In a world where Shane Victorino fetches $39 million over that same time frame, Upton's price can only enhance his marketability quotient.
Towers continues to downplay concern that the constant rumors will weigh on Upton emotionally or create a rift between the outfielder and Arizona management.
"If you're Asdrubal Cabrera or James Shields, it's the same thing," Towers said. "It's part of the game. I'm sure [Upton] doesn't like it. I imagine it's uncomfortable, and I don't blame him. But with social media now, it's hard to keep any discussions quiet. Your name is going to get bantered about, and that's rough. But he's a pro. He's still here, so I think he still realizes how much we value him and like him."
Towers said Arizona's numerous trade talks are "marinating" at the moment. If the Diamondbacks are going to trade Upton, Jason Kubel or anybody else, it could happen tomorrow, in January or even in spring training. That's just the way the team's general manager rolls.
"If the right trade presents itself. I'm always going to be open and I'm going to listen." Towers said. "I'm open every day of the year."
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