The Winter Meetings have kicked off in Nashville, giving general managers, agents and players chance to meet face-to-face to discuss trades and free agent signings over the next four days. While there's no guarantee any of the following questions get answered during that time period — teams still have the rest of the winter to shore up their rosters — here are 10 that cover a great deal of the meetings' early buzz.
Will Zack Greinke sign with the Dodgers?
The top pitcher on the free agent market is being sought by the team for whom money is suddenly no object, with the expectation that the resulting pact could approach an average annual value of $25 million a year, which would be a record for a pitcher. Even if the deal is heavily backloaded, a signing by the Dodgers would not only push them above the $200 million payroll threshold previously breached by only the Yankees, it would likely push them beyond the record $213.4 million spent by the Yankees in 2010. If they land Greinke, the Dodgers may shut down negotiations with Korean southpaw Ryu Hyun-Jin, whose rights they won with a $25.7 million posting bid last month. Or they could sign Ryu and free up some amount of salary by trading either Chris Capuano or Aaron Harang, both of whom are in the second year of backloaded two-year deals, coming off healthy and reasonably effective seasons that don't necessarily have a high likelihood of being repeated.
As for the competition for Greinke's services, a year after committing over $300 million at the end of the Winter Meetings toward Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the Angels once appeared poised for more big spending, particularly after they cleared the salaries of Ervin Santana and Dan Haren from their books in an attempt to free up money. They now appear less likely to challenge the Dodgers in a bidding war for Greinke, whom they traded for back in July. The Braves, the Nationals and the Rangers have all indicated some level interest in him as well. Atlanta could certainly use a veteran to front a corps that's relatively inexperienced beyond Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm; Washington could build a killer front three with Greinke joining Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez; and the Rangers could use a frontliner to pair with Yu Darvish after they frittered away their AL West lead amid a host of underwhelming rotation performances and were eliminated from the postseason in the wild-card game.
How will the Yankees cover for Alex Rodriguez's absence?
The biggest story so far out of Nashville so far is that Rodriguez injured his left hip late in the season and will undergo surgery in January after strengthening the hip to reduce recovery time (CORRECTION: A previous version of this post said it was Rodriguez's right hip that would require surgery; that is incorrect). Even so, he's not likely to return to action as quickly as he did in 2009, when he underwent surgery on his right hip in early March and was back in the lineup on May 8; this time around, the procedure is said to require a three-to-six-month recovery. The injury goes a long way toward explaining Rodriguez's woes at the plate during October (3-for-25 with some high-profile benchings), but it doesn't explain why the Yankee organization threw him to the wolves as far as media coverage was concerned.
The Yankees aren't known to have made any overtures towards Eric Chavez, who hit .281/.348/.496 with 14 homers for New York in a part-time corner infield role at the age of 34, in his first reasonably healthy season since 2006. With Derek Jeter also returning from surgery to repair his broken ankle, the Yankees are said to be targeting Stephen Drew, whom they believe can play the hot corner (he has yet to in any regular season game) but who is coming off a down year in which he hit .223/.309/.348 after returning from a severe ankle injury of his own; even so, the Tigers and Red Sox have shown interest in Drew, in addition to the Yankees.
Eduardo Nunez is New York's top in-house option; the 25-year filled in for both Jeter and Rodriguez extensively in 2011, but was sent down to the minors early in 2012 to work on his fielding, then missed more than two months with a thumb injury. He hit 292/.330/.393 in 100 major league plate appearances. He'll almost certainly be on the roster, but the Yankees need a capable corner infield backup if they don't re-sign Chavez.
Speaking of the Yankees, who will catch for them?
In the wake of Russell Martin's surprising decision to sign with Pittsburgh, New York general manager Brian Cashman's assertion that the team will emphasize defense and work with its in-house options — backups Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli and rookie Austin Romine — sounds about as convincing as his early 2004 assertion that he was comfortable with Mike Lamb at third base (before trading for Alex Rodriguez) and his 2006 assertion that Bubba Crosby could be the starting centerfielder (before signing Johnny Damon). A.J. Pierzynski is 36 and coming off a year from which the only direction is down, and popular trade candidates like Saltalamacchia and J.P. Arencibia play for division rivals. Ramon Hernandez, who has been supplanted by Wilin Rosario in Colorado, is probably available, and signed for just $3.2 million; he's 37 and coming off a year in which he batted .217/.247/.353 in just 196 PA, but he's a career .264/.327/.417 hitter who has generally delivered some amount of patience and pop year in and year out.
Will Josh Hamilton get the big deal he's seeking?
The Rangers don't sound particularly in a rush to lock up the services of the 31-year-old slugger despite the fact that he's coming off a career-high 43 homers. They've already said they're not willing to go beyond a three-year deal, and won't come close to approaching the seven years and $175 million Hamilton is said to be seeking due to his age and his checkered past with regards to substance abuse. Nobody seems likely to approach that astronomical figure, but somebody's going to pay handsomely for Hamilton, particularly given the number of teams that still have vacancies in centerfield such as the Phillies, Giants and Reds, to say nothing of those who could use a middle-of-the-lineup bat such as the Orioles and Red Sox. The hunch is that Hamilton's issues and his comfort level will lead him to stay in Texas but without quite the payday he expects.
How will the game of musical chairs among centerfielders play out?
The Braves landed free agent B.J. Upton with a five-year, $75 million deal and the Nationals traded for the highly-sought Denard Span by sending a top pitching prospect, Alex Meyer, to the Twins. Beyond Hamilton, former Brave Michael Bourn, ex-Giant Angel Pagan and ex-Phillie Shane Victorino are looking for work. Bourn is said to be seeking the most money — more than Upton, even, which is why the Braves struck first — and Victorino is coming off a lousy season in which he struggled particularly against righties (.229/.296/.333), with an OPS 103 points lower than his career line. As each one of these players comes off the board, the pressure for the others to find a match will intensify.
Even with so many centerfielders available through other means, Colorado is said to have been testing the market for the 26-year-old Fowler, who set career highs with a .300/.389/.474 line in 2012. Because he's young and cheap — he'll make $5 million or so as a second-year arbitration-eligible player — the rebuilding Rockies have asked teams for multiple top prospects, though the return for Span suggests they won't get it. One of the more intriguing rumors so far is of a trade that would send Fowler to Cincinnati for Homer Bailey, who's coming off a breakout year of his own, with a 3.68 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 208 innings, all career bests. Though he stole 30 bases and hit 14 homers, incumbent Reds centerfielder Drew Stubbs hit just .213/.277/.333, his second straight year of declining performance.
How will the Red Sox spend their savings?
The late-August blockbuster with the Dodgers amounted to a TARP bailout for the Red Sox, freeing up over $260 million in future contract commitments to Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. The Red Sox finished 69-93, and while they have much to do to restore their status as contenders in the AL East, they have money to spend and vacancies to fill.
We got our first answer to their plans when they reached a deal on Monday with Mike Napoli, who would likely play more first base than catcher given the presence of David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway and Jarrod Saltalamacchia; the latter could well be traded to fill another need elsewhere on the roster. Boston has also expressed an interest in Nick Swisher, who could play either corner outfield spot. Free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, who played briefly for the Sox in 2009, could appeal as well given that the Nationals may not re-sign him in the wake of the Span acquisition, which sends Bryce Harper to leftfield and frees up Mike Morse for first base.
The Sox also have a fair amount of work to do with regards to their rotation, which as it stands would feature Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Franklin Morales and Felix Doubront. Morales, who made nine starts for Boston, was the only one among that group with an ERA under 4.56, while Lackey is coming off November 2011 Tommy John surgery after a 6.41 ERA that season. They're not in on Greinke, but they're sure to do something.
Who will play first for the Nationals?
After missing most of 2011 with a shoulder injury, LaRoche rebounded to bop a career-high 33 homers while batting .271/.343/.510 for Washington. He's close with general manager Mike Rizzo and said to be interested in a return, which would make Morse, who turns 31 in March, expendable. Morse enjoyed a breakout 2011 season (.303/.360/.550 with 31 homers), but fell off to .291/.321/.470 with 18 homers last year after missing all of April and May to a strained latissimus dorsi. He'll make $6.75 million in his final year before free agency, a price tag which when combined with his versatility (either outfield corner or first base) makes him an attractive solution for many teams. The Nats are said to have discussed a deal with the Rays that would also include Danny Espinosa for one of Tampa Bay's pitchers, but it doesn't sound like that's getting done anytime soon.
Will the Rays trade a starting pitcher?
The Rays are said to have entertained discussions for James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson in order to acquire some offense. Both pitchers are under club control, so they would net a substantial return via trade, something along the lines of the package Matt Garza netted from the Cubs in a 3-for-5 swap in January 2011. Shields, who turns 31 this month, is due $9 million in 2013, with a $12 million option in 2014 — a pittance for a frontline pitcher, while Hellickson, 25, won't be arbitration-eligible until after the 2014 season. Morse and the Royals' Wil Myers are names who have been mentioned as potential returns, but there's a long way to go before the Rays strike a deal.
Will the Mets trade R.A. Dickey? They've locked up David Wright, but they're said to be in no rush to do the same for Dickey, who won the NL Cy Young award last month. The 38-year-old knuckleballer is looking for an extension in the neighborhood of Jake Peavy's two-year, $29 million deal from the White Sox, and while the Mets are said to have increased their offer to him recently, it's unclear whether they'll go that high. At the same time, they're said to be underwhelmed by the offers they've received in trade so far — no Myers, for one thing — in part because of the uncertainty around the extent to which Dickey can maintain his level of performance given the uniqueness of his approach. This one may not be resolved any time soon.