Wednesday January 19th, 2011

In the 79 days since the World Series ended the Hot Stove has cooled considerably, but with 26 days remaining until pitchers and catchers report for spring training these five pressing questions still have yet to be resolved.

Little is known about the tenor and numbers associated with the contract talks between the Cardinals and their franchise first basemen. The lone acknowledgement from either camp is that Pujols will cut off negotiations at the start of spring training, fearing that ongoing discussions could prove a distraction.

Pujols is not only the game's undisputed best player and a surefire future Hall of Famer but also a Cardinals icon, á la Bob Gibson and Stan Musial. Or at least Pujols would join that distinguished company if he were to remain a Redbird. Surely that and his having lived his formative years in Missouri will have some bearing on his wanting to remain a St. Louis lifer.

While Pujols may seek a deal similar to Alex Rodriguez's recent 10-year, $275-million contract (with escalators to $305 million),'s Jon Heyman has reported that the Cardinals' preference is to only offer seven years. The exact particulars aren't known, but there would seem to be enough of a gap that Pujols won't sign before the start of spring training. But Cardinals fans should not despair; the lack of bidding from the Red Sox and Yankees next offseason -- the big-budget beasts have (or will soon have) Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira locked up at first base for a long while -- means St. Louis will remain the favorite to land Pujols' services even if he hits the open market.

With veteran lefty Andy Pettitte yet to decide whether he'll return for a 17th season, the Yankees' starting staff is looking a little thin after ace CC Sabathia and last year's breakout star Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett, inconsistencies and all, will follow as the No. 3 pitcher, but Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre are currently written in as the club's Nos. 4 and 5 starters -- no, really, it says so right here.

Nova and Mitre impressed in spurts last year but aren't the caliber of arms New York is used to having. Nova, who just turned 24, was 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA in seven starts; Mitre, who'll turn 30 next month, was 0-2 with a 5.93 ERA in three starts, though he did have a 2.45 ERA in 40 1/3 relief innings.

On Wednesday morning general manager Brian Cashman admitted that it's "possible" the club will start spring training with only the pitchers currently under contract but acknowledged he's anticipating an addition.

"I hope so," Cashman said. "The starter might have to come from within, but hopefully we'll have one of these young kids answer the bell for us. But in the meantime we'll keep our eyes and ears open to the remaining market, which is very limited."

The bin of free-agent starters has indeed been picked over thoroughly, with nary a gem to be found, except perhaps Carl Pavano, though his signing would have been complicated by his tumultuous prior tenure in the Bronx. (Cashman said he had several conversations regarding Pavano and was open to the idea but then declined to elaborate why the pursuit stopped.) The remaining options are primarily injury reclamation projects such as Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Duchscherer and Ben Sheets or veterans the Yankees are doubtful to be interested in, like Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan.

Two starters the club has kicked the tires on are Kevin Millwood, a durable innings eater a few years past his prime, and Freddy Garcia, who was a solid 12-6 with a 4.64 ERA in 28 starts with the White Sox last year after only throwing 129 innings the previous three seasons. Smart money suggests that one of these two -- both of whom have pitched in high-pressure settings -- will end up in Yankee pinstripes next season, displacing Mitre from a regular turn in the rotation.

As the game of musical chairs progresses and the number of chairs dwindles, participants have to be less discriminating, often contorting their body to whatever seat they can find when it's time to find a place to sit. So too will some veteran free agents need to throw themselves into whatever situation they can find, regardless of whether it was their first choice or not.

Among the big names who are still looking for work are three high-profile veteran clients of Scott Boras -- Johnny Damon, Andruw Jones and Manny Ramirez, though Jones is reportedly close to a one-year deal with the Yankees. Also without jobs are such familiar names as Vladimir Guerrero, Scott Podsednik, Garret Anderson, Orlando Cabrera, Russell Branyan, Jorge Cantu, Mike Sweeney, Troy Glaus, Nick Johnson, Julio Lugo, and Jose Guillen.

The one seeming lock to find work on that list is Guerrero who, despite fading in the second half last season, had an All-Star first half and finished with a .300 average, 29 homers and 115 RBIs. The one seeming lock to be unemployed is Guillen, who is reportedly being investigated in an HGH probe.

As for players in the middle ground, the Angels and Rays are each likely to sign at least one proven bat, quite possibly Damon and Guerrero. Podsednik and Branyan are among the best bets to get a job because of their positive 2010 seasons, while Cantu is young enough -- he'll only turn 29 later this month -- that he'll almost certainly get a contract from someone.

After Tuesday's flurry of signings that avoided arbitration, only 33 arb-eligible players have yet to come to terms with their teams on a new contract. None of those players has a more interesting case ahead of them than Bautista, the Blue Jays outfielder who went from being a journeyman outfielder to the majors' leading home run hitter in just one season. After hitting 54 homers in 2010 while making just $2.4 million, Bautista has been offered $7.6 million by the Blue Jays for 2011. That would triple his salary, but Bautista -- who won the Hank Aaron Award as the American League's top offensive player -- filed for $10.5 million, which would still be a bargain if he's able to replicate last year's performance.

Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos has stated publicly that once the sides exchange dollars figures, as happened on Tuesday, the team's policy is to no longer negotiate one-year contracts. That means the Jays could be taking Bautista to an arbitration hearing to settle his salary for next season -- unless the club inks him to a multi-year contract first.

Such talks are presumably taking place, but one can only assume that Bautista's agent, Bean Stringfellow, is seeking a deal based on statistical projections of what he will accomplish, while the team no doubt is quick to note Bautista's 2010 campaign is a statistical outlier, though a fortunate one, compared to his career numbers.

Given the ugly arbitration process in which teams air their grievances about players in order to keep their salaries down, the Jays would be wise to avoid it and thus not risk future animosity if they see Bautista as a franchise player. But it's also smart for Toronto to make sure he can have another comparable season before investing too much long-term money.

The only player and team with a wider chasm is Josh Hamilton and the Rangers. Hamilton, the AL MVP, filed for $12 million while Texas submitted $8.7 million. But the Rangers will still negotiate one-year contracts and will likely find common ground. The exact midpoint is about $10.35 million. Given that Hamilton's body of work is larger than Bautista's, and that arbitration hearings are primarily decided by comparisons, expect Toronto to win its case.

Baseball franchise sales don't happen in a month, but one can be sure that much of the league would be happy to see an expedited sale in Los Angeles. Recent news stories indicate that Frank McCourt met with MLB officials in New York, apparently to convince the league he's still capable of running the franchise, despite a reported debt of some $400 million. More recently the Los Angeles Times wrote that Fox, the network that broadcasts Dodgers games locally, has advanced McCourt some cash to cover operating expenses.

The messy divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt have left the club in limbo. A superior court judge recently threw out Frank McCourt's plea to be given sole custody, so settling an uncertain situation through a sale would be beneficial for general manager Ned Colletti. He nevertheless signed a trio of free agents -- starter Ted Lilly, reliever Matt Guerrier and infielder Juan Uribe -- to three-year deals. Such flexibility is needed as Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton and Chad Billingsley all approach free agency in the next two offseasons, and Colletti will undoubtedly want to start locking them up.

So while no sale will be tendered and finalized in the next four weeks (or even in the next four months), Frank McCourt is clearly banking on TV money to help him remain in control of the team. As the L.A. Times noted, baseball commissioner Bud Selig can reject any new television deal or refuse to grant the Dodgers money from the league to help cover expenses, which could be sufficient writing on the wall to force Frank McCourt to seriously consider hammering a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn of Chavez Ravine.

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