Yankees ace CC Sabathia used the threat of his opt-out clause Monday night to increase his contract from $92 million to $122 million and stayed with the Yankees. Sabathia's call to remain in pinstripes aided New York and deprived a star-infused free-agent class of a bit more glitz, but the group still contains three other players with a chance to receive deals for at least $20 million per year. Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes have an excellent chance to top the $20-million-a-year mark, and the iconic Albert Pujols, the top guy on the market, actually has been shooting to get into the $30-million-a-year range.
If there is a criticism of this free agent class, it's that there aren't a lot of frontline starting pitchers. Without Sabathia, who has won 59 games in three years in New York, the best starters are C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson unless you count Yu Darvish, who technically isn't even a free agent since he has to be posted first. Sabathia's new Yankees deal once signed will guarantee $122 million over five years and include a vesting option for a sixth year for $25 million that could bring the total deal to $142 million (the buyout is $5 million on the sixth-year option). That means he made himself an additional $30 million and maybe $50 million (if he stays healthy for that sixth year), thanks to the opt out.
But there is plenty more intrigue to go. Here is a closer look at all the key winter questions ...
1. What happens to Pujols?
One American League executive asserted, "There will be a market for him.'' Well, no kidding. He is the best player in the game, and he just led the Cardinals to their second World Series title in six seasons. The question really is: Why leave St. Louis? It's where his home is, it's where his foundation is and it's where is legacy lies. The Cardinals offered nine years and a bit more than $200 million last offseason, according to sources, and while some teams may beat that, it's hard to imagine Pujols leaving for a few more million. Pujols has to love all the winning the Cardinals have done in his 11 years there (more playoff wins than any other National League team in that time), and he has to like that they've already secured Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright for next year.
While Pujols had an especially close relationship with manager Tony La Russa, it's unprecedented for a star player to base his future on a manager, so La Russa's retirement wouldn't be expected to cause Pujols to leave.
The Cubs make the most sense as a team that could make a play for him, one AL exec suggested, and that seems right. The Blue Jays are thought to have some money, but does anyone really see Pujols going to Toronto? If MLB can get Frank McCourt to leave the Dodgers, maybe the new L.A. owner would want to make a splash.
2. Who replaces Tony La Russa?
La Russa's retirement as Cardinals manager on Monday morning was the shocker of the day. The only clue anyone had, and you had to listen carefully, came when he was asked in the celebration whether he was retiring and answered, "I don't want to spoil the moment.'' Good for La Russa that he was able to go out on top. He goes down as one of the two or three greatest managers in baseball history.
So who can replace him? His longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan is capable but he's likely to attend to his sad personal situation (his wife is battling cancer). The likelihood would seem to be that the Cardinals conduct a search, as no obvious in-house candidate comes to mind. Speculation immediately started about former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, understandable considering the success he's had getting along with stars and egos in Boston. But it's too early to say.
3. What about Fielder?
It's hard to imagine, but Fielder is only the second best free agent first baseman. While he's not Pujols (who is?), he does have two edges: at 27, he's four years younger than Pujols, and he isn't tethered to one team. The Brewers will give it a try, but Fielder's field should be big and his options many. The Nationals, Orioles and Cubs look like possibilities, as might the Mariners, Giants, Dodgers, Angels and maybe even the Cardinals, Rangers or Yankees.
New Cubs honcho Theo Epstein prefers big free agents who are in their 20s, so Fielder would fit. Chicago and Washington might be the best guesses today. People with New York ties are painting Prince as a major long shot, and it's hard to see the Cardinals spending big on a different first baseman (though the reverse, the Brewers signing Pujols, is even more absurd than that) and Rangers people aren't suggesting this is something on their radar (although first base didn't exactly look solved in the World Series).
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, the man who drafted Fielder for the Brewers, would love to have him. But the Mariners generally have shied away from the free agent route lately.
4. Do the Mets have any chance to keep Jose Reyes?
Slim, though not none. There's little evidence the Mets would go over five years for Reyes, the very talented and beloved but injury-prone homegrown star. And that just isn't likely to be good enough. Reyes is known to want to stay in Queens, but the cash-strapped Mets, who have spoken of cutting their payroll by $30-to-40 million just don't seem very likely to be close to the high bigger.
The Giants, Cardinals, Brewers, Phillies and many more teams could be in the mix. Marlins star Hanley Ramirez said he'd move over to third base for Reyes, but that seems like a waste of Ramirez. The Braves aren't likely to have enough money to win a bidding war here and the Phillies will try for their own Jimmy Rollins first (they also aren't seen as a team that will step out when their payroll is already at $170 million).
Reyes would be a big perfect fit for the Giants, who badly need offense and would like to better manufacture runs in their big ballpark, which isn't so dissimilar from the Mets' own Citi Field. The Cardinals are concentrating their efforts on Pujols, though they will need a shortstop.
5. What about Jimmy Rollins?
The Phillies like Rollins' leadership and defense but they are sure to blanch at his five-year asking price. They don't love that he does his own thing and is on his own program. But they also know he remains a magician at shortstop. The Phillies remain the favorite here, though the Giants would not shock anyone (Rollins is from just across the bay in Oakland).
6. Who's getting hired for the Cubs and Red Sox managerial jobs?
We'll take this as one category since the teams are both now run by executives with similar thoughts and experiences. Blue Jays manager John Farrell was probably at or near the top of either teams' list, but unless he goes to Toronto management and makes it clear he wants out (and there is no evidence he'll do that), he's presumably not an option after the Blue Jays rescinded their open-door policy that allowed employees to talk to other teams about jobs. The Rays generally have an open-door policy, but they just like Joe Maddon too much to let him go, especially to the rival Red Sox (he has one year left at about $1.4 million). Padres manager Bud Black seems like someone who could interest either team, although it isn't known how San Diego would react to that.
Neither the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer team in Chicago nor Ben Cherington in Boston is seen as likely to discriminate against folks without major league managing experience (though it's a risk in either major city, especially Boston). Assuming Maddon stays, his righthand man Dave Martinez could be a consideration in Boston. So could the well-respected Sandy Alomar Jr., who impressed Red Sox folks when he was a late-year call-up for them in that magical year of 2004. Dodgers coach Tim Wallach, who has a relationship with holdover Red Sox exec Craig Shipley and has impressed folks managing in the minors, could be a possibility. Pete Mackanin, Torey Lovullo and Bo Porter are among others who could have some chance. Mackanin and Brewers coach Dale Sveum, a former Red Sox third base coach, reportedly are getting early interviews in Boston this week. Hall of Fame Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg has to be a consideration, at least in Chicago.
7. Who's going to get the remaining GM job?
Folks around baseball are viewing longtime Blue Jays executive Tony LaCava as the favorite to become the Orioles GM, but Dodgers executive DeJon Watson and Orioles player development director John Stockstill are also in the mix. Folks seem to think manager Buck Showalter, who appears to wield a lot of power in Baltimore, is an admirer of the Jays and LaCava. Watson is a rising guy and in play here, but Stockstill is the curiosity, having been responsible for Orioles development the past six years. A nice case can be made for Watson, whose system developed Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp. But the Orioles haven't exactly developed a lot of great players, which is one reason they are in their current predicament (14 straight losing seasons). Of course, the Orioles are sometimes known to make confounding decisions. They could also add a name or two to the mix, now that the Angels hired Jerry DiPoto, who had been interviewed by Baltimore.
8. Where is C.J. Wilson headed?
The Rangers ace is a goner from Texas, almost for sure. The Nationals are said by many to be a possible favorite. They've wanted a frontline starter, and he's the best one who won't need to be posted. The Yankees, Red Sox, Marlins and Royals also have been mentioned as possibilities, and the hometown Angels can't be ruled out. After an uneven postseason, the $100 million deal is probably out. But folks seem to still think he'll get in the range of $75-to-80 million, which is a realistic goal considering his excellent regular season. Texas won't be going there, though.
9. After first base, what's the strongest position on the free-agent market?
Shortstop is strong with the Cardinals' Rafael Furcal joining Reyes and Rollins on the market. But second place has to go to closers. Jonathan Papelbon bounced back from a so-so 2010 season to pitch brilliantly for the Red Sox almost all of 2011, and he is the best of the bunch. Francisco Rodriguez, Heath Bell and Ryan Madson make it a very interesting competition, though. K-Rod will surely leave Milwaukee, which already has John Axford to close, and Bell will almost surely stay in San Diego, either on a two-year deal or through acceptance of arbitration. Madson has turned himself into a nice closer while filling in for the injured Brad Lidge in Philadelphia. Francisco Cordero also could become a free agent if the Reds don't pick up his $12 million option. Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Brad Lidge are among other possibilities in an extremely strong field. The Red Sox, Phillies, Twins and Mets are among teams in the market for a closer. The Rangers could be too if Neftali Feliz is moved into the rotation.
10. Speaking of first basemen, is there any chance Joey Votto will be traded?
While it's easy to see Cincinnati being in the same situation as Milwaukee with Fielder two years from now, the Reds aren't showing any sign of shopping of Votto, the 2010 NL MVP. One person with ties to the team there' s "not a chance'' they shop him. That person acknowledged teams may make offers, and it's true the Reds have a natural replacement in Yonder Alfonso in tow. The Blue Jays, Votto's hometown team, would surely be interested, as would many others. But teams generally don't trade 20-something stars like this.
11. Is Yu Darvish any good?
Seems like folks think he is. "Better than Dice-K,'' one scout said. Others say he's actually much better, with better stuff and command. But the days of the $100 million deals for Japanese League pitchers may be gone. The Blue Jays and Rangers are seen as the early favorites. The Yankees are said to be "gun shy'' following the dreadful experience with Kei Igawa.
The final issue to settle in CBA talks between MLB and the union is apparently over the draft bonus slotting system commissioner Bud Selig wants installed. Selig and some small-market owners are so far being adamant about their support for slotted bonus money for draft choices, while the union is balking at slots but offering compromises like a taxation system to discourage some spending.
MLB apparently is so interested in the slotting system that at one point it mentioned a willingness to drop draft pick compensation being tied to free agents. The hope among MLB execs remains that current major leaguers would like their proposal enough to instruct the union to accept slotting. However, union people see slotting as a type of salary cap, which they abhor. They are willing to implement a taxation system that would discourage spending on bonuses but are equally adamant that there won't be a hard slot system for draft bonuses.