December shopping season is almost upon us, and judging by some early infield impulse buying, there could be plenty of big spending. Baseball's powers are headed back in a week to the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas for the winter meetings, the site of the wildest week of spending 11 years ago, highlighted by the $252 million, 10-year deal for Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers.
A lot has happened since then. Rangers owner Tom Hicks went bankrupt, the Grinch who criticized all the big deals that week -- Sandy Alderson -- has moved from the commissioner's office to become general manager of the Mets (where he also likely won't be making any big deals) and Rodriguez signed an even bigger deal, $275 million, for 10 years with the Yankees. A-Rod also left the agent, Scott Boras, who negotiated both those deals, for Dan Lozano, who's been in the news for other reasons lately. Lozano enters this spending season with two of the biggest free agents, the iconic Albert Pujols, plus longtime Phillies shortstop/leader Jimmy Rollins, and the controversial L.A.-based agent will try to write a Hollywood ending to an embarrassing start to a winter, with Deadspin.com proclaiming him "The King of Sleaze Mountain'' in a revealing piece that has baseball buzzing.
In the meantime, baseball appears to be thriving, as evidenced by its harmonious CBA negotiations and subsequent deal that left all sides smiling. It's uncertain whether the December of 11 years ago -- when Manny Ramirez signed for $160 million, Mike Hampton for $120 million, Chan Ho Park for $65 million, Darren Dreifort for $55 million and Kevin Appier for $42 million -- can be repeated. But a lot of action is expected in the next few weeks. Here are the key storylines heading into December:
1. The iconic Cardinal. There appears to be no indication the Cardinals intend to greatly enhance their offer from before the season of nine years and between $200 million and $210 million. Pujols received some sort of offer from the new Miami Marlins, but nobody expects them to land him. It's hard to imagine the interest will be as limited as it appears for an alltime great player, but it seems questionable now whether anyone will go enough past $200-210 million to make Pujols surrender his St. Louis legacy.
2. The young slugger. Prince Fielder is being packaged as the much younger alternative of two great hitters. Fielder is only 27 while Pujols is 31, and the predictable whispers that Pujols is actually older have already started (Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald said the Marlins believe Pujols is older, and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, asked about that the other day, said he was declining comment on that and any other free agent questions). In any case, Fielder, who has played more games than anyone the last four years despite a thick body, is seeking a deal similar to the one Pujols has yet to take. The Nationals, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers and Cubs seem like potential players.
3. The multitalented shortstop. Jose Reyes would appear to be the Marlins' real prize target, and while it's been portrayed in a couple other places that they are about to sign him, Loria recently suggested that it's still early in the game. Reyes is a better player than Carl Crawford (or Jayson Werth, for that matter) but his history of injuries means that he's going to have to work to beat $100 million. The guess here is that eventually he will.
4. What about other shortstops? The shortstop market features Reyes, Rollins and Rafael Furcal, and more, as Yuniesky Betancourt, Alex Gonzalez and Jack Wilson are also free agents. The Phillies, Braves, Giants, Mets and others are looking. Philly has to be the favorite for Rollins, who's still beloved there for his defense and leadership, though they'd prefer that he wasn't on his own workout program. The shortstop position is interesting, with the slick-fielding Furcal, Gonzalez and Wilson, who is being looked at by six teams, including the Mets, Dodgers and Giants, plus the amazing Omar Vizquel and also veterans Edgar Renteria, Cesar Izturis and Ronny Cedeño.
5. The stocked position. Never has free agency featured so many great closers. Jonathan Papelbon has already signed for $50 million over four years with the Phillies, and Joe Nathan got $14.5 million over two years from the Rangers. But that still leaves Ryan Madson, Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Jonathan Broxton, Brad Lidge, Matt Capps, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch and David Aardsma. There is also a very long list of solid middle relievers, with 2011 Brewers Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins at the top of it.
6. Hitters are here, too. Even beyond superstars Pujols, Fielder and Reyes and the strong shortstop market are several proven hitters. Aramis Ramirez turned down a $16 million option to return to the Cubs and seeks a deal for three or four years. The Tigers are one possibility. Josh Willingham, a power bat, seeks three years. Michael Cuddyer is coveted for his clubhouse appeal as well as his bat. Carlos Beltran is still a terrific hitter, though his history of knee trouble could make it difficult for him to get more than two years. David Ortiz was offered arbitration by the Red Sox, where agents say he could get $14 million on a one-year contract, but is looking for a multiyear deal. Carlos Peña was offered arbitration by the Cubs, but is seen as unlikely to accept as he has multiyear chances. Johnny Damon, Jason Kubel, Kelly Johnson, Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero, Ryan Ludwick, Hideki Matsui, J.D. Drew, Casey Kotchman, Magglio Ordoñez, Raul Ibañez, Coco Crisp, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre and David DeJesus round out a impressive list of outfielders and first basemen.
7. The position of paucity. That would be starting pitcher. There are so few really good ones that the asking prices seem absurd so far. C.J. Wilson is said to be seeking close to $120 million for six years, so much beyond what the Yankees want to pay that they have yet to accept his offer to visit. One other team said hard-throwing Edwin Jackson, who has better talent than results, is seeking ace money (though not nearly as much as Wilson). One alternative could be Mark Buehrle, who talked about maybe retiring at one point but now seems in line for at least a three-year deal, and maybe four. And then there's Yu Darvish, a talented Japanese pitcher who's said "more likely than not" to come to America. Roy Oswalt is likely to sign a one-year deal after an injury-wracked year and ruminations about retirement. Hiroki Kuroda is thought willing only to sign with the Dodgers or Angels. On the next level, Paul Maholm, Joel Pineiro, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Javier Vazquez (if he doesn't retire) have a chance to get multiyear deals. Someone will like Erik Bedard, though he usually disappoints. Jeff Francis may be worth a look as a pitcher still improving after shoulder trouble a couple years ago. Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood, who pitched well for the Rockies down the stretch, are also available. Among imports, hard-throwing Wei-Yin Chen seems most popular, with softer-throwing Tsuyoshi Wada and Hisashi Iwakuma also pitchers of interest.
8. What's the catch? Ramon Hernandez is the best-hitting catcher available, but there's a long list of solid backup types, including Dioner Navarro, Kelly Shoppach, Ramon Castro and Josh Bard and longtime veterans of interest such as Jason Varitek, Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Jason Kendall. Don't bet against Pudge, who just turned 40.
9. Starters trade market. Jair Jurrjens is a terrific 25-year-old pitcher that could be had, although interested parties have come away wondering whether the Braves are all that anxious to deal him. At least a dozen teams have checked in, but with Atlanta seeking a "Zack Greinke-like'' deal, it's more likely than not that Jurrjens stays put. The Braves seek offense, with the Reds and Rangers among teams that have what it takes to do a deal. The White Sox also would consider trading John Danks and Gavin Floyd if the price is right. The rebuilding Cubs wouldn't surrender Matt Garza as compensation for new club president Theo Epstein, but they might dangle him for a package of prospects. The Rays would probably talk about Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis, but there's no evidence yet that they would trade James Shields, though his $8 million salary is getting pricey (for them, anyway). The Marlins might trade Ricky Nolasco, depending on whether they sign a starter first, but seem likely to hold onto Anibal Sanchez in either case.
10. South Side fire sale? The White Sox are sending signals that if they find one deal for a veteran that several more veterans could go. That means that in addition to Danks and Floyd, outfielder Carlos Quentin and reliever Matt Thornton are two more who could be dealt, as the perpetual contender may look to retool after a disappointing 2011.
11. Stars who could be extended. The Giants want to lock up Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, who combined to win one World Series already. Lincecum has two years to go before free agency, but seems satisfied to go short-term (a year or two) if the Giants don't go for mega deal. Early word is the Giants were hoping for a deal of four or five years, so it's uncertain whether anything can be worked out. Cain is a free agent after the year, so there's perhaps even more urgency in his case. Rangers star Josh Hamilton is a candidate for a big extension for the Rangers, in what would be the culmination of a true feel-good story.
• The Red Sox are down to two divergent veteran candidates -- Bobby Valentine and Gene Lamont -- in their managerial search. The perception is that Valentine is the ownership entry in the derby, with strong support from club president Larry Lucchino. If GM Ben Cherington prefers Lamont, who was on his second list of candidates (Valentine wasn't even on that), he knows he might be bucking ownership with his first call, not an easy thing to do. The Red Sox have been interested in Blue Jays manager John Farrell, but word is that Toronto is showing zero inclination to allow Farrell to go.
• The Astros' shakeup on Sunday was not unexpected. New owner Jim Crane took only a week to remove GM Ed Wade and club president Tal Smith. A search for GM is about to be undertaken. The new regime's first idea was said to be Rays GM Andrew Friedman, but the belief is that Friedman will stay in Tampa. Crane, who first tried to buy the Rangers, is thought to have interest in some Rangers' executives, notably assistant GM Thad Levine and also international guru A.J. Preller, both of whom were extended this season along with GM Jon Daniels. Former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, a top lieutenant of Friedman's in Tampa in recent years, would make sense as a candidate now that Drayton McLane is gone in Houston. The Dodgers' DeJon Watson and Logan White and the Marlins' Dan Jennings (who has a very long deal with Florida and has been disallowed from pursuing other jobs) are among many others who also would make sense in light of Crane's stated interest in development.
• New York hedge fund manager Stevie Cohen is said to be exploring the possibility of buying the Dodgers. Cohen is estimated to be worth somewhere between $5 and $15 billion, so he'd be a real threat if he can be preapproved. His p.r. person has declined comment on the issue for three weeks, but many sources say he is showing interest. Cohen showed brief interest in the Mets but he and the Mets-owning Wilpons didn't agree on the team's valuation.
• Bill Smith, fired earlier this month as Twins GM, is expected by people in the organization to remain with the team in some capacity.
• At least two things are certain: The A's need outfielders and the Brewers need relievers.
• In the interest of full disclosure, my NL MVP ballot (the vote I actually did have this year) was as follows: 1. Ryan Braun. 2. Prince Fielder. 3. Matt Kemp. 4. Justin Upton. 5. Albert Pujols. 6. Lance Berkman. 7. Roy Halladay. 8. Troy Tulowitzki. 9. Joey Votto. 10. Shane Victorino. I give greater weight to a player's value in a pennant race, which is why I have Kemp only third and Clayton Kershaw not at all. Kemp, who was the best position player in the league (slightly better than Braun), was very gracious, saying of Braun, "He deserves every bit of the award.''
• I disagreed with the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant, who voted the Rangers' Michael Young first for AL MVP. Young was valuable for his clutch hitting and tremendous versatility, but I saw him somewhere in the 6 to 12 range. The first five to me in the AL should have been Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista. That's my order, but I wouldn't quibble with a slightly different one.
• The Blue Jays are willing to listen on first base prospect David Cooper, who hit .364 at Triple-A Las Vegas to win the Pacific Coast League batting title. Incumbent first baseman Adam Lind has a contract that could tie him to Toronto through 2016
• Freddy Garcia's Yankees deal is believed to be for $4 million plus incentives.
• Bruce Chen's Royals deal is for $9 million plus a $1 million roster bonus (so it's basically worth $10 million), plus incentives.
• Grady Sizemore's $5 million-guaranteed Indians deal also includes $4 million in incentives, $250,000 for 450 and 475 plate appearances plus $500,000 for 500, 525, 550, 575, 600, 625 and 650 plate appearances.
• The Rangers have been thinking about moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation for a couple years. Their ability to convert relievers to starters is a major cost-saver for the team and has other teams looking at their methods.
• The Twins offered Joe Nathan a two-year deal for slightly less than the $14.5 million he got over two years from Texas. "He wanted to go to Texas,'' someone close to Nathan said.
• The A's made a great hire in naming Chili Davis their hitting coach. Terrific leader. He and Mike Gallego, the third base coach, would make great managers someday.