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:
• 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.''
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• 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.