Senior Baseball Columnist

Pujols, Fielder top storylines as winter meetings return to Dallas


Albert Pujols' own team has yet to make an offer for the All-Star first baseman. (Getty Images)  
Albert Pujols' own team has yet to make an offer for the All-Star first baseman. (Getty Images)  

Beware the winter meetings.

Cash and flash. Haggle and hash. Hasty and rash.

Better to dine and dash?

It was one year ago when the Red Sox kicked off the winter meetings by completing the long awaited trade that netted Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. A few days later, the Sox laid out big dough for free agent Carl Crawford while everyone was gathered in Florida.

We saw how -- cough, cough -- that worked out.

The Nationals spent $126 million on Jayson Werth and the White Sox forked over $56 million for Adam Dunn, both during last year's winter meetings.

We saw how that worked out.

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Look, deals aren't always disasters at baseball's annual swap shop and flea market. The Yankees did pretty well in signing CC Sabathia ($161 million) during the Las Vegas session in 2008. (Though they swung and missed in Anaheim in 2004 when they signed, um, Carl Pavano.)

It's just that when you play the odds, they so often go against you. Talk to Toronto about the signing of closer B.J. Ryan, announced at the 2005 winter meetings in Dallas.

In fact, it was 11 years ago when, in the very city of Dallas and at the very hotel, the Hilton Anatole, in which the game's movers and shakers will convene beginning Sunday night, when the Rangers handed Alex Rodriguez the infamous $252 million contract. Also that winter, Colorado gave pitcher Mike Hampton an eight-year, $121 million deal.

Names and faces change, but the imminent danger that comes with winter-meetings adrenalin and a hotel full of baseball folks doesn't.

As Giants general manager Brian Sabean was just saying the other day, "For some reason, I get the feeling that the free agent conversations are dragging. That might be a function of, in my estimation, a lot of teams in on the same players and these guys being able to juggle multiple scenarios and offers. It usually does come to a head at the winter meetings."

The big storylines as back-room dealings and back-hallway sneaking commences while Twitter feeds overload:

Albert Pujols: Most in the industry think he returns to the Cardinals. One small issue: heading into the weekend, they had not yet made an offer. The aggressive Marlins have, a nine-year deal that, sources say, is a little light financially (read: less than $200 million). The Cubs also are talking to Pujols. The situation is ripe for a mystery team to check in ... or for the Cardinals to wait it out and step up at the last minute.

Prince Fielder: The Mariners, Nationals, Cubs and Rangers are interested to varying degrees, with the Brewers still hoping to figure out an angle to keep him. More clubs are expected to check in with agent Scott Boras in Dallas. The Cubs present an interesting case in that new president Theo Epstein appears to be adjusting his philosophy of building more through the draft after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the draft rules to make it more difficult to do that. General manager Jed Hoyer says the Cubs need a left-handed bat, which is Fielder and not Pujols. Seattle is intriguing: GM Jack Zduriencik was the scouting director when Milwaukee drafted Fielder and remains close to him. The Nationals have conducted all sorts of business with Boras in recent years: Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Werth ... so stay tuned.

Jose Reyes: With each passing day, the Marlins grow more confident of landing him. The Mets are still in the mix but barely, given their finances. The Giants would be a great landing spot, but they can't fit him in within their budget ($130 million payroll for 2012). The Marlins have been as aggressive as any team in the free-agent market this winter and, after landing closer Heath Bell (three years, $27 million with a vesting option for a fourth year at $9 million more), are nowhere close to being finished. "Everybody seems to think he's the right fit for the Marlins," one NL executive says.

New suits at the table: Adding this year to the unpredictability of the meetings is the number of new GMs who will be conducting business in Boston (Ben Cherington), Baltimore (Dan Duquette), Anaheim (Jerry Dipoto), San Diego (Josh Byrnes) and in Chicago with the Cubs (Hoyer, with Epstein as prez). Plus, the Astros fired Ed Wade and will be represented by an interim GM (David Gottfried). (As an aside, I thought it was Wade and president Tal Smith who got fired.) One rival executive who has spoken with the Angels says Dipoto, who acquired catcher Chris Iannetta from the Rockies this week, wants to make a "big splash" in Dallas. Don't know if aging free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez qualifies as splashy, but the Angels, Brewers and others are in on him. Ramirez is expected to sign during the winter meetings.

Boston and Valentine's Day: Finally, the Red Sox hired a manager, and Bobby Valentine makes you wish the season started tomorrow. But after their epic collapse and with a young (31) new GM following last year's Crawford fiasco, where are the Red Sox headed?

"We're continuing to work on building pitching depth," Cherington says. "We've done a lot of work talking to free agents and teams and getting the landscape of the market. We need a right-handed bat to balance the lineup. Next week in Dallas will give us the opportunity to dive into it a little further."

Free-agent starting pitching: Yes, yes, everyone needs pitching -- but there isn't much of it. The most popular name on the market is lefty Mark Buehrle, who has fielded inquiries from roughly half of the clubs in the majors. The Marlins are hot after him, among others. C.J. Wilson, who came up small in October for Texas, is the other biggest prize. After those two ... Edwin Jackson. Yeah, it's the shallow end of the pool this winter.

Pitching by other means: Because of the weak free-agent market and changing landscape, clubs are recognizing it's a seller's market. Watch the trade talks this week: the Cubs have made Matt Garza available. Will the White Sox deal Jon Danks? Maybe. Will the Astros deal Wandy Rodriguez and/or Brett Myers? They'd like to. Will Atlanta trade Jair Jurrjens? Maybe. Will Tampa Bay deal from strength and trade one of its pitchers (perhaps in a package with outfielder B.J. Upton to fill a need at first base, DH or in the 'pen)? Will Oakland deal Gio Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill to facilitate its search for hitters? Let's just say this: if you're a club looking for pitching, your best bet very well might be via the trade market, not free agency.

Closing time: With Bell headed to Florida, Jonathan Papelbon long since having been delivered to the Phillies and Joe Nathan landing with the Rangers, there's not much left. Former Phillie Ryan Madson is the one attractive closer left on the free-agent market, and don't forget about Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, last seen in Milwaukee setting up for John Axford (and who has been offered arbitration by the Brewers, so keep an eye on that). Oakland, looking for hitters (as mentioned above) is expected to shop Andrew Bailey, and one baseball man predicted to colleague Danny Knobler that Bailey winds up with the Red Sox.

And on deck: Yoenis Cespedes, the big-time outfielder who defected from Cuba, has not been declared a free agent yet. But there is plenty of window-shopping happening right now. With Cespedes expected to become a free agent in the coming days, team after team has flocked to watch him work out in the Dominican Republic. So far the Red Sox, Cubs, Tigers, Rays, Pirates and Marlins have expressed interest, and the Yankees are another potential suitor (and probably others, eventually, as well). Nobody knows the market yet for Cespedes, 26, but the best guess is he will receive a package in excess of $40 million and could close in on $50 million. So for those with money left after the winter meetings. ...


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