Winter meetings promise increased movement

The game is in motion. Its reputation for listlessness is being shot all to Houston and back.

Near the eve of baseball’s annual winter meetings, what we have is movement, not NBA crazy movement, but a shift toward almost movement, which, in baseball, often enough counts as movement.

This comes on account of several factors.

The Miami Marlins are wacky.

Pujols and Fielder are the top two available free agents.
(Getty Images)

Seven franchises – including megaliths from Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles – have new general managers or, in the case of the Houston Astros, are in the process of stalking and abducting a new general manager of their own.

New field managers have been hired in a handful of places. Most notably, that means Bobby Valentine in Boston and Ozzie Guillen in Miami. It means Tony La Russa is gone from St. Louis. It means new faces and new ideas from Dale Sveum and Robin Ventura in Chicago, along with Mike Matheny in St. Louis.

[Related: What does Valentine hire say about Cherington?]

Among the free agents and potential free agents, there are possible game-changers in Albert Pujols(notes), Prince Fielder(notes), Yu Darvish, Jose Reyes(notes) and Yoenis Cespedes. There are nice pieces in C.J. Wilson(notes), Carlos Beltran(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes), Jimmy Rollins(notes), Aramis Ramirez(notes), Mark Buehrle(notes) and beyond.

The new collective bargaining agreement is burning a hole in owners’ pockets. First off, building through the draft and in international signings just got a lot more difficult. Second, the game is making money. Lots of it. Happy days are here again. So it’s a good time to be a free agent, particularly in a light year for free agents, and a good time to be an owner.

The New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies were not in the World Series. The Boston Red Sox were not in the playoffs (again), and neither were the Los Angeles Angels (again), the Chicago Cubs (again), the Chicago White Sox (again) or the New York Mets (again). The Los Angeles Dodgers have become so pathetic they don’t even make a list of high-cost underachievers, but occupy a place of their own. The point is, the league’s core organizations have the motivation to find a better way, to get better, to think better. That makes them more interesting, except for the Dodgers, who simply get more pathetic.

Agent Scott Boras has what most general managers believe will be the domino player, and that’s Fielder. Pujols is the better player, but baseball people generally expect him to re-sign with the Cardinals. Fielder is unlikely to return to Milwaukee, though the Brewers are holding out some hope. Fielder seems to have a broader – and more eclectic – market than Pujols does, reportedly drawing interest from the Marlins (who, I believe, are wacky), Cubs, Washington Nationals, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Brewers. And, by the end, you never know what the Yankees and Red Sox – even the Baltimore Orioles – might do. That’s a lot of teams who have other needs and, quite possibly, postseason expectations that must keep upward of $180 million worth of powder dry. Some need shortstops (Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal(notes)). Others need outfielders (Beltran, Michael Cuddyer(notes), Cespedes), or perhaps a DH (David Ortiz(notes), Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon(notes)). They all need pitching.

Like always, movement abounds there. The lead dog is Wilson, who in two years as a starter is a spiffy 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in the regular season. The problem is his spotty October, when he’s gone 1-5 with a 4.82 ERA (in 10 appearances, nine of them starts) in the postseason. The Rangers, his former team, remain interested, but at a reasonable price, whatever that may be. Meantime, Wilson and the Angels are making eyes at each other, in spite of owner Arte Moreno’s reluctance in recent seasons to go big in free agency, and in spite of reports Wilson seeks a contract of $120 million. Wilson’s market is expected to include the Yankees and Red Sox, as well, along with the Nationals, Marlins (of course) and possibly the Blue Jays.

But, there’s also Buehrle, the 32-year-old who has won exactly 13 games in each of the past three seasons and should benefit from getting out of the bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field. Also left-handed, he’s presumably less expensive than Wilson, who’s looking to be paid more like a No. 1 or 2 than the No. 3 many suspect he is. Buehrle has an offer from the Marlins, but, then, who doesn’t? He also has drawn interest from as many as a dozen other clubs, most of whom slot him between Wilson and the likes of Hiroki Kuroda(notes), Roy Oswalt and Javier Vazquez(notes).

[Related: Passan’s ultimate free-agent tracker]

The closer market is a moving target. With Jonathan Papelbon(notes) in Philadelphia, Heath Bell(notes) in Miami, Joe Nathan(notes) in Texas and Jonathan Broxton(notes) in Kansas City (as a setup man), that still leaves Boras clients Ryan Madson(notes) and Francisco Rodriguez, along with Francisco Cordero(notes) on the top end, and Brad Lidge(notes), Jon Rauch(notes) and Matt Capps(notes) on the next rung, and then Andrew Bailey(notes) and Drew Storen(notes) as trade targets. As many as a half-dozen teams, including the Red Sox and maybe the Angels, need help in the ninth inning.

The Bailey inclusion brings in the Oakland Athletics, who for several years have piecemealed themselves into mediocrity. Having scored fewer than 700 runs in three of the past four years, the A’s – GM Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst – again are desperate for offense. To that end, they’re not only shopping Bailey but nearly everyone from a rotation that generally is young, adaptable and productive. Until a plan is in place for a new ballpark, the A’s have no overarching long-term plan beyond survival. So, apparently, 16-game winner Gio Gonzalez(notes) can be had, as can Trevor Cahill(notes) and Guillermo Moscoso(notes). The price is bats. Big ones. Cheap ones.

[Related: Pujols to the Cubs would shake up St. Louis]

The A’s, like the majority of the game, fall into an offseason category somewhere above “overhaul” and below “tuneup.” They’re not so terrible they couldn’t hit on enough offense to hang with the better teams in their division, yet they’re not nearly good enough to watch the offseason run off without them.

The Marlins came upon their winter of fresh uniforms, ballparks and financial windfalls in the same place, and now hope to buy up players they presumably will sell off in two or three years. That’s why, at a time of runaway payrolls in places such as New York and Boston, and when the winter meetings almost always are a place where those baseball operations staffs arrive upon gilded litters, the Marlins have promoted the most movement of all.

Into the last weekend before the winter meetings, they’ve latched on to most of the high-end free agents, have offers out to Pujols, Reyes, Buehrle and Madson, have committed as much as $36 million to Bell, and don’t seem the least concerned about their own history with such strategies or where this might leave them.


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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Dec 2, 2011