Sometime Monday night, Nippon Professional Baseball is expected to reveal the official winner of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. Most of the industry believes the Toronto Blue Jays will win the right to negotiate with the right-hander, though that's more because the scuttlebutt over Darvish's rights have turned into a giant game of telephone. Whispers and conjecture come in far greater quantities than actual information.
Much of that traces back to initial speculation about his suitors being accepted as fact. What we know: The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals either placed an insignificant bid or didn't bother participating in the posting system. Among process of elimination, general manager Alex Anthopoulos' trip to Japan to see Darvish in person and the perception that money is burning a hole in Toronto's pocket, the Blue Jays are the de facto favorite.
And then, of course, is the issue of need. While it's not urgent – between a young core and one of the game's top farm systems, Toronto's best years are to come – the Blue Jays need at least one starting pitcher. With a week before baseball's unofficial vacation between Christmas and New Year's, teams are eager to strike before 2012 hits.
Some teams' holes are bigger than others. Some, too, are slow-playing the market and value-shopping. If indeed the …
1. Toronto Blue Jays won the Darvish auction, they're instead making a statement: Watch out, AL East. Between Darvish and their second-place showing in the Mat Latos trade derby, Anthopoulos isn't afraid to inject himself into high-stakes anything.
In his two seasons as GM, Anthopoulos has accumulated something of a cult following in Toronto. This AA has taken far fewer than 12 steps to reach his goal. A few trades, a few signings and excellent drafts, and the idea that the Blue Jays could challenge in the AL East with Darvish is far from far-fetched.
A rotation headlined by Darvish, Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow has the potential to be the best in the division, which is saying something considering what Boston and Tampa Bay offer. The fourth starter, Henderson Alvarez, was born in 1990, throws 95 mph and has excellent control. Brett Cecil could lock down a job. Can't forget about Kyle Drabek, especially if he rediscovers his command, and prospects Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchison are the closest among a battalion of excellent young arms.
None is a sure thing, however, and the Blue Jays' pursuit of Darvish goes back to that. His stuff will play in the major leagues. Toronto would dig his persona. It would be a nice fit even if it isn't on the West Coast, where Darvish wants to play. He'd get a chance were the …
2. Texas Rangers to be the sandbagger of all sandbaggers and poach Darvish in the auction. The depth of the Rangers' finances has come into question this offseason, especially compared to their suddenly flush rivals, the Los Angeles Angels, who laid out $331.5 million one morning to Albert Pujols and the Rangers' former ace, C.J. Wilson.
Former closer Neftali Feliz is expected to take over his job. The Rangers also have Scott Feldman as backup and Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez at Triple-A. And yet Darvish is the sort of talent that prompts teams to throw out their plans and contingencies and just go for it.
Were the price on Prince Fielder to plummet, for example, Texas could be compelled to enter those sweepstakes. The Rangers' only true question is at first base with Mitch Moreland, and even there they've got Michael Young or Mike Napoli to spell him.
[ Related: Reds pay a premium for RHP Latos ]
Sometimes it just takes more. The Rangers have stared at championships each of the last two seasons and never held one. Even if good enough to reach the World Series and good enough to win a championship came down to one strike, fact is the …
3. St. Louis Cardinals will hold a ring ceremony at Busch Stadium next spring. Without Albert Pujols, yes, and with Allen Craig likely still sidelined from offseason surgery as well. Which is why even though the Cardinals' black hole at second base continues to swallow matter and Rafael Furcal at shortstop for two years is at least one too many, their attention for the moment is trained on Carlos Beltran.
Now, agent Dan Lozano wants at least three years for Beltran, a cost that could be prohibitive for National League teams concerned about his knees holding up long enough to keep him in the field. And the idea that Beltran could play center field when Craig returns is dubious at best. Scouts and statistics agree: Beltran has been iffy in the outfield going on three years, and he spent all of last season in right field.
Still, a switch-hitting Beltran in the middle of a lineup with Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese seems like a good enough alternative to Pujols. If Kolten Wong or Zack Cox can plug second base and Craig gets 400 at-bats somewhere, the Cardinals have a solid chance to win the NL Central, something they didn't do with their recent championship. The last time the …
4. Chicago Cubs won a championship, on the other hand, Ford had released its first version of the Model T two weeks earlier. They're not winning in 2012, either, and almost certainly not 2013 as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer undertake a project that's more gut rehab than renovate.
Already fellow executives have relayed frustration among the new Cubs brass over the collective-bargaining agreement rules that prohibit excessive spending in the draft and among international free agents. Epstein and Hoyer are smart enough to get by and fill their holes in other ways, though they inherited a club that looks like it had been sprayed with an AK-47.
Particularly amusing is who the Cubs list at first base on the depth chart of their official site: Jeff Baker. The same Jeff Baker who slugged .383 last year. Behind him is Bryan LaHair, who trod the path of Brad Eldred to September immortality before the likely return to anonymity. It's why even if their rotation is in shambles and the other corner of their infield may be Ian Stewart's, the Cubs would be well-served to focus on Prince Fielder, even with the prohibitive cost.
No, don't give him 10 years. Hell, stick with five. By then, the Cubs should be back and ready to chase a championship, and the …
5. Milwaukee Brewers will be hoping Ryan Braun's contract doesn't look more daunting post-PED accusations than it did before them. GM Doug Melvin, in the meantime, is looking within MLB (Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez) as well as outside (Japanese center fielder Norichika Aoki) to keep the Brewers relevant next year.
He did blunder the Francisco Rodriguez situation, and if the Brewers don't figure out a way to divorce themselves from him during spring training via the nonguaranteed arbitration contract, they'll pay more for him than the Yankees do for Rafael Soriano, and the Yankees overpaid Soriano to a gluttonous degree.
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Even more important is first base, and it's funny to see all the holes at that position considering it's where all big bats with bad gloves go. In fact, the Brewers' heir apparent there is Mat Gamel, who has struck out in 39.2 percent of his major league at-bats and turns 27 this season. If ever there were a time for him, it passed.
With Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum set to hit free agency next offseason, the Brewers' window is shrinking in a hurry. Not only must they deal with a Central in which almost everyone fancies themselves a contender – see: Cincinnati's mortgaging itself to trade for right-hander Mat Latos over the weekend – but a NL stacked with an East division that includes the juggernaut Phillies, the must-see Marlins, the burgeoning Nationals and an …
With their rotation stacked at least seven deep and their bullpen among baseball's best and a third of Derek Lowe's $15 million salary shed via trade and Nate McLouth's contract off the books, you'd think that, you know, the Braves could afford one. Only GM Frank Wren has spent much of the offseason soliciting offers for two of his better players, utilityman Martin Prado and right-hander Jair Jurrjens, because they're second-year arbitration eligible and due raises.
Should Wren find a big outfield bat, sure, they're expendable. Especially Jurrjens, what with uberprospect Julio Teheran slated to go back to Triple-A otherwise. More than that, the Braves need a shortstop. And considering the candidates on the free-agent market – Yuniesky Betancourt, Ronny Cedeno, Ryan Theriot, Cesar Izturis … yes, those are crickets you hear – it may be a trade or Tyler Pastornicky, who just turned 22 and has all of 27 Triple-A games under his belt.
As many first-base holes as there are, the lack of options is most pronounced at shortstop, where the …
The Giants are crying poor this offseason, which is why GM Brian Sabean couldn't continue his old-player Manifest Destiny and bring Jimmy Rollins back to the Bay, even at a reasonable $11 million a year. Accordingly, the Giants will go into 2012 with a similar problem as always – what, they thought Melky Cabrera was the solution to their run-scoring quandaries? – and hope like mad Buster Posey's leg heals.
Without him, the post-World Series lag could devolve into something worse and not the sort of bounce back the …
8. Tampa Bay Rays have pulled off two years running. Because they're a McDonald's hamburger in a foie gras division, the Rays often will enter a season with holes. Their catching spot is noticeably weak with the Joses – Molina and Lobaton – as well as Robinson Chirinos. And their bullpen is once again iffy.
First base is empty for now, too, and there's no chance the Rays are burying Ben Zobrist's great glove there. They may make a run at Casey Kotchman, who thrived in Tampa Bay last year. And should he step off his demand for a multiyear deal and drop his asking price to play on a contender, Carlos Pena fit there well for four years, left amicably and could make some sense.
[ Related: Jeff Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker ]
The hot name is Anthony Rizzo, who is no free agent. He's the 22-year-old first baseman who now could find himself buried on the San Diego Padres' depth chart behind Yonder Alonso, acquired in the Latos deal. Rizzo struggled in Petco Park. Ted Williams might've, too. Any chance to leave would be good for him, and he personifies the sort of player Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman loves to chase: someone blocked, out of favor or otherwise expendable at a discount.
Fact No. 1: Ivan Nova is not a No. 2 starter in the AL East. Not now. And, unless he develops a new pitch, not ever. He is a nice innings-eating groundball pitcher – a No. 4 tops.
Fact No. 3: No matter how good Hector Noesi looked in winter ball, no matter how much Freddy Garcia succeeded last year, neither is the sort of pitcher whose impact will go beyond tiny in the AL East.
Unless Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances arrives for good this year, that may well be their rotation. Plenty of pitching is available. Jurrjens. Matt Garza. Gio Gonzalez. John Danks. Each would look nice in a Yankees uniform. But the Latos trade showed the market for a young, successful starter. Unless GM Brian Cashman reverses course immediately, they're getting none of the above.
And that's the moral of these three facts: They've got CC and the Misfits while the Red Sox have Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Rays have Shields, David Price, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson and the …
10. Toronto Blue Jays have Romero, Morrow and …
We'll know Monday if they have a chance to fill in that blank with Darvish. An SI.com report said the winning posting fee came in higher than that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, for whom the Red Sox paid $51.1 million to negotiate a $52 million deal. Darvish wants a contract for more than that. How the winning team plays the leverage will be studied for years to come.
Especially if it's Toronto, a team with baseball's best hitter last year, Jose Bautista, as well as breakout rookie Brett Lawrie, waiting-to-blossom Colby Rasmus and plenty of other talent. The Blue Jays have spent their money wisely since Anthopoulos' tenure began. They've readied for this moment, where they can toss around their weight like they mean it.
Just like an AL East big boy should.
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- Yu Darvish
- Carlos Beltran