- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Less than an hour after the San Francisco Giants' Brian Wilson had struck out the Texas Rangers' Nelson Cruz to end the World Series, the Major League Players Association sent out a release: 142 players were eligible for free agency, and the signing period begins in five days. And so began the offseason, which is indeed a misnomer for there is no offseason in baseball anymore. This winter won't be as explosive as some others, but here are 10 storylines to watch.
Where will Cliff Lee sign?
In his past 42 starts, he has played for four different teams and been handled by 10 different catchers. By mid-December, it could be five different teams. He is 32, left-handed and, despite two losses in the World Series, among the best postseason pitchers of all time. Lee has had opportunities to explore a contract extension with at least one of his most recent teams, but has resisted because he wants to experience full free agency. The New York Yankees, it would seem, will be the first and most aggressive pursuers of Lee. And the Yankees have to re-sign Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and see if they can get Andy Pettitte to pitch another season. The Rangers will have more money to spend than in previous offseasons, giving them a chance to re-sign Lee, who said after Game 5 of the World Series, "I'd love to play for the Rangers.'' He is, by far, the best free-agent starter out there, which should drive up his price even more, perhaps to five years at around $20 million per year.
Where will Carl Crawford sign?
He is the best position player on the free-agent market. He is 29, he can run, he is an above-average defensive outfielder and has a tireless work ethic. The Tampa Bay Rays have no shot to sign him; at the money he's going to command, he would take up at least 25 percent of their payroll, and that's not good business in Tampa Bay. If the Yankees miss out on Lee, look for them to make a run at Crawford. The Los Angeles Angels, who need a boost after a subpar 2010, are likely to have interest; good friend/right fielder Torii Hunter is pushing it. The Boston Red Sox are expected to chase Crawford, especially if they lose third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Victor Martinez to free agency. Crawford hit third with some success down the stretch for the Rays, increasing his value. A deal in the $75-100 million range is likely.
Where will Jayson Werth sign?
He is the second-best free-agent player out there. His representatives are supposedly looking for something around $100 million also in part because Werth is 31, he is so athletic and we have not seen all of his potential as a power hitter. It is unlikely that the Philadelphia Phillies can re-sign him because of the money they have spent in recent years on Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, et al. Werth hit .186 with runners in scoring position, an historically low number for anyone with his number of at-bats in those situations. That won't help him in free agency, but given that there are so few impact players out there on the market, he's going to get paid.
What big-name position players might be traded?
There could be several, starting with two first basemen: Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. Both can be free agents after the 2011 season, and the Milwaukee Brewers likely won't have the funds to re-sign Fielder, and the san Diego Padres won't have the cash to re-sign Gonzalez. Fielder's numbers fell slightly in 2010, and his body type is an issue, but he is 26 years old, and should have several good years left. Likely suitors are difficult to find because the Brewers, rightfully so, are looking for at least two really good young pitchers in return. Teams simply aren't willing to deal young pitching these days. The Padres will be looking for an enormous amount in return for Gonzalez, making a trade for him easier said than done. The Red Sox, in theory, could use a big bat at first base, but there are those in the organization that aren't sure that Kevin Youkilis can easily move back to third.
What big-name pitchers might be traded?
The Royals' Zack Greinke is at the top of that list partly because there is so little quality starting pitching available on the free-agent market. The Royals have a tremendous farm system, maybe the best in the game, but they need help, especially offensively, for 2011. Greinke is only one year removed from a Cy Young season, and still has great stuff, but one general manager said that teams might be hesitant to overpay for him because of some of the emotional issues that he has had in his career. But he would look good at the top of any team's rotation.
What is the possibility of expanded playoffs?
Commissioner Bud Selig says he is strongly considering expanding the number of playoff teams, maybe going from eight to 10. It seems unlikely that such a bold move would be in place for 2011, but Selig is considering all options. The wild card has been a great element for baseball, but there is a danger in adding more playoff teams. The criticism of the stretch run of 2010 is that the Yankees and Rays were both going to the playoffs, making their final two weeks less dramatic. With another wild card, it's at least possible that, say, the Padres-Giants race in the NL West the final week of the season might not have meant nearly as much if the loser was headed to playoffs anyway instead of going home.
What is the possibility of expanded instant replay?
Selig has essentially been against the concept, but has softened on it somewhat in the past year. Fortunately for the game, there were no embarrassingly bad calls that cost a team a game in the postseason. That might be all it will take before MLB expands replay. But for now, there's very little chance that it will be instituted for 2011. Eventually, it will be here. One umpire that worked the World Series said he would welcome replay: "The technology is there. We should use it. It would be good. The last thing I want is to leave a city knowing I cost a team a game.'' MLB will also discuss umpire relations with the players and managers this winter in hopes of making that relationship less contentious.
What team will have the most decisions to make this winter?
There are several teams with a lot to do, but none more than the Red Sox. They have to decide whether they're going to re-sign catcher Victor Martinez, or go with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek behind the plate. DH David Ortiz is an issue, also. He wants a multiyear extension, but the Red Sox might just pick up his club option without extending him. Third baseman Adrian Beltre had a terrific year, but is a free agent, and naturally is going to want a lot of money to return. If he doesn't come back, it's not certain that Kevin Youkilis can adjust to playing third again. This team needs another hitter, be it Carl Crawford, or perhaps via a trade for Adrian Gonzalez. But any deal for Gonzalez will require dealing young pitching, and everyone will want hard-throwing Josh Bard, a potential closer. The future of closer Jonathan Papelbon in Boston is hardly secure, either. He will make $13 million next year. A trade for him isn't out of the question.
How much will the Rays lose?
Carl Crawford will leave. Chances are, so will closer Rafael Soriano and maybe setup man Joaquin Benoit, who gave the Tampa Bay the best setup-closer combination in the game in 2010. Shortstop Jason Bartlett is a free agent, as is first baseman Carlos Pena. If anyone stays, it is likely to be Pena, who loves the situation in Tampa Bay, and is a team leader. To make up for the all the losses, the Rays might have to trade a pitcher for a bat. Dealing Matt Garza seems like a bad idea, but he could bring more than would James Shields.
Where are the World Series teams headed from here?
The Giants have a lot of work to do, but not with their pitching. With that fabulous rotation alone, they should contend in a weak division for years to come. They have a number of decisions to make with their everyday players, beginning with first baseman Aubrey Huff, who is eligible for free agency. He had no job last winter until the Giants called, then he went on to lead the team in all three Triple Crown categories. He also established himself as a vital clubhouse presence. A decision on Pat Burrell's future is expected, also. Manager Bruce Bochy raved about Burrell's leadership skills down the stretch, as well as his production, but his 22 strikeouts in 42 at-bats in the postseason were troubling.
The Rangers are a very good young team with a bright future. With new ownership and a stimulated fan base, the Rangers are in position to spend more money this winter than they have in several years. They have found their first baseman of the future in Mitch Moreland, and their farm system is loaded with good young pitching, but their biggest question remains: Can they re-sign Cliff Lee? That will be the biggest question of the winter.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
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