CHICAGO -- Major League Baseball general managers have a demanding job marked by long hours, stifling pressure and constant second-guessing. So they welcome the opportunity to meet after the World Series each November to bond between salary-arbitration seminars and rules committee updates.
This year, the Hawaiian shirts and fun extracurricular stuff are missing. As a concession to the difficult economic times, the 2009 meetings will take place at the Chicago Hilton O'Hare rather than a posh warm-weather resort. The list of attendees is streamlined, the meetings run a day shorter and executives will leave their golf clubs at home.
Given the state of the economy, the last thing MLB needs is reporters tweeting about $479-a-night hotel rooms and $25 endive salads by the pool. Did somebody say "AIG"?
That doesn't mean life will be dull in Chicago. Mark Teahen, J.J. Hardy, Jeremy Hermida, Carlos Gomez and Akinori Iwamura all have been traded in the past week, and Cliff Lee and Brandon Webb just had their 2010 club options exercised. That's merely an appetizer for the long, hot stove winter ahead.
What else is on the horizon? With the meetings scheduled to begin Monday, ESPN.com polled 20 general managers, assistant GMs, personnel people and scouts via e-mail on eight questions that will dominate the news during the next few weeks.
The survey respondents answered on the condition of anonymity, and several explained the reasons behind their thinking. Here are the results of the poll:
Responses: Holliday 11, Bay 9.
The two left fielders are the marquee names on the winter's free-agent market. Holliday, 29, is a three-time All-Star and finished second to Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins in the 2007 National League MVP balloting. Bay, 31, is a three-time All-Star with four 100-RBI seasons on his résumé. Holliday has a career .933 OPS to Bay's .896.
Among survey respondents, Holliday won points for being younger, more athletic, a better baserunner and a superior fielder, notwithstanding his crucial and often-replayed error against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
"The eyes say that they are both below-average defenders, but the advanced analysis says that Holliday is better," said a National League baseball operations man.
Indeed, the Fielding Bible's plus-minus system ranked Holliday as the third-best left fielder in the game this season with a plus-19 ranking. Bay ranked 23rd defensively among left fielders under the same system.
Several executives categorize Holliday as a very good player but not quite open-the-vault-worthy in the manner of some other Scott Boras poster boys. Holliday's late surge in St. Louis helped mask a disappointing stint in Oakland, which brought to mind his lopsided Coors Field splits in Colorado. And some people aren't sold on Holliday's glove no matter what the Fielding Bible says.
"He's a brutal defender, and he doesn't hit the good fastball, especially inside," an American League GM said. For what it's worth, two general managers added it might be a tad less stressful dealing with Bay's agent, Joe Urbon, than negotiating with Boras on a big-ticket deal.
Bay averages 144 strikeouts a year, and he's prone to streakiness. He disappeared in July, hitting .192 with a .295 slugging percentage for the month. But Bay also has won a lot of admirers by producing in a demanding market in Boston. "That might be the separator for me," an American League assistant said.
Responses: Twelve of the 20 survey respondents favor more replay in 2010, but only two voters envision any significant changes next season.
Judging from the comments we received, executives are almost as agitated as fans about the gaffes by Phil Cuzzi, Tim McClelland, C.B. Bucknor et al in October.
The playoffs were a mess. There is no reason not to have a replay ump upstairs.
”-- A National League general manager
"The playoffs were a mess," a National League general manager said. "There is no reason not to have a replay ump upstairs."
A second GM agreed but said he expects no action on replay in 2010. "That speaks to a real lack of vision and leadership at the commissioner's office," he said.
Several executives favor an NFL-style challenge system if managers want to see a play reviewed. But even staunch replay advocates concede it's a momentous change with a lot of factors to be considered. Judging from our survey responses, commissioner Bud Selig isn't the only traditionalist who's wary of technological overload.
"Right or wrong, the human element should remain a part of the game," an AL executive said. "Umpires aren't missing more calls, but the widespread use of technology just makes each mistake more obvious to the world."
Responses: Yankees 8, Mets 4, Angels 3. The Dodgers, Astros, Orioles and Brewers received one vote each, and one executive said he has "no idea." Estimates on Lackey's deal ranged from a low of three years, $36 million to highs of five years, $95 million and six years, $100 million.
Lackey is just a Texas bulldog at heart, but most people figure he's bound for the big stage in New York. The Mets are desperately in need of stability behind Johan Santana in their rotation, and the Yankees showed a willingness to splurge on starting pitching by spending $243.5 million on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett this past winter.
"If the Yankees were able to lock Lackey into a rotation with Sabathia and Burnett, it could be the start of another dynasty," a National League assistant GM said.
Is Lackey a bona fide ace? He's averaged 170 innings during the past two seasons while missing 15 starts with elbow, forearm and triceps issues. Lackey has allowed 1,519 hits in 1,501 career innings, but his peripheral numbers are very consistent, which makes reliability a selling point.
"He's not a guy you throw out there and say, 'We're winning tonight,'" a National League scout said. "He's a reliable, steady, No. 2 or 3 guy on a championship club."
Three executives cited Burnett's five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Yankees as a barometer for Lackey. Another raised the possibility of Lackey signing a deal similar in structure to Kevin Millwood's contract with Texas, which protects the Rangers at the back end if Millwood fails to stay healthy.
One AL assistant GM likes Houston as a dark-horse contender for Lackey. "They need pitching badly, they have money and they need to win," the assistant said.
Responses: Pettitte 13, Damon 3, Matsui 2. One respondent said "Don't know," and another opted for both Pettitte and Damon.
New York general manager Brian Cashman made a special trip to Texas in December to dissuade Pettitte from retiring, and things worked out well for all parties in the end. Pettitte posted a 14-8 regular-season record, then went 4-0 in the playoffs and World Series.
Pettitte seems inclined to go year to year at age 37, and he's a nice, 190-inning safety blanket while the Yankees figure out their game plan for Phil Hughes and/or Joba Chamberlain at the back end of the rotation.
"It's a no-brainer," a National League assistant said.
The obstacles to Matsui's return have been well-documented. He can no longer play the outfield because of knee problems, and the Yankees would prefer to be flexible with their DH spot because of their aging roster. But nothing muddles the picture like a World Series MVP award and six RBIs in a clincher.
And Damon? If the Yankees invest in pitching rather than a Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, there still might be room in the lineup for Damon in 2010. One American League GM foresees the Yankees offering salary arbitration and Damon returning for another season.
But will Damon's agent embrace that scenario? Scott Boras spoke to reporters during the American League Championship Series in Anaheim and certainly appeared to be thinking long-term for Damon.
"If stem-cell research were around, you'd want to tap into that gene pool," Boras said. "He's 35, but he has a 30-year-old's body."
Responses: Yankees 8, Red Sox 7. Five respondents declined to make a guess. Estimates of Chapman's payday ranged from slightly north of Stephen Strasburg money -- in the $20-25 million neighborhood -- to more generous deals of four to six years. One NL executive predicted that Chapman will get four years and $46 million from the Yankees.
Chapman, 21, defected from the Cuban national team during a tournament in the Netherlands this past summer. He's left-handed and hits triple digits with his fastball, so the market is understandably brisk. Chapman and his agent, Edwin Mejia, are scoping out destinations, and the list of teams in the mix is believed to include Boston, the two New York teams, St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, Seattle and the Angels, for starters.
There's a lot of risk here. He's got a great arm, but he's far from a finished product as far as command and pitchability.
”-- An American League personnel man on Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman
Although the scouts love Chapman's arm, some teams have concerns about his maturity, his command, his feel for his secondary pitches and his ability to learn on the fly.
"You wonder if he's just a [radar] gun guy," a National League scout said. "The expectations are going to be so high, but he might have to be developed like he's a high school or college kid."
Chapman's upside is undeniable, but patience will be part of the equation. It won't shock some people if he winds up in the bullpen eventually.
"There's a lot of risk here," an AL personnel man said. "He's got a great arm, but he's far from a finished product as far as command and pitchability."
Responses: Gonzalez 9, Halladay 8, Hernandez 0. One executive declined to respond. Another doesn't expect any of the three to be moved, and a third predicts that one of Atlanta's starting pitchers -- Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez -- will be dealt before any of these three.
Gonzalez, Halladay and Hernandez generated various degrees of buzz at the July trade deadline, but the rumors and breathless media coverage failed to amount to anything.
Boston GM Theo Epstein tried to assemble a package to acquire Hernandez from Seattle, and five other clubs reportedly made a pitch to Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik. But Hernandez is still two years away from free agency and is coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, and the Mariners can't simply move him without seriously exploring a long-term contract.
Halladay, of course, was the focus of a major bidding war in July, but the Jays decided to hang on to him rather than make a deal that didn't thrill them. Halladay will make $15.75 million in 2010. Assuming he returns, new GM Alex Anthopoulos can either shop him at the deadline or keep him and pocket the draft picks.
Gonzalez, fresh off his first 40-homer season, is the biggest mystery of the bunch. As a local guy, he might be more amenable to staying in San Diego long term now that he sees signs of progress at Petco Park. But Kevin Towers' successor, Jed Hoyer, might try to leverage his most valuable asset for a mother lode of young talent to hasten the rebuilding process. The Red Sox love Gonzalez, and Hoyer knows the Boston farm system from top to bottom because he used to be the team's assistant GM.
"You've got a new general manager who will try to put his stamp on the organization," an American League assistant GM said. "There's no better way than to bring in an influx of talented prospects for a player they can't keep long term."
Gonzalez is under contract for $10.25 million total through 2011, which makes him attractive to teams in every economic strata. A National League official said Gonzalez "might be the best 'talent for dollar' player out there."
Responses: Smoltz 9, Thome 6, Martinez 4. A National League GM took a pass. "I'm not sure any of them can contribute beyond being a role player," he said.
Martinez finished the strongest, going 5-1 for the Phillies down the stretch and posting a 3.71 ERA in three postseason starts. After Martinez dueled A.J. Burnett pitch for pitch in the World Series, New York's Jerry Hairston Jr. observed that Martinez's command was better than it had been five or six years ago.
Support for Thome was predicated on the assumption that he'll return to the American League as a DH after his brief fling with the Dodgers. Thome's .493 slugging percentage with the White Sox last year was fourth-best among designated hitters behind Adam Lind, Jason Kubel and Hideki Matsui.
The support for Smoltz was somewhat surprising given the pounding he absorbed in eight starts with the Red Sox. Smoltz gradually faded in St. Louis, too, but he did strike out 40 batters in 38 innings as a Cardinal.
There's a universal sentiment that Smoltz needs to stay in the National League. But he will be 20 months removed from shoulder surgery by the start of spring training, he's a candidate to start or relieve and he always brings a lot to the clubhouse.
"I just wonder how much he hurts," an NL scout said. "He has to be dealing with some pain issues every time he goes out there now."
Responses: Wells 20, Bradley 0.
After signing a three-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs, Bradley posted a lower slugging percentage (.397) than Marco Scutaro and Ryan Sweeney. He alienated his teammates, manager and an entire fan base to the point that the Cubs couldn't wait to send him home in September. He has a lengthy inventory of antisocial outbursts in his past, he's played for seven teams since 2001 and he's owed $21 million during the next two seasons.
And still, this one wasn't close.
Wells is a nice guy, model citizen and one-man charity machine, but the double whammy of his contract and middling production since 2006 make him virtually impossible to trade, in the estimation of the executives surveyed.
Wells will make $12.5 million in 2010, at which point the big-money portion of his deal will kick in. He'll make $23 million in 2011 and $21 million in each of the next three seasons. Wells hit 15 homers with a .711 OPS in 158 games this past year and is about to undergo surgery on his left wrist.
"That may be the worst contract in baseball history," a National League official said. "Worse than Barry Zito."
An American League assistant GM was only slightly less depressing in his analysis. "I believe that Vernon Wells' contract makes him the most difficult player to trade in the entire major leagues," the assistant said.
Although Bradley obviously has made Chicago GM Jim Hendry's life more complicated, the consensus is that he's movable if the Cubs: (a) eat most of his salary; or (b) take on somebody else's overpaid headache in return. The Jays don't have that luxury with Wells.
"You always see baggage guys moving team to team," an NL official said. "You can't trade a player with $98 million left on a contract unless that team takes back close to that amount in a bad-money deal. That's a lot of bad money to expect Vernon Wells to get moved. Throw in his wrist surgery, and he's not going anywhere."