As the events of last winter help illustrate, the Major League Baseball team proclaimed the offseason "winner" isn't necessarily a world-beater come Opening Day.
A year ago this time, prized free agent Josh Hamilton was in the early stages of a job search that eventually landed him with the Los Angeles Angels for five years and $125 million. The Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, spent the winter rounding out their roster with a bunch of unsexy veteran additions. Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara et al are solid professionals with track records, but very few if any observers were convinced they would help spark a full-fledged turnaround in Boston.
So much for "expert" opinion. While the Red Sox elevated the spirits of a city by capturing their third title in a decade, the Angels had only 78 wins, front-office strife and an ill-timed Hamilton-C.J. Wilson "Head & Shoulders" commercial to show for their efforts. The Angels and Toronto Blue Jays, the other perceived winner of the 2012-13 offseason, finished a combined 20 games under .500 and have lots of work to do this winter to re-establish themselves as contenders.
General managers for all 30 MLB teams, armed with money, wish lists and the lessons gleaned from recent history, will begin laying the foundation for this winter's activity when they converge in Orlando on Monday for the annual GM meetings. While baseball executives discuss instant replay, catcher collisions and other salient on-the-field and economic issues, they'll also meet with agents and one another and try to get a jump on the trades and signings that will define this winter's landscape. The GMs gathering will dovetail with MLB owners meetings and wrap up Thursday.
In our annual ESPN.com Hot Stove survey, we touched base with 21 general managers, assistant GMs, player personnel people and scouts and sought their opinion on seven prominent questions that will make news over the next three months. Here are the results:
1. Where will Robinson Cano sign, and what kind of deal (years and money) do you think he'll get?
Responses: New York Yankees 19; Los Angeles Dodgers 1; Chicago Cubs 1. Almost all the respondents predicted that Cano will land a deal of seven or eight years in length with an overall payout between $160 million and $230 million. No one expects Cano to approach a contract of $300 million-plus -- his target in talks with the Yankees during the summer.
Cano, a five-time All-Star, ratcheted up the attention when he left Scott Boras' group in April to sign on with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Jay Z. Players typically leave other agents and hire Boras entering free agency -- not dump him for somebody else -- so that decision alone added to the intrigue surrounding his free agency.
Although one intrepid general manager picked the Cubs as a potential fit for Cano ("I have no inside info to predict this," he said) and another picked the Dodgers despite the team's recent acquisition of Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero, the overwhelming majority of respondents envision Cano remaining in the Bronx in a marriage of convenience.
Cano likes the spotlight, the familiarity of the Yankees and the endorsement opportunities that New York provides. It's also going to be a lot more difficult to hang out with his new pal Jay Z if he's playing in, say, Arlington, Texas.
The Yankees, meanwhile, are low on big-name gate attractions and coming off their worst average attendance (40,489 fans per game) since 2000. Although winning is paramount, New York loves its stars, and it won't do much for fan outreach if the Yankees' signature move is losing their best player.
Predictions of Cano's overall payout reflect two realities: 1) The mega-mega deal is out of fashion now that Boston and St. Louis made the World Series after parting company with Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Albert Pujols, respectively; and 2) the Yankees have no reason to go crazy knowing they would essentially be bidding against themselves.
"I'm not sure how big the market is at these dollars," said a National League personnel man in an email. "I think Cano is dreaming if he thinks he is going to get $300 million. He is an outstanding player, but he is much closer to David Wright than Miguel Cabrera [or Alex Rodriguez before him]."
2. Which Scott Boras outfielder -- Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo -- will provide better value over the course of his next deal?
Responses: Choo 12; Ellsbury 8. One general manager declined to choose, observing, "Neither will match what they will get."
Choo and Ellsbury are the most accomplished hitters not named Robinson Cano on the market. Baseball sources said Boras is seeking deals for both players that are north of the seven-year, $126 million deal that he negotiated for Jayson Werth with the Washington Nationals in December 2010.
The big selling points for Choo are a .389 career on-base percentage (.423 last season in Cincinnati) and the ability to hit with power out of the leadoff spot. Choo has three 20-homer seasons on his résumé. But he also has a career .680 OPS against left-handed pitching, and most teams regard him as a right fielder even though he started 150 games in center for Cincinnati in 2013.
Ellsbury ranked sixth among big league center fielders in Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved rankings in 2013 and stole 52 bases in 56 attempts. But his 32 home runs in 2011 are a clear outlier, and fairly or not, he's been saddled with a reputation as injury-prone. Ellsbury missed most of the 2010 season after he fractured his ribs in a collision with Adrian Beltre, and hurt his shoulder in 2012 colliding with Tampa Bay shortstop Reid Brignac. Even if those were freak injuries, many executives and scouts in the pro-Choo camp cited durability concerns about Ellsbury.
"He may be tougher than people give him credit for, but he is fragile," a National League executive said.
Even the people who don't question Ellsbury's pain threshold or fortitude wonder how his game will withstand the inevitable pounding he'll take if he continues to run the bases so aggressively and be required to cover so much ground into his mid- and late 30s.
"Choo is such a well-rounded player," an NL scouting director said. "He'll hit .280, walk 100 times, and he'll hit 20 home runs and steal you 20 bases. Ellsbury can do some things to change a game. I just think Choo will probably hold up best over the course of the deal."
3. Which of these starting pitchers -- Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez -- do you like the most in free agency?
Responses: Garza 10, Santana 5, Jimenez 4. Two respondents declined to make a pick. "They will all be way overpaid," said a National League assistant GM.
A lot of people share that executive's opinion. With no clear-cut staff ace on the free-agent market, No. 2 and 3 starters are destined to get paid like aces, and Garza, Santana and Jimenez will benefit from the mad scramble for reliable starters.
Each pitcher has attributes to recommend him and corresponding yellow caution flags. Garza has plenty of stuff and won't require the team that signs him to surrender draft-pick compensation since he didn't receive a qualifying offer. But he's 67-67 with a career 3.84 ERA and has yet to make an All-Star team or earn a Cy Young vote in eight big league seasons. Garza's adjusted ERA-plus of 109 is 37th-best among active MLB starters. He was also a disappointment in Texas after the Rangers acquired him in a stretch-drive trade in July.
A recurrent theme with Jimenez: Although many teams are intrigued by him, they're not ready to go all-in after his big bounce-back year in Cleveland. Jimenez's unorthodox mechanics require some maintenance, and he's averaged 4.0 walks per nine innings in 211 major league starts.
"Ubaldo has the best chance to give you impact in the short term, but I am not buying him over the course of 3-4 years," an American League scout said.
Santana, 30, ranked ninth in the AL with a 3.24 ERA last season. But he was 55th among big league starters with 6.87 strikeouts per nine innings, so he's more reliant on a strong defense than either Garza or Jimenez.
"His slider returned, and he doesn't carry the question marks like the other two," said an NL executive whose team is in the market for a starter. "I wouldn't invest too heavily in any of them, to be honest. But Santana is the safest bet to maximize his performance on the field."
4. Which former Yankees prospect -- Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain -- has a better chance of blossoming with a change of scenery?
Responses: Hughes 18; Chamberlain 3.
Not long ago, Hughes and Chamberlain were the shining lights of the New York farm system and seemingly destined to achieve big things with the Yankees. Baseball America christened Hughes the organization's top prospect in both 2007 and 2008, and placed Chamberlain in the No. 1 spot in 2009.
In 2004, one Yankees official referred to Hughes as "Mark Prior light" when that was considered a compliment. Of Chamberlain, BA wrote, "Scouts chuckle with delight discussing Chamberlain's raw stuff, and several give him 70 or 80 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale for three different pitches."
Things failed to work out according to plan, and now Hughes, 27, and Chamberlain, 28, are looking for fresh starts amid significantly lower expectations.
Hughes had a stunningly bad year in 2013 to capture Jayson Stark's esteemed Cy Yuk Award. He allowed 71 home runs in 356 1/3 innings at the new Yankee Stadium, and some observers think he'll be liberated by a move to a new club and the chance to pitch in a park with a bigger margin of error. If Hughes is going to achieve long-term success as a starter and not be relegated to the bullpen, he'll have to develop more consistency with his secondary pitches to complement a 92 mph fastball.
"Hughes was a terrible fit for Yankee Stadium as a fly-ball, right-handed starter," said an NL front office man. "I don't know that he'll ever reach the potential people thought he had, but he's a nice bounce-back candidate."
Chamberlain's biggest red flags are questionable conditioning, a checkered medical history and lingering maturity issues. He enhanced his reputation for petulance in May when he got into a silly dugout spat with the sainted Mariano Rivera.
Nevertheless, Chamberlain's fastball clocked in around 95 mph last season. If Jason Grilli can make his first All-Star team at age 36, Chamberlain still has time to grow up, get in better shape and contribute at the back end of somebody's bullpen. It's just going to take the right environment and some patience.
"Joba is a complete project at this point," an NL assistant GM said.
5. Which team will sign Japanese free-agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka? Does he get more than Yu Darvish's $60 million deal with Texas?
Responses: Los Angeles Dodgers 9; New York Yankees 6; San Francisco Giants 1; Chicago Cubs 1; Toronto Blue Jays 1; Seattle Mariners 1. Two executives declined to guess Tanaka's destination. Of the 21 execs surveyed, all but a handful think his payout will surpass Darvish's deal with the Rangers.
Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, a power-hitting first baseman who is regarded by some international scouts as a bit of a one-trick pony, signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in October. So how much of a market will there be for Tanaka, who posted a 24-0 record with a 1.27 ERA for the Japan Series champion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013?
Early indications are that business will be brisk, with several teams in the mix to acquire exclusive rights to negotiate with Tanaka through the posting process. Just as Abreu benefited from the success of fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, Tanaka has been helped by Darvish's impressive performance with the Rangers.
"Market forces are working in his favor," a National League official said. "It is a small sample, but the recent track record of players with a similar background has an effect. On top of that, at least on the surface, you have two financial heavyweights in the Yankees and Dodgers going at it on this one player."
Tanaka, 25, is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-hander. He throws a fastball in the 92-95 mph range and complements it with a slider, curveball and his calling card, the split-finger pitch.
"He doesn't have a huge fastball, but he's got a really good split-finger," an NL executive said. "It's almost like a Curt Schilling-type split-finger."
6. Will the Tampa Bay Rays trade David Price this winter? If yes, what's his most likely destination?
Responses: 17 participants said the Rays will trade Price this winter, while 4 said they'll hang on to him. Of the 17 yes votes, here's the predicted breakdown of his destination: Texas Rangers 9; Los Angeles Dodgers 4; Washington Nationals 1; St. Louis Cardinals 1; Los Angeles Angels 1; Houston Astros 1.
A National League assistant general manager cited Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman's history of spinning established starting pitching that's on the cusp of getting more expensive and using it to raid other teams' farm systems. In recent years, Friedman has dealt away Matt Garza and James Shields and received prospects Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, among others, in return.
"Tampa sells high on guys," the official said, "and they can't have one player making a quarter of their payroll. It's more a matter of where than if. I would look at the Garza and Shields deals as a blueprint and add to the return, because those guys weren't left-handed and they didn't win the Cy Young."
Said an AL scout: "That's Tampa's M.O. to keep their operation sustainable and competitive with their budget. Those guys haven't drafted very well in the past 5-6 years, so these trades are the way they replenish their system."
The Rangers and Dodgers lead the pack of Price's potential suitors. Texas is coming off a disappointing season and has enough talent on the farm to assemble an attractive package. "They finally find the right deal to put Jurickson Profar in," predicted an AL scouting director.
Some observers won't be surprised if the Dodgers make a run at Price and Masahiro Tanaka and plug them into a super rotation with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Stan Kasten, the Dodgers' president, was in Atlanta when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were carrying the Braves to the playoffs each year, so he knows a thing or two about super-rotations.
7. Which aging pitcher has the most left in the tank: Roy Halladay (coming off shoulder problems), Tim Hudson (coming off a gruesome ankle injury) or Hiroki Kuroda (3-7, 4.25 ERA after the All-Star break)?
Responses: Kuroda 12; Hudson 8; Halladay 1.
"Kuroda, and it's not particularly close," said a National League assistant GM. "Halladay has lost 4 mph and was just plain bad last year. He's a warrior, but I'm not sure that will make a difference. Hudson hasn't been as good as Kuroda in years and now is recovering from a major injury, too."
Kuroda will be 39 on Opening Day and tailed off badly after mid-August, but his velocity held firm and his problems were at least partly attributable to a higher batting average on balls in play. The Yankees still value him highly enough that they gave him a $14.1 million qualifying offer last week. Kuroda has held his own against rugged competition in the AL East over the past two seasons, and that's a significant point in his favor.
Hudson, 38, went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in Atlanta before suffering a season-ending ankle injury that required surgery in late July. He has been cleared to begin running later this month and is reportedly on the radar in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City and numerous other cities.
"He still has the ability to command and sink the ball consistently," an AL scout said. "He can probably pitch until he's 42. He's probably the safest bet of these three guys."
Halladay's shoulder problems cast considerable doubt over his ability to come back at age 36. But he's built up so much credibility in the game because of his commitment and work ethic, some observers are hesitant to proclaim him finished. The Doc Halladay mystique is tough to kill.
"Maybe the chances of him coming back aren't real good if you look at it objectively," a scout said. "But if the guy wants to [keep pitching] and be successful, I wouldn't put it past him."