PHOENIX -- Major League Baseball's annual general managers meetings begin Monday in Arizona. It's a fortuitous piece of scheduling that gives executives the luxury of checking out prospects in the Fall League while they're thinking of new and inventive ways to upgrade their current rosters.
The early offseason is always optimal for laying groundwork. As 137 freshly minted free agents look for new homes, teams will assess their needs, gauge the trade market and try to make things work amid the confines of their budgets. Meanwhile, the always-quotable Scott Boras will give interviews in the hotel lobby and gladly offer suggestions.
In keeping with another November tradition, ESPN.com polled 28 general managers, assistant GMs, senior advisers, scouts and other baseball talent evaluators on eight questions that will be front-and-center during Hot Stove season. They responded via email or phone on the condition of anonymity.
Here are the results of this year's survey:
1. Which marquee free-agent starter will provide better value over the course of his next contract -- Jon Lester or Max Scherzer?
Responses: Lester 23; Scherzer 5.
Lester, who turns 31 in January, has 1,596 big-league innings on his résumé. Scherzer, who turns 31 in July, has 1,239. Lester has averaged 32 starts and 207 innings per season since 2008, while Scherzer checks in at 32 starts and 197 innings annually since 2009. They've combined for one DL visit (by Lester) in that span, so they enter free agency with impressive track records for health, durability and a willingness to "take the ball."
So who gets the nod as the better bet to hold up and pitch productively past age 35? Despite the lopsided nature of the vote, most respondents considered it a close call.
"You're just splitting hairs between two elite pitchers," an American League assistant GM said.
Lester's distinct (and somewhat surprising) advantage in the voting stems from three factors: (1) He's left-handed; (2) he has a cleaner, more fluid delivery and a more diverse repertoire that might wear better over time; and (3) most executives think he'll be available at a more reasonable price than Scherzer. Lester is represented by the Levinson Brothers' ACES agency, while Scherzer and his agent, Boras, passed on a reported $144 million offer from Detroit last spring.
Scherzer's fastball velocity declined from 94.2 mph in 2012 to 92.8 mph this year and his swing-and-miss rate dipped from 12.2 to 11.5 percent. That's hardly alarming. But in the aftermath of Justin Verlander's disappointing season in Detroit, some executives wonder how he'll adapt to having a less dominant repertoire.
In making the case for Lester, the ACES group distributed a free-agent brief to clubs pointing out that he's one of only five MLB starters (Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke are the others) with three pitches that rank among the top 15 in the game according to FanGraphs pitch/fx data. A lot of talent evaluators look at Lester's all-around pitchability and see him as a safer choice.
"He has a simpler delivery and a cleaner arm action than Scherzer does," an AL West scout said. "There's not a lot to go wrong. I believe he will be OK when his stuff backs up. The only issue will be throwing to bases."
On a cautionary note, one respondent said questions about Scherzer and his motion are overblown.
"I think people will ding Scherzer because of his odd, effort-filled delivery, but he's been durable throughout his entire career," the voter said. "The delivery isn't an issue for me anymore. However, both of their overall workloads are red flags. No doubt."
2. Which veteran outfielder are the Dodgers most likely to trade this winter: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford or Yasiel Puig? Or do you think they won't trade any of them?
Responses: Ethier 10; Kemp 7; Crawford 5; none 3; don't know 2; Puig 1.
If new Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman wants to put his stamp on the team in a hurry, this is an obvious place to start. Manager Don Mattingly will be challenged to maintain harmony if everyone stays healthy (admittedly a big if), and the competition for outfield at-bats will be even more spirited now that Joc Pederson has graduated to the majors. With most of his options, Friedman will have to be creative and willing to eat some money.
Kemp ranked seventh among MLB outfielders with an .852 OPS in 2014, but finished in a tie for 73rd place with Coco Crisp with a 1.1 WAR because of his waning defensive skills. He also has five years and a whopping $107 million in guaranteed money left on his deal.
The Dodgers have the most motivation to move Ethier, who logged a .691 OPS in 130 games and is guaranteed $56 million through 2017. Although Crawford put up creditable numbers in 105 games this season, the three years and $62.25 million left on his deal are a major deterrent to other clubs.
"Ethier strikes me as the best combination of factors," an AL general manager said. "He's currently the fourth wheel. His replacement is likely already in-house. He has the shortest contractual commitment and is the most likely to fit for a variety of other teams (as a left-handed bat and a multi-positional defender) if the money can work."
Another AL GM chose Crawford.
"A team may be more likely to bite on his fleeting secondary skills," the GM said. "Ethier has regressed in nearly all areas and has become a liability in all phases."
For all his star appeal, Puig posted a .780 OPS with four homers in 215 at-bats after the All-Star break, and some scouts are dubious that his boundless natural gifts will ever justify the superstar hype surrounding him. If Friedman is bold enough to take the plunge, Puig would bring the biggest haul of any Dodgers outfielder.
"I think they're most likely to keep all of them," an AL special adviser said, "but I would trade Puig. There's too much maintenance with him and lack of instincts on how to play the game the right way. He's too streaky and you can pitch to him too easily. And he didn't hit for any power in the second half. I know he's a big talent and all that, but he's the guy I would get rid of."
3. Are the Miami Marlins more likely to trade Giancarlo Stanton this winter or sign him to a long-term deal? Or will the situation remain unresolved entering spring training?
Responses: 5 voters said the Marlins will sign Stanton this winter; 2 said they'll trade him; 20 think the situation will remain unresolved; 1 voted "don't know."
#27 Right Fielder
It's an understatement to say the Marlins want the world to know they're trying to lock up Stanton long term. President of baseball operations Michael Hill and general manager Dan Jennings both broadcast the team's intentions in interviews last week, and a few respondents think the Fish will seal the deal. "I'm saying he signs for eight years and $200 million by spring training," an NL special assistant said.
Most of the baseball world is dubious. Stanton will be 27 years old when he hits the free-agent market in November 2016, and given the deals that Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto commanded in recent years, $200 million might be the starting point for serious bids. The Marlins ranked 27th in attendance in their third year in Marlins Park, and South Florida fans are sufficiently jaded about Jeffrey Loria's ownership to expect that he'll sign Stanton through 2024 or whatever it will take.
"There's no chance he signs a long-term deal with the Marlins," an AL scout said. "He'll be wearing an L.A., New York or Boston uniform at some point -- probably before July 31. This stuff about signing him is all eyewash. No team ever tells people what it's going to do unless it's covering its [butt]. When deals like this get done, you don't hear anything about it until they're done."
The Marlins improved from 62 to 77 wins this year and could welcome Jose Fernandez back at midseason, so they have some incentive to keep Stanton and make a playoff run in 2015. But the consensus is that Stanton is ready to move on -- perhaps to a team in his native California.
"Stanton will not sign a long-term deal there before spring training, or ever," an NL personnel man said. "He doesn't like the organization, regardless of what he says, and Miami doesn't have the money to get a deal done. They could in theory make a huge offer that he takes, but they will not have the revenue to build around him should he accept. Any offer they make is a PR move in my opinion -- and they will put out a press release when he turns it down similar to what Detroit put out with Scherzer in spring training. If they are close to out of it by the deadline in 2015, he will be traded then."
4. Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz both had big years in 2014. Which mid-30s hitter is more likely to maintain that success during his next contract?
Responses: Martinez 21; Cruz 6; don't know 1.
Martinez, who turns 36 in December, recorded single-season highs in hits (188), homers (32), on-base percentage (.409) and OPS (.974) this season, and his name appears prominently on any list of baseball's "pure" hitters. "He can hit in his sleep," observed an American League assistant GM.
Cruz, 18 months younger than V-Mart, led the majors with 40 homers after signing with Baltimore for $8 million in February. Unless he accepts the Orioles' $15.3 million qualifying offer -- a very remote possibility -- he'll return to the open market with draft pick compensation attached.
Most voters sounded a similar theme: Martinez's record of consistency and reliability from both sides of the plate outweighs his advanced years and DH-only profile.
"He has good 'old guy' skills," an American League GM said. "He's a much better all-around hitter with superior control of the strike zone, as well as a switch bat that should combat platoon matches in the future."
Another AL executive concurred. "I expect that Martinez's hit tool will age better than Cruz's power tool," he said.
For what it's worth, Cruz's 50-game PED suspension in 2013 did not appear to be a huge topic of concern. Only two survey respondents mentioned it unsolicited.
"Everybody held it against him this year, and he dropped 40 homers and the Orioles won the division," an AL exec said. "Hold it against him if you want to, but if you're wrong, you're passing up 40 bombs."
Although Cruz's performance dropped off markedly after the All-Star break, he wasn't nearly as big a beneficiary of Camden Yards as people think. Cruz hit 25 homers and slugged .584 on the road, compared to 15 homers with a .463 slugging percentage in Baltimore.
5. Who is more likely to get traded this offseason -- Cole Hamels or Starlin Castro?
Responses: Hamels 13; Castro 11; both 3; don't know 1.
These two players have become rumor mill staples for entirely different reasons. The Phillies went 73-89 and finished 23 games behind Washington in the NL East with a $180 million payroll, and Hamels could help them get younger and cheaper by bringing in a mother lode of talent in return.
But moving Ryan Howard in a salary dump is one thing. Trading a 30-year-old three-time All-Star lefty and 200-inning machine is something else. The Phillies' hesitance to move high-priced franchise staples in recent years makes some observers wonder if they have the stomach to go young and ensure themselves of three to four years of pain in the standings and at the gate. And some insiders think GM Ruben Amaro Jr.'s price for Hamels might be prohibitive.
"It sounds like Philly is going in a different direction and might look to move some contracts," an AL exec said. "But Hamels is the one guy who still is really good and has value to them. And with what Ruben is asking for, I'm not sure a trade can be consummated."
Castro is a three-time All-Star at age 24. If the Cubs believe they have a chance to contend in 2015, they might keep him and let him be the bridge to Addison Russell in 2016. But the Cubs have enough Plan B's (Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara) to give Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer the option of making Castro available and seeing what kind of package he might command. Castro is signed for $43 million through 2019, and that $8.6 million annual outlay won't scare away many teams with a shortstop void.
"I'm betting on Castro [getting moved]," an AL exec said. "I don't think he's Theo's kind of player. They obviously have a ton of depth coming under him. He's very poor defensively. He's not an on-base guy, and I don't see him fitting with them long term. Theo will certainly ask for a lot, but I think he's realistic."
Two survey respondents had a similar brainstorm on the topic of Castro and Hamels being dealt.
"Hell, maybe they get traded for each other," an AL exec said. Of course, Castro alone wouldn't suffice for the Phillies. But he could be a nice start.
6. What's the over/under on Alex Rodriguez's home run total in 2015?
Responses: The combined average of survey respondents was 15.84 homers. Three participants predicted Rodriguez won't play this year and will hit zero homers. At the high end of the scale, three voters said he'll hit 25.
The ESPN.com poll was distributed before last week's flurry of reports in the Miami Herald and New York Daily News that covered everything from A-Rod admitting to PED use in a meeting with federal authorities to allegedly marking his territory by urinating on his cousin Yuri Sucart's floor. Inevitably, the fresh barrage of A-Rod ugliness fueled an outcry that the Yankees should cut their ties with him no matter what the financial cost.
Notwithstanding the questions about his character and off-field escapades, Rodriguez faces some long odds in his comeback. He'll turn 40 in July. His OPS declined every year between 2007 (1.067) and 2013 (.771), and he has a hip surgery in the not-too-distant past. Derek Jeter's paltry numbers in his swan song certainly don't bode well for a big year from Rodriguez.
The level of A-Rod fatigue in baseball circles ranges from moderate to off-the-charts, with a healthy dose of mockery and skepticism thrown in for effect. When asked to predict Rodriguez's home run total, an NL scout replied, "I think he'll hit 20. But if he found a new place and a way to cheat, it could be higher."
Still, some people in baseball circles think a motivated A-Rod can put the circus behind him and be a league-average producer or better in the Bronx.
"I'll go with 23 homers," a National League special assistant said. "He can hit 10 home runs at Yankee Stadium just checking his swing."
7. Will the San Francisco Giants re-sign Pablo Sandoval? If not, where does he land?
Responses: Yes 25; no 3. Of the voters who think Sandoval will leave San Francisco or are on the fence, every one mentioned Boston as a prime possibility.
#48 Third Baseman
There's a lot of love for Sandoval in San Francisco, as evidenced by those "Sign Panda" placards and raucous cheers at the victory parade. His upbeat persona and oversized October stats have endeared him to the fan base in a way that transcends his somewhat pedestrian regular-season numbers.
"To me, it's similar to the Mike Lowell situation in Boston in 2007," an AL executive said. "Lowell was World Series MVP, and he signed a deal right after that. From a performance standpoint, [Sandoval] hasn't performed at the level of guys who've gotten an elite contract. But maybe the thin free-agent market helps him."
Sandoval's regular-season OPS dipped from .909 in 2011 to .739 this season. While agent Gustavo Vasquez has publicly lobbied for a six-year contract, most executives think Sandoval's weight issues will dissuade potential suitors from going beyond four years. That could help the Giants' leverage.
"I believe he will come back to earth and sign with the Giants," an AL scout said. "I don't believe there is a huge market for him to sign long term with another team. The Giants can probably handle this the easiest, and there is no way that the fitness stuff isn't real for most clubs."
8. Will the Pirates re-sign Russell Martin? If not, where does he land?
Martin revived his career in Pittsburgh as a driving two-way force and caretaker of the pitching staff. He's a fitness freak and positive clubhouse presence, and in September manager Clint Hurdle ranked him with Andrew McCutchen for his overall impact on the club.
Martin also has the good timing to hit the market when catching alternatives are scarce. Atlanta (Evan Gattis) and Arizona (Miguel Montero) are among the clubs reportedly interested in weighing trade offers for catchers, and the free-agent market is thin this winter and projected to be light on options again next November.
Although the Pirates have an emotional and a baseball stake in keeping Martin, most observers are convinced he'll leave Pittsburgh for a team with a catching void and greater resources.
"I find it far-fetched that Neal Huntington and his baseball people would allow one player to eat up such a significant amount of their payroll," a National League scout said. "I'm sure the Pirates will make a valiant effort and tell their fans all about it but come up $15-20 million short.
"I see a reunion with the Dodgers very likely at this point, as the Dodgers have the financial means necessary to make such an investment and Martin checks off all of those sabermetric boxes such as pitch-framing that Andrew Friedman admires in a catcher. It's like getting Jose Molina and a premium bat all in one, and Andrew must be really interested in that package even if he has to write a much larger contract than he was accustomed to in St. Pete."