PHOENIX -- Sometimes the prudent approach during Hot Stove season is to stop trying to read between the lines and simply take what baseball executives say at face value.
After Detroit general manager David Dombrowski made it clear that re-signing designated hitter Victor Martinez was the team's main offseason priority, the Tigers sprung into action and locked up V-Mart to a four-year, $68 million deal this week. The Tigers thereby addressed a potential roster void and made life more challenging for offensively impaired clubs in the market for an impact hitter.
The Martinez signing was the second significant transaction to go down at the Arizona Biltmore during MLB's annual general managers meetings.
A lot of teams don't have the luxury of finding handy solutions in-house -- or locking up players who are on deadlines and have to beat the clock. So we can look forward to a lot of dancing, parrying and other groundwork-laying that might produce a flurry of activity before the winter meetings in San Diego in 3½ weeks.
Unless, of course, it doesn't.
"I've never been a good predictor of the pace in the offseason," San Francisco assistant GM Bobby Evans said. "Invariably, there's a trigger point. Maybe it's a pitcher or two, or a reliever or two, or there's a club or two that help create that pace. You never know who or where that's coming from."
In other words, we're still more or less at ground zero, with lots of rumor mongering to come between now and Thanksgiving, Christmas and (in a select few cases) Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. Now that the general managers have left Phoenix behind and returned to their bunkers, here's a snapshot of five things to watch moving forward:
1. The Giancarlo Stanton watch has begun in earnest
Nothing changes doubt to astonishment faster than reports of a $300 million-plus contract proposal.
It's an understatement to say the baseball world has been skeptical about the Miami Marlins' ability to sign their All-Star right fielder to a long-term contract. People familiar with the situation say Giancarlo Stanton has seen enough dysfunction during his tenure with the team that his first preference would be to move on to a perennial contender once he becomes eligible for free agency in 2016 -- if not sooner.
Thursday's revelation that the Marlins have floated a record-breaking deal certainly changes the equation. Nobody knows the inner dynamics of the negotiations other than Marlins management and agent Joel Wolfe, but now that the $300 million figure has been tossed out for public consumption, the Marlins have fulfilled the "Hey, we tried" end of the narrative. And if Stanton doesn't sign, a lot of people will be asking, "What the heck was he thinking?"
The latest news flash needs to be tempered with a dose of reality: Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria isn't exactly awash in credibility and goodwill in South Florida, and it's a legitimate question whether he can afford to pay Stanton that kind of money and field a representative team around him. The Marlins have ranked last in the National League in attendance in four of Stanton's five big league seasons. Will Marlins Park suddenly become a "go-to" destination just because he's making $30 million-plus a year?
The Marlins have given indications that they'll bend on their blanket no-trade policy and include one in Stanton's contract. But his deal probably would have to include an opt-out clause that allows him to leave Miami mid-contract if things don't transpire according to plan.
At the very least, contract talks appear serious enough that it's taken Stanton off the trade market. Michael Hill, Miami's president of baseball operations, said the Marlins are so focused on signing Stanton that potential suitors aren't even approaching them with trade scenarios anymore.
"I think we've been upfront since last offseason that we weren't trading him and we're trying to build with him," Hill said. "I think that message has been received. He's a Miami Marlin. Nobody's coming at us. We tried to squash that last offseason, and our peers have respected that and taken us at our word."
2. NL West is in a fascinating state of flux
Jeff Bridich, Colorado's young, Harvard-educated GM, seems legitimately torn over how aggressively to engage in trade discussions for Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. They're so good and such an important part of the fabric of the team, it's hard for the Rockies to stomach the idea of shipping them off at a severely discounted price. But the combination of injuries and big-contract obligations clearly puts a crimp in the values for both Tulo and CarGo. Your gut tells you the timing isn't right -- particularly in Tulowitzki's case -- and the Rockies will be standing pat.
Sentiment isn't nearly as big a factor for Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who appears ready to trade a veteran outfielder no matter how much money he needs to swallow. The consensus is that Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are candidates No. 1 and 1a to be former Dodgers by the start of spring training.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are also in the self-assessment stage after losing a major league-high 98 games. At the moment, the starting rotation consists of Wade Miley, Josh Collmenter, Chase Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vidal Nuno, with Patrick Corbin not expected to return from Tommy John surgery until June. The D-backs also have to find a way to play better against the NL West iron after going 10-28 against Los Angeles and San Francisco this season.
"We have a nice, young nucleus, so there's a lot to build on here," said Tony La Russa, the Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer. "I'll be very disappointed if we don't have a winning season. I think 82-80 is the least that we can do, assuming normal slumps and normal injuries."
It's important for front offices to be honest with themselves in assessing the talent on the roster, and La Russa and his group are still wading through that process. It might be Memorial Day before we know if the Diamondbacks' people are prescient or victims of wishful thinking.
3. The five-plus players who might gum up the works
A rumor made the rounds during the meetings that the Nationals and Cubs were discussing a trade that would send pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to Chicago. It was quickly debunked, and in hindsight it seemed like a major stretch. The Cubs just traded veteran starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland for prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney at the July deadline. So a deal for Zimmermann wouldn't have worked unless the Cubs knew they could lock him up to a long-term contract.
This might not be the last time Zimmermann's name makes the rounds this winter. He's one of several prominent Washington players (along with Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Tyler Clippard) with five years of service time. The Nats are engaged in contract talks with Zimmermann, Fister and Desmond, but it's anybody's guess whether those players will sign long-term deals with Washington before they become eligible for free agency next November.
"When I seriously look at this club, does it have a chance to win? Yeah. But we have a gaping hole. We are in a division that's pitching rich, and right now we are pitching poor." John Hart, Braves president of baseball operations
The Atlanta Braves have a similar dynamic in effect with outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, who are also a year away from free agency. The difference is we're talking about two teams in decidedly different places right now. The Nationals won the NL East by 17 games and have legitimate World Series aspirations. They can't afford to move a proven, 20-homer shortstop or a 200-inning rotation staple without acquiring players who can fill those voids immediately.
The Braves, in contrast, are still deciding on their future course. The farm system is thin, and elbow injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have left the rotation with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and a couple of question marks. If the Braves are willing to reduce their chances of being competitive in 2015 with an eye on the long term, Upton and Heyward could help restock the system in trades. Atlanta management isn't at that point yet, but the option clearly merits consideration.
"When I seriously look at this club, does it have a chance to win? Yeah," said John Hart, the team's president of baseball operations. "But we have a gaping hole. We are in a division that's pitching rich, and right now we are pitching poor."
Evan Gattis' name has also made the rounds in trade speculation, although the Atlanta people insist he's not being pushed as vigorously as reports would suggest. B.J. Upton is the one player the Braves really, truly want to move, and his contract and performance make him virtually untradeable.
4. It's lonely on the Panda watch
Giants general manager Brian Sabean might make it to Cooperstown one day for his vision and his roster-building skills.
But he's not a fan of dealing with agents or courting the media, so he has increasingly left those duties in the hands of Bobby Evans, his longtime and trusted assistant.
When Evans showed up for a daily general managers media briefing in Phoenix, it was odd how little attention he attracted. While Sandy Alderson, Brian Cashman and other executives entertained crowds of reporters, Evans stood in the center of the hotel ballroom and answered questions in relative solitude.
The Giants' big-ticket item, obviously, is re-signing third baseman Pablo Sandoval, and things haven't proceeded as quickly as San Francisco fans might prefer. Sandoval's weight and conditioning issues are a concern for potential suitors, and his regular-season numbers have declined over the past two to three years, so his market might not be in sync with his expectations for a lucrative contract. But the Giants are trying to give him his space, even though they need to get his situation resolved and move on to addressing other needs.
"Obviously, we have to conduct other business," Evans said. "But we want to give them their time. It's hard to do a negotiation without him knowing what else he has to explore."
Evans' calm demeanor reflects the Giants' methodical, panic-free approach to doing business. He half-jokingly acknowledged that the Sandoval signing has financial and public-relations ramifications beyond the Kung Fu Panda's impact between the lines.
"The Dugout Store wants to know what's going to happen, because they have to figure out whether to put the Panda hats on sale or not," Evans said.
5. Jon Lester now, Max Scherzer later
Jon Lester, one of the top two starters on the market, has at least two ready-made suitors in Boston and the Cubs. His agents, the Levinson brothers, tend to operate below the radar and have shown a willingness to negotiate deals quickly if their clients' wishes and the planets align properly.
"They're not looking to break records," said one industry observer.
In contrast, Max Scherzer's agent, Scott Boras, spent much of a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the media this week pontificating on the state of the industry and advocating for a neutral site World Series that would help turn the Fall Classic from a regional to a national event.
Amid those big-picture proclamations, Boras pointed out that Scherzer ranks on an elite level with Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez when it comes to SIERA and other more advanced metrics. He has a binder and a whole lot of numbers in his head to prove it.
"When you talk about pitchers, Max Scherzer has never been on the DL," Boras told reporters at the Biltmore. "You have a rare guy here. He's a No. 1 pitcher. He's really that good. There aren't many of them. Every World Series winner the past 11 years has had a No. 1 starter with a WAR of around 3.6. So when you're looking at that, the question is, does the ownership want to win? It's the difference between a good team and a World Series team."
Translation: Don't expect things to move quickly with Scherzer. Boras' intended audience is team ownership -- not the general manager. Barring a surprise, he will most likely be giving a similar update on his star client at the winter meetings in San Diego.