Winter meetings shopping guide: Let's make a deal in D.C.

With a weak free-agent class, GMs across baseball will be eyeing star-studded swaps next week, which could mean a frenzy of trades in our nation's capital. And there are big names on the shelves. Tom Williams/Getty Images

So now that we've got that pesky little labor snafu out of the way, let baseball's real offseason fun begin. And by that, of course, we mean:

Bring on the winter meetings!

They will come roaring at us from the shores of the Potomac River. And when you consider all the offseason activity that got shoved in the back of the freezer as teams awaited further developments on the labor front, these meetings have a chance to be crazy.

"If you want a prediction, I would expect a lot of action," one AL executive said. "I think there's a lot of stuff out there that people have arranged and want to do and have had a lot of substantive talks about. And they were left like, 'Once we know all the rules [in the labor deal], let's get moving on this.'"

OK, so what happens now that those folks finally know all the rules -- or know most of them, anyway? Let the transactions begin. That's what.

First off, there are many, many free agents left to sign, in a world in which 19 of Keith Law's top 23 free agents remain on the board. And some of them -- say, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Beltran and Rich Hill, to name three -- could go quickly.

But what really will make these winter meetings an awesome Rumor Central attraction is that, for once, those free agents aren't going to be headliners in this show. It's going to be a week in which a bunch of five-star, bright-lights players are going to turn up in, like, a dozen trade rumors a day -- because, as long as they're not a closer or a first baseman/DH, they're potentially much bigger difference-makers than anyone on the free-agent market.

"It's one of the worst free-agent groups I can remember," said one longtime NL exec. "So I think people are saying, 'Let's go make a trade.'"

And if that's what they're saying, it could be one action-packed week. So if anyone needs help out there as they steer their shopping cart through the aisles, we're here to offer our "expert" assistance -- by presenting this handy-dandy buyer's guide to the winter meetings:

Starting pitching

The good news: There are three dozen available free-agent starters. The bad news: Exactly one of them is coming off a season in which he worked more than 100 innings, had an ERA under 3.70 and had an ERA+ more than 23 percent above the league average. That would be Rich Hill, naturally. And even though he'll turn 37 next March, Hill is poised to sign the contract of a lifetime. (Our prediction: He goes back to the Dodgers.)

So for teams looking for top-of-the-rotation arms, the only real route is the Trade Rumor section of this market. And luckily for them, there are some intriguing starters on those shelves.

Chris Sale: We're hearing the same grumbling about the White Sox's price tag this winter as we heard last July. One exec described them as asking for "the Shelby Miller deal," plus at least two additional pieces. Which means every club's offer needs to start with its No. 1 prospect and then pile on from there. So why, you ask, would any team pay that?

They might not, to be honest. But deals like this normally are easier to make in December than July. And the White Sox seem more motivated to move Sale than they were at the deadline -- with strong interest from teams like the Red Sox, Nationals, Braves and Rangers, all of whom could potentially match up.

"I think the price is going to come down ... and I think they're going to move him," said one NL exec. "In fact, I'd be surprised if they don't."

Justin Verlander: This is going to be a tough one. Verlander will be 34 next season. He's guaranteed $28 million in each of the next three seasons. And he has full trade-veto rights. Beyond that, the new luxury-tax thresholds and penalties may have eliminated a couple of his most likely destinations (namely, Boston and L.A.) -- especially when you factor in that the Tigers have shown no interest in eating any of his salary.

But the new labor deal also has heightened the pressure on Verlander's team to cut payroll to stay under the tax threshold. And while the Tigers aren't interested in a strict money dump, they're asking for quality, but not quantity, in the package they would want back.

"Is there a deal to be made there? I think there is," said one AL exec. "I think it comes down to this: Do you want to give up five or six prospects for Chris Sale? Or would you rather give up two or three prospects for Justin Verlander?"

Chris Archer: We've speculated about how the labor deal could affect the buyers. But how about the sellers? Put yourself in the shoes of the Rays -- a team that now knows definitively it has almost no chance of getting a first-round pick as compensation if it lets one of its veteran players get all the way to free agency. So this figures to be a club more motivated than ever to trade at least one of its starters, and maybe more than one.

Archer -- who is under control for five more years (for just $39 million total) -- is the star attraction in that group. And the Rays haven't quite said, "Hell no," when teams ask about him. But other clubs are convinced they're much more likely to move one or two starters who are closer to free agency. So that probably means Alex Cobb, who has one year of control left, or Drew Smyly, who has two years remaining. And Jake Odorizzi (a free agent after three more years) is another option.

"That's their M.O., to move guys as they get close to free agency," said one longtime exec. "Everyone will call on Archer. I just don't see their motivation to move him now. But with their other guys, they've got to see what they can get before they walk out the door."

Back of the bullpen

Looking for a closer? You'll need to keep your checkbook handy. Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon have an excellent chance to reel in $200 million in guaranteed money among them. And if you want to get a feel for what that means, how about this: Mariano Rivera made "only" $169.4 million over his entire career.

A quick look at those three:

Aroldis Chapman: Multiple sources say he'd love to go back to the Bronx. And the Yankees have let him know they want him back. But if he's waiting for them to throw 100 million bucks at his feet, he could have a long wait, particularly now that the labor deal has applied renewed pressure on the Yankees to keep their payroll under control. The Dodgers and Giants both have interest, but he doesn't seem to be either team's first choice. So this could turn into a waiting game.

Kenley Jansen: Because he's the only closer in this group with a qualifying offer weighing him down, there is more reason than ever for Jansen to return to L.A. But watch out for the Marlins. Their manager, Don Mattingly, managed him in Chavez Ravine and is pushing hard for him. And their owner, Jeffrey Loria, is said by agents to be mulling whether to sign off on a huge offer for him.

Mark Melancon: The Giants feel like a perfect fit. But the Nationals would love to bring him back. The Marlins have kicked the tires. And Melancon could end up with so many good choices, he could easily wind up with one of the biggest deals by any closer in history.

"I think all three of these guys wind up at $15-16-17-18 million a year for five years," said one NL exec. "It's obvious with Chapman and Jansen. But I don't think Melancon deserves [a whole lot less]. You're talking about [131] saves over the last three years and extraordinary makeup. I'd put as much faith in bringing him in as any of these guys."

The bat market

If you're shopping for a first baseman/DH kind of bat, this free-agent market works for you. But beyond that, the supply of impact hitters drops off precipitously. So let's just say the trade market for bats is alive and well. With names like these ...

Andrew McCutchen: He has been the face of the Pirates' franchise. But that sure feels as if it's about to change. And based on all the chatter between the Pirates and Nationals on Thursday, it could change as soon as the next 24 hours. So who knows if McCutchen is still in play when the Pittsburgh delegation pulls into the winter meetings.

"They're actively trying to move that contract," said one NL exec. "And they're actively trying to move him. They're ready to put Starling Marte in center field and move on."

Ryan Braun: The Dodgers have gone out of their way to tell other teams they were never as close as advertised to trading Yasiel Puig for Braun last August, even though no one has denied that swap was discussed. So L.A. may not be as logical a fit for this man as many people assume. Nevertheless, he couldn't possibly be more available. And even with some of the baggage Braun carries and the four years and $76 million left on his contract, he's as productive an offensive player as anyone you can trade for this winter

"I honestly don't know why he wouldn't get traded," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "If people really watched him play this year, I'd think they should be lining up to take a run at that guy."

We haven't heard a single decent rumor about Braun all winter. But you know the great thing about the winter meetings? We can just about guarantee that will change next week.

Miguel Cabrera: Hey, we bet Miggy's name got your attention. But this just in: There's about as good a chance of Ty Cobb getting traded as there is of Miguel Cabrera getting traded. Asked what the Tigers would want back, one exec we surveyed replied: "Let's put it this way. If it happens, it would have to be a historic deal."

Another exec said he believes the Tigers have to trade two players in the next few weeks to get younger and slash payroll. The most obvious is J.D. Martinez. His prediction on the other: Ian Kinsler. But bear in mind the Tigers have told everyone when the smoke clears, they still expect to contend next year. So they're interested only in baseball deals, not zapping dollars. Which makes them one of the most intriguing teams to watch next week.

Todd Frazier: The White Sox have told teams they would talk about a long list of their position players -- including Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Brett Lawrie and Melky Cabrera. But in an offseason in which the third-base free-agent market basically consists of only Justin Turner and Luis Valbuena, keep Frazier in mind. He's just a year away from free agency. MLB Trade Rumors projects he'll earn $13.5 million in arbitration. And the White Sox are hoping his effervescent personality and 40 home runs will make him more marketable than your average .225 hitter might ordinarily be.

"If you asked me to name the one guy in their lineup I think they'll trade, I'd guess Frazier," said an AL exec. "I think of all of them, they'd prefer to move him."

But you know the best part about the winter meetings? When you get all 30 teams assembled in one zip code, almost anything is possible. And that's especially true in an offseason that is going to place a bigger premium on creativity than check-writing.

So fasten those seat belts. Place your seat backs in the upright and locked position. We can't predict everyone who is about to get traded, but we feel safe in making this bold prediction: It's going to be one entertaining week.