As we sit here in early September with the home stretch of the 2012 season about to get underway in earnest, it's never too early to look ahead to the months ahead when the free agent frenzy gets underway.
While some of the biggest names expected to be available have already been locked up, including Matt Cain, Andre Ethier and Cole Hamels, there are still a plethora of intriguing possibilities for each of the 30 teams as they look to re-tool their squads for the 2013 season.
Of course, there is only a limited number of players who will be available as the cream of the crop, and each of them is sure to have multiple suitors. You'll see some players mentioned as the top target of a number of teams in the pages that follow.
Keep in mind that much of this is speculation, for as much as we'd love to know exactly what every general manager has in mind, none of them are willing to come out and say definitively "my goal is to sign Player X away from another team."
Then again, perhaps some of them have said more than they realize with comments they've made over the course of the season.
Let's take a look at what player each team hopes to have sign on the dotted line in time for spring training next year.
Shortly after trading Stephen Drew to the A's for a player who barely qualifies as a prospect, Diamondbacks' GM Kevin Towers gave the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro a possible preview of what is to come:
We've been thinking about (next year's shortstop) all year already. There's not a lot on the free-agent market, so more than likely it's going to take a trade. We'll probably have to trade a good player -- or a couple of good players -- to find one.
Since we are speculating here, let's try and read between the lines.
If you ask me, this sounds like another Trevor Cahill deal in the making, and we all know that hasn't exactly gone as planned. Except substitute Cahill for Toronto's Yunel Escobar, and substitute Jarrod Parker for either Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Wade Miley or Pat Corbin.
While Escobar is a fine shortstop, he's just not worth giving up any of those young arms to acquire, especially when there is a solid option available via free agency.
Marco Scutaro, who turns 37 in October is still a solid all-around infielder who can play multiple positions, including shortstop. Splitting time between the Rockies and Giants this season, he's batted .282 with six home runs, 50 RBI and a .713 OPS.
It might take a two-year deal to lock him up, but doing so won't cost nearly as much as moving quality young pieces would.
Back in spring training, Braves' GM Frank Wren made it very clear to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where the Braves stood on center fielder Michael Bourn and his impending free agency:
Our basic philosophy is we have expressed that we would like to retain Michael and then, from there, we go silent. When we approach him, before or after the season, those are things we prefer not to talk about.
He is a guy that we like on our team. We think he fits really well. We like everything about him. We think his makeup is great. Good teammate. He works hard. He plays the game well. So, he is the perfect fit for us so our desire is that he stays with us beyond this year.
Bourn, who is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, is undoubtedly going to be looking for a big payday, perhaps far larger than what Vivlamore's colleague, David O'Brien believes:
— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) June 1, 2012
Considering that Bourn is likely to have multiple suitors, the bidding could get out-of-hand quickly, forcing Wren to switch gears.
Even if top prospect Dylan Bundy figures into the Orioles plans in 2013, the team still needs to add a front-of-the-rotation starter to the mix.
Zack Greinke fits that description.
Baltimore looked into acquiring Greinke (h/t Baltimore Sun) before the non-waiver trade deadline this year and it stands to reason that they'd have significant interest in bringing him on board following the season as well.
Even with his struggles as a member of the Angels, Greinke figures to be the most sought after starting pitcher on the market this winter.
Orioles' owner Peter Angelos has pockets deep enough to compete with any offer that the soon-to-be 29-year-old may receive, and Baltimore might be just the type of market that Greinke is looking for—and that he can thrive in, with a club that is already a contender.
I don't see the Red Sox touching Josh Hamilton with a 10-foot-pole. For as talented and great a player as Hamilton is, he brings significant baggage along with him, and that's exactly what Boston doesn't need after two years of dysfunction in the clubhouse.
What the Red Sox need is a productive player who isn't a good presence in the clubhouse, but someone who is an extraordinary presence in the clubhouse—and it' would help if he's still a highly productive player as well.
That player is expected to be available, and his name is Nick Swisher.
Having shed more than $200 million in future payroll from their books, the Red Sox are in position to spend big to bring in the pieces that they need. Whether they plug Swisher in right field, at first base or a combination of the two, his addition would do wonders in helping to change the culture around the team.
Lest we forget the icing on the cake—signing Swisher takes him away from the Yankees.
With the Cubs still a few years away from contending, this winter is about continuing to add quality pieces to the mix. While they have a number of areas that they could address, none is more pressing than the starting rotation.
In 29-year-old Brandon McCarthy, the Cubs would have another front-of-the-rotation arm to pair with Matt Garza, and an eventual replacement for Garza should they decide to trade him.
A rotation that starts off with Garza, McCarthy and Jeff Samardzija would be a solid foundation for them to build upon.
Can the White Sox afford to not make re-signing A.J. Pierzynski a top priority this winter?
The answer, of course, is a resounding no.
He's already set a new career best with 24 home runs and he's well on his way to setting new career bests in RBI and total bases as well.
But Pierzynski's importance to the White Sox goes way beyond his contribution with the bat.
One of the smartest players in the game, he knows the White Sox' pitching staff inside and out—and if you don't think that he's played a big part in the success of Jose Quintana and Chris Sale along with the resurgence of Jake Peavy, well, you're kidding yourself.
While Tyler Flowers may very well be the heir apparent once A.J. moves on, he's not given anyone in the organization reason to believe that the time for the torch to be passed has arrived.
The closer we got to the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July, the louder the chatter coming from the rumor mill got about the Reds trying to acquire Twins' center fielder Denard Span.
While Billy Hamilton very well could be the Reds' leadoff hitter in 2012, that does nothing to solve their issues in center field.
Unless Drew Stubbs can suddenly show that he can perform on a consistent basis, there's a good chance that the Reds will be investigating their options to upgrade the position this winter.
Michael Bourn is most definitely someone that the Reds will have their eye on once the free agent market opens for business.
There's no question that the Indians have work to do this winter, work that includes finding a solution for the gaping hole at first base and adding a right-handed bat to the heart of the lineup—two issues that could conceivably be filled in one move.
But with a combined 5.26 ERA from their starting pitchers, fixing the rotation has to be the top priority on GM Chris Antonetti's to-do list.
Atop that list should sit one name—Zack Greinke.
Aside from a lineup with some quality young players in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, the Indians can offer something that no big-market club can offer: a small-market, just as he enjoyed in Kansas City and Milwaukee.
Having previously sought help for Social Anxiety Disorder, the bright lights of a major market simply may not be the best fit for him—and the Indians are certainly not the worst small-market club in the league, so the opportunity exists to join a contender as well.
Rockies' management is an interesting bunch.
They continue to point to the improvement in their starting rotation since going with a four-man rotation after the 65th game of the season as reason to continue the practice in 2013 as well.
If their 55-77 record wasn't evidence enough that it's a failed experiment, let's take a look at the "improvement" that they're pointing to.
Over the first 65 games of the season, Rockies' starters went 13-20 with a 6.28 ERA. Since then, they've gone 11-26 with a 5.61 ERA. While there's a noticeable decline in their combined ERA, there is an overwhelming fact that the Rockies' brass is overlooking—those stats still stink.
It's not a matter of gimmicks in Colorado, it's a matter of talent—the right talent. In a ballpark that lends itself to fly balls soaring through the air with little resistance, what the Rockies need is ground-ball pitchers.
Enter Brandon McCarthy, the current 28-year-old ace of the Oakland A's and owner of a 40.6 percent ground-ball rate in 2011, a number that is no fluke. For his career, McCarthy has kept 39.8 percent of balls on the ground.
Keeping them on the ground and out of the air allows the Rockies' infielders to keep runners off base—and keeps the ball in the park, giving the Rockies a chance to win some games.
Josh Hamilton's defense leaves something to be desired, but the Tigers have shown a willingness to forgive shaky defense when the player is a significant offensive contributor.
The Tigers can definitely use a corner outfielder, and owner Mike Illitch is in win-now mode—and proven that money is no object when it comes to improving his ballclub.
Over the course of his career, Hamilton has put up huge numbers in Detroit. With a batting line of .357/.415/.586 with four home runs and 17 RBI in 82 plate appearances over 19 games, it's scary to think of what he could do when he's playing half of his games there.
Especially in a lineup that rivals what he currently has in Texas, with Austin Jackson, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera batting around him.
Since returning to the American League, Jeremy Guthrie has shown that he can still be a solid major league pitcher. In eight starts wearing Royals' blue, the 33-year-old has gone 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.
With the Astros joining the American League West in 2013 and in the midst of what will prove to be a lengthy rebuilding process, they have no visions of grandeur as it pertains to fielding a contending ball club next year—or likely the year after that.
As they continue to develop their young players, they will need a smattering of veterans to help lead the way. In Guthrie, the Astros get an innings-eater at the top of their rotation who can keep them in games, taking pressure off of their young arms such as Jarred Cosart, who will most likely break camp with the team next year.
Am I the only one who thinks this makes entirely too much sense?
The Royals have a young nucleus of offensive talent that most teams would kill to be able to put together, one with reinforcements on the way next year in Wil Myers and shortly thereafter with Bubba Starling.
What they lack is big-time pitching, and there isn't going to be a more big-time pitcher available this winter than Zack Greinke, who won the 2009 Cy Young wearing a Royals' uniform.
As far back as June, the team was telling people, including CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, that they had interest in reuniting with their one-time ace, insisting that Greinke's trade demand in 2010 was water under the bridge—and an episode that Greinke admitted to Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan that he was on the wrong side of.
It ultimately comes down to whether the Royals will shell out the money needed to obtain his services. If they are willing to do so, it's hard to see how a reunion doesn't benefit both parties.
After allowing four-or-more earned runs in each of his first four starts as a member of the Angels, Zack Greinke seems to have finally grown comfortable in his new surroundings.
Undefeated in his past two starts, Greinke has limited the Tigers and Red Sox to a combined 10 hits and three earned runs over 14.2 innings of work, striking out 12 and pitching to a 1.82 ERA, exactly the type of performance that the Angels thought that they were trading for.
Seeing as how neither Dan Haren nor Ervin Santana probably figures into the team's plans for next year and beyond, Greinke would allow them to move forward with a formidable trio of starters that would rival any in the game with Greinke, Jared Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
Angels' owner Arte Moreno has never let money serve as an obstacle before when he saw something that he wanted, and there's no reason to expect things to change this winter.
Exactly like a kid in a candy store who has daddy's wallet and no parental supervision, the Dodgers' new owners have spent money like it's going out of style, adding more than $200 million to their payroll for the foreseeable future.
Shortly after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto from the Red Sox, Dodgers' president Stan Kasten told ESPN 710 AM's Mason and Ireland that money is not an issue for the team:
There's no number in my head, but obviously there are limits. We just want to do all the things we can and we are going to try not to be dull about the things we do. We do need to rebuild this and we think the more energy and effort and resources that we dedicate to scouting and player development, the less need there will be in the future for deals like this. But for now, to get us back to where we think the Dodgers should have always been, we think we had to make moves like this.
The Dodgers tried to acquire an additional front-of-the-rotation arm to pair with Clayton Kershaw down the stretch but were unable to do so.
It would stand to reason that they'll be looking to do the same this winter, and with Greinke already having experience playing in the Los Angeles market, there'd be few surprises were to leave the Angels for the Dodgers.
When it comes to signing Adam LaRoche, the positives outweigh the negatives for the Marlins in 2013 and beyond.
The only downside that I can see would be killing any thought of putting oft-injured left fielder Logan Morrison at first base. Other than that, LaRoche would be a more productive option than incumbent Carlos Lee—and taking a piece away from their division rivals, the Nationals, is always an added bonus.
LaRoche brings with him a powerful swing to add to the middle of the lineup, one that already features slugger Giancarlo Stanton and the previously mentioned Morrison. With Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio potentially on-base in front of that trio, the Marlins could rack up runs in a hurry.
Milwaukee definitely needs to shore up their bullpen, but what good is a bullpen if the starters in front of them aren't any good?
With the emergence of Michael Fiers and Yovani Gallardo continuing to impress as one of the more underrated players in the game, the rotation is off to a good start in 2013.
Marcum, who has missed significant time with injury in 2012, has been a very solid pitcher for Milwaukee since they acquired him prior to the 2011 season, posting an 18-11 record, 3.48 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 48 starts.
With Zack Greinke out of the picture, the money that Milwaukee was prepared to pay Greinke can be put towards keeping Marcum in the fold while still leaving plenty of money to go out and acquire reinforcements to take the ball late in the game.
With a 34-63 record, 5.45 ERA and opponents hitting .296 against them, only the Colorado Rockies have gotten less production from their starting rotation than the Twins have in 2012.
Adding quality starting pitching to a team that has a more-than-capable offense has to be the first and only priority this winter for GM Terry Ryan and company.
Pairing Brandon McCarthy with the emerging Scott Diamond would give Twins' skipper Ron Gardenhire two starters that he can send out to the mound every fifth day with the knowledge that they will both give the team a chance to win, which is all a manager asks of his starting pitchers.
With ownership that is seemingly disinterested in spending anymore money on quality free agents, Mets' GM Sandy Alderson indicated last month how he sees the "big fix" coming to Flushing in 2013:
Alderson also forecasts trades being a route to improve team in offseason.
— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) August 22, 2012
Seeing no apparent free-agent feeding frenzy in their future, Alderson will look to keep the quality pieces that they have—and that includes outfielder Scott Hairston.
Hairston drew interest from other clubs prior to both the non-waiver and waiver trade deadline, with the 32-year-old being claimed on waivers but not moved, as expected.
Keeping Hairston in the fold gives manager Terry Collins a reliable veteran to plug into the lineup and a solid clubhouse presence that his younger players can look to for guidance.
You probably expected Nick Swisher to be the pick here, but for as much as the Yankees would love to keep him around, Swisher is likely to garner offers that make the club's stated desire to remain under the $189 luxury tax threshold in 2014 impossible.
With both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson both due new contracts and hefty raises following the 2013 season, Swisher will be the odd-man out.
The Yankees would probably prefer to continue going on one-year deals, and Hiroki Kuroda could be amenable to such an arrangement, though you'd think that a two-year deal—perhaps with a third option year—is what he'll ultimately be seeking.
Kuroda has been the best starting pitcher in pinstripes this year, going 12-10 with a 3.04 ERA. His won-loss record should be much more impressive, but Kuroda has fallen victim to a lack of run support from one of the most potent lineups in baseball.
Since acquiring Stephen Drew from the Diamondbacks, the A's have gone 10-1 and while Drew hasn't put up gaudy numbers by any means, their success with him in the lineup has been a welcome addition.
It's unlikely that the A's would commit $10 million to Drew knowing that they'd have to try and work out a long-term deal after next season. Declining the option and working out a multi-year deal—three years sounds about right—with him following this season makes sense for both sides.
The A's get the left-side of their infield partially fixed while Drew gets job security with the ability to garner at least one more multi-year deal following this one.
ESPN's Buster Olney wrote shortly after the Phillies cleaned house with the trades of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence that their primary target* this winter is someone they drafted back in 2003, center fielder Michael Bourn.
Without naming names, Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel stated his case for adding Bourn to the equation in a conversation with NJ.com's Bill Evans:
We used to be very productive (offensively). We had in our heyday a great small game. People didn’t realize how much smallball we did play. We had an 80-90 percent stolen base percentage. We could steal second, we could steal third. We could come home on a high-chopped ground ball.
We could get on, we could double-steal and set up our third and fourth hitters and all that. We haven’t been able to do that, because we don’t have that runner. We had two or three of those guys. We had a lot of power and we had a defensive outfield we took for granted. We had a really fast, fundamentally sound defense.
There isn't a player who will be available this winter who fits what Charlie Manuel says the team needs more than Michael Bourn.
*ESPN Insider subscription required to view the full article.
In the midst of a down season offensively for the Rangers, the expected big payday that Mike Napoli envisioned manifesting for him this winter may not show up after all.
There will be significant interest from a number of places, mind you, but the numbers Napoli sees will probably be far below his expectations coming into the season.
With 24-year-old Tony Sanchez struggling to post more than a .760 OPS in his second season in Double-A (he's since been promoted to Triple-A, where he's posted an even less-impressive .724 OPS), that's not the greatest indication of future success at the major league level for the best catching prospect in the system.
Enter Napoli, who would certainly prove to be an upgrade over Rod Barajas and allow the Pirates to keep Michael McKenry in a reserve role, which is what he's best suited for.
Napoli's ability to play first base gives the Pirates a bit of versatility on days they want to spell Garrett Jones—or feel the need to move Jones back to the outfield.
With a solid ownership group in place and a shrewd general manager in Josh Byrnes who has accumulated a solid collection of up-and-coming youngsters in the field, the Padres will have a chance to address one of their most glaring needs this coming winter.
Adding a front-of-the-rotation arm to lead the pitching staff.
Who better to do so than the last person to win a major award wearing a Padres' uniform, 2007 National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy?
The chances that the White Sox exercise their $22 million team option on Peavy's contract for 2013 are slim-to-none, meaning that the 31-year-old will hit the open market as one of the most sought-after arms available.
Peavy was very popular during his time in San Diego, and bringing him back would not only be smart business on the field, but at the gate as well.
Having spent the beginning of his career across the bay in Oakland, Nick Swisher landing with the Giants would be a homecoming of sorts for the Ohio native.
He may be a right fielder with the Yankees, but Swisher has spent time at all three outfield positions over the course of his career as well as first base. With Hunter Pence firmly entrenched in right field and the team still trying to figure out if Brandon Belt is the long-term answer at first base, that leaves only one spot for him.
Sliding Swisher into left field, replacing the ineffective combination of Gregor Blanco and Justin Christian seems like a perfect cure for what ails the Giants—and gives them options should Belt take a step backwards in 2013.
The Mariners need productive outfielders in the worst possible way, and if said outfielders have some power and can get on base with any regularity, it'd be a plus.
Enter Nick Swisher, the soon-to-be free agent right fielder from the New York Yankees.
Swisher has West Coast roots, having started his career in Oakland, and with Eric Thames best suited as a fourth outfielder, Swisher immediately upgrades the position.
His veteran presence and phenomenal clubhouse demeanor could work wonders on a young club who really lacks a veteran leader on offense.
Plus, if the Mariners bring in the fences before 2013 as Larry Stone of the Seattle Times believes that they will, that could make them even more enticing a destination for the 32-year-old Swisher, as well as other free agent bats on the market.
My original pick here was Kyle Lohse, though it's all but a foregone conclusion that he will not be back with the Cardinals in 2013.
However, with Yahoo! Sports reporting that shortstop Rafael Furcal is likely to miss most, if not all of the 2013 season now that he needs Tommy John surgery, shoring up the position will become the Cardinals' top priority.
Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma don't offer much offensively, as both are best suited as reserve players.
Drew's glove isn't terrible and he has some pop in his bat with the ability to be far more of a run producer than Furcal.
The second go-around for Carlos Peña in Tampa Bay hasn't gone exactly as planned. While the power has been there. his .191 average leaves plenty to be desired.
James Loney, thought to be no more than a non-roster invitee to someone's spring training camp next year, Loney has shown signs of life since being traded to the Red Sox.
With an opening at the position and Loney not being someone who is going to command an exorbitantly high price on the open market, he could slide into the first base spot for the Rays, allowing GM Andrew Friedman more time to investigate bolstering other spots in the lineup through trade.
It's no secret that making a long-term investment in Josh Hamilton comes with as many pitfalls as it does positives. One of the great run producers in the game today, Hamilton has a checkered past full of injury and substance abuse issues.
But there isn't a team in baseball better equipped to handle Hamilton's baggage than the Rangers, who have been aptly doing just that since 2008.
Were Hamilton to leave, how would the Rangers replace his production in the middle of their lineup? There isn't a player available who can do what Hamilton can do.
Hamilton needs the structure and familiarity that the Rangers offer. The Rangers need Hamilton's production in the middle of their lineup.
Seems like a perfect match to me.
After watching everyone in their starting rotation not named Ricky Romero be lost to injury and Romero struggle mightily, the Blue Jays need to spend their resources to bolster their starting rotation.
In a chat with Sportsnet.ca's Mike Cormack, general manager Alex Anthopoulos intimated that was the plan for this winter:
The rotation is where right now we still need to do some work, but it's a lot easier going into an off-season when you have really one area to really attack, and every trade dialogue, every free-agent dialogue, can be geared to one area rather than having 40 balls in the air and having to fill three spots in the bullpen, two spots in the rotation, two position players," he explained. "It becomes a lot to balance and you only have so many assets to trade, only so many dollars to spread around free agent-wise. I do feel like this is, collectively from our core - and I know it seems hard to say with the way we're playing right now - this is probably the best core that we've had since I've been here.
Greinke may ultimately prove to be out of the Blue Jays price range, but they'll make a hard run at adding his right arm to the equation in Toronto, where a solid rotation could find them atop what is suddenly a wide-open American League East.
Speculation has run rampant for more than a year that this winter, the Washington Nationals have only one player at the top of their wish list—Braves' center fielder Michael Bourn.
Bourn would give the Nationals the leadoff hitter that they desire while allowing them to move Bryce Harper to right field, Jayson Werth to left field and Michael Morse to first base, replacing the soon-to-be-departed Adam LaRoche.
With Bourn on-base in front of a very talented lineup, the Nationals could find themselves an even better team in 2013 than they have been in 2012.