Josh Hamilton's free agent status is the biggest story of the offseason.
Breaking down the five most important questions of the 2013 MLB offseason is a subjective task. Depending on your perspective, there are tons of burning questions to look forward to getting answered.
In my opinion, the five most burning questions this offseason are where Josh Hamilton will sign, how the rest of the free-agent outfield market will play out, how the outfield trade market will unfold, how Zack Greinke and the free-agent starting pitching market will shake out and what the Tampa Bay Rays are going to do with their surplus of starting pitching.
If you are a team in need of outfield help, this is a great winter to be shopping. However, if you are a team in need of infield help, the cupboard is extremely bare.
The starting pitching market lacks a true ace behind Greinke, but there is good depth that includes mid-rotation starters such as Anibal Sanchez, Hiroki Kuroda, Ryan Dempster, Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren, Shaun Marcum, Edwin Jackson, Jeremy Guthrie and Carlos Villanueva.
Let's take a deeper look at each of the aforementioned burning questions.
On first glance, Josh Hamilton's desire for a seven-year, $175 million contract appears ludicrous.
However, two years ago Jayson Werth received a seven-year, $126 million contract, and Carl Crawford received a seven-year, $142 million contract, putting Hamilton's contract desires into a more reasonable perspective, especially when you factor in inflation.
Hamilton comes with more risk given his recent injury history and his past struggles with substance abuse. He has averaged only 134 games played over the past three seasons due to an assortment of injuries.
However, he also comes with more talent. He's had a slash line of .313/.370/.583 with an average of 33 home runs over the past three seasons with Texas, helping to carry them to three-straight playoff appearances and two AL pennants. The 2010 AL MVP has made five All-Star teams in his career, and he was able to play in 148 games last season.
Jerry Crasnick of ESPN surveyed a number of executives around the league about Hamilton's likely destination spot, and the Milwaukee Brewers were seen as his most likely landing spot due to his past relationship with Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron. The Rangers, Giants, Phillies, Orioles, Royals and Mariners also received votes.
If Hamilton didn't come with so much risk, he would probably receive the contract offer that he wants. However, given his age, injury history and past struggles with addiction, my guess is that he'll have to lower the length of his contract demands.
If he does that, the Brewers would make a lot of sense given that their lineup is in need of left-handed pop to balance out their right-handed leaning roster. The small-market Brewers are going to have a hard time affording Hamilton at any cost, but if he's willing to trade money for comfort, that would be quite a match.
Who needs pitching when you can run out a lineup that includes excellent hitters in Hamilton, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, Jonathan Lucroy, Rickie Weeks and Norichika Aoki?
If a team in need of outfield help misses out on Hamilton, that's no matter because the outfield market is very deep this winter.
It's a great year to be looking for free-agent outfield help even after Hamilton comes off the market. Here are some other very good options:
Melky Cabrera (.906 OPS)
Ryan Ludwick (.877 OPS)
Nick Swisher (.837 OPS)
Torii Hunter (.817 OPS)
Cody Ross (.807 OPS)
Angel Pagan (.778 OPS)
B.J. Upton (.752 OPS)
Michael Bourn (.739 OPS)
Shane Victorino (.704 OPS)
Ichiro Suzuki (.696 OPS)
With so many good options available, it's possible that the teams willing to wait out the market can get one of these players on a bargain contract.
Even though teams have more money to play with from lucrative new cable contracts, that doesn't mean they necessarily have to spend it by overpaying for free agents. Agents know teams are flush with cash, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to get teams to be looser with their purse strings.
In fact, thus far in free agency we have not seen an increase in inflation.
David Ortiz signed a reasonable two-year, $26 million contract to stay with the Red Sox, Joel Peralta signed a two-year, $6 million contract to stay with the Rays and Hisashi Iwakuma signed a two-year, $14 million deal to remain with the Mariners.
The Dodgers overpaid to keep Brandon League, but the Dodgers overpay for everything these days.
It's early, but the trends thus far don't point towards run-away inflation this winter.
If the free-agent outfield market does prove to be too expensive for some teams, they still might be in luck because there are several good outfielders who could be available in trades.
B.J. Upton is on the move in free agency, and his younger brother Justin is rumored to be on the trading block again (h/t Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports).
The younger Upton is only 25 years old and under contract for three more seasons at a reasonable price tag through the prime of his career. He's been inconsistent, but like his older brother, he's a five-tool player with MVP potential if he can put it all together.
If the cost in terms of prospects is too high for Upton, Jacoby Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client one year away from free agency, so the Red Sox aren't likely to ask for quite as much in return for his services.
Ellsbury put it all together with an MVP-caliber year in 2011, only to struggle through another injury-plagued season last year. He played in just 18 games three years ago and just 74 last year, and he's only hit more than 10 home runs once in his career when he blasted 32 two years ago.
That number looks like a fluke now, but the 29-year-old Ellsbury can still be a huge weapon, assuming he can stay healthy for a full season again.
Upton, Ellsbury, Span, Soriano and Choo offer robust alternatives to the free-agent outfielders via the trade market. While the trade route is often cheaper in terms of dollars and cents, it's more costly in terms of the prospects or major league players going the other way to consummate the trade.
Given that Choo and Ellsbury are both Boras clients in the last year of their contracts, the odds of them being moved would seem to be high, or else the Red Sox and Indians will risk losing them in free agency next winter.
The Diamondbacks have dangled Upton before, but this time around they appear to be more determined to finally pull the trigger, according to Rosenthal.
According to John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus, Greinke reportedly is seeking a six-year, $150 million contract, and because he's the only front-line starter on the market, he seems likely to be able to command that type of deal.
Matt Cain and Cole Hamels were the other aces headed to the market this winter, but they both inked contract extensions to remain with their current teams rather than test the market.
The Angels traded Ervin Santana and declined their option on Dan Haren already this winter, making their need to retain Greinke all the more acute.
The Dodgers seem to have an endless pile of cash, and with Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw coming off of injury, they also have the need for more starting pitching depth. The Rangers could also be a player for Greinke if they decide not to retain Hamilton.
Behind Greinke there are plenty of mid-rotation options, but no other true aces.
Anibal Sanchez is probably the second-best option behind Greinke, but Sanchez is more of a solid No. 2 starter than a true ace. He also battled recurring shoulder problems earlier in his career, though he's pitched at least 195 innings for three-straight seasons.
McCarthy, Marcum and Haren are coming off of injury-plagued seasons while Kuroda, Guthrie and Dempster are older pitchers that represent short-term solutions. Jackson and Francisco Liriano have always had ace stuff but have produced fourth-starter results more often than not.
If you're looking for fifth-starter fodder, Joe Blanton doesn't walk anyone, but he's too prone to the long ball. Villanueva, Jeff Francis, Kevin Correia, Roy Oswalt and Joe Saunders are all decent options along with Blanton at the back of a rotation.
The trade market for starting pitching isn't as clear cut as the outfield market at this point, but the Tampa Bay Rays are a good place to start if a team wants to try to trade for starting pitching.
The Tampa Bay Rays have an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation.
While most teams struggle to find even four viable starters, the Rays are blessed with David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jeff Niemann. Wade Davis would be good enough to start for most teams, but he's relegated to middle relief for the pitching-rich Rays.
Unfortunately, the Rays don't have the same depth of talent in their lineup. Other than Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce, they don't have much offensive firepower.
If their financial situation was better, they could just sign a few free agents to boost their offense. Alas, the Rays payroll has been stuck in the $42-72 million range over the past four seasons because of their ongoing stadium and revenue issues.
The Rays exercised their $10.25 million option on Shields already, but that doesn't preclude them from trading him for offensive support. However, they hold an affordable $12 million option on him for next season, making a trade less urgent.
Unlike Shields and Moore, Price and Hellickson didn't sign club-friendly contracts with the Rays.
Price is starting to get more expensive through arbitration. He made $4.35 million in his first season of arbitration last season, and MLB Trade Rumors estimates that he'll make $9.5 million next year. The Rays control him for three more seasons, but he's starting to become too expensive for their meager budget.
Hellickson is under team control this season, but he'll start to get more expensive through arbitration beginning in 2014. According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, Hellickson and Shields are drawing the most trade interest right now.
The Rays went through arbitration one time with Matt Garza before dealing him to the Cubs for prospects. If that history is any guide, Price is a strong candidate to be moved this winter, and Hellickson could be on the move next winter as the Rays attempt to reload.
It would be ideal for the Rays to be able to hold onto their surplus of pitching and supplement the offense through free agency, but they just don't appear to have the finances for that strategy.
The MLB General Manager Meetings began Wednesday, so many of these burning questions will start to come into focus soon. For now, the best we can do is lay out all of the pressing issues and make an educated guess as to how it will all shake out this winter.