The opening month of the MLB offseason is much like the April-May portion of the regular season—a hectic period during which it's difficult to determine what's real.
Not all top rumors are equally credible. We'll use this article to rank the top 20 based on the probability that they'll hold true.
Past behavior of particular teams and players was an important consideration, as was the information that we have about their roster composition and payroll flexibility.
At this early stage of the winter, nothing is imminent and nothing is far-fetched.
Skimming through this Chicago Tribune article makes it seem as if Jerry Reinsdorf is welcoming Paul Konerko back to the Chicago White Sox with open arms:
It’s truly Paul’s option He’s earned the right to come back if he wants to come back. He’s been the most popular player in the last 15 years that we’ve had. He’s only had a handful of at-bats in a Cincinnati uniform, so he’s basically a White Sox lifer. He’s a terrific teammate. He’s our captain. He just has to make a decision whether he wants to come back or not.
Of course, this statement dances around the fact that the White Sox have replaced Konerko at first base with Jose Dariel Abreu and that he would need to accept a substantial pay cut from the $13.5 million he earned in 2013.
The longtime captain was absolutely horrible last season, finishing with a .669 OPS (his worst since arriving in Chicago) while killing rallies with his slow baserunning. Despite what Reinsdorf says, Konerko isn't in control of this situation.
As the New York Post's Ken Davidoff and Dan Martin reported, there was a secret meeting held between the New York Mets' big shots and Robinson Cano's representatives.
But that doesn't mean this winter's top free agent has any desire to play for the Mets or any expectation that they would deviate from their rebuilding plan and spend hundreds of million of dollars on him.
Jay-Z simply wanted to spark a bidding war—or at least the illusion of a bidding war. Nobody really fell for it, though.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson reiterated that he's reluctant to over-commit to any one free agent, per ESPN New York's Adam Rubin.
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball agree that the existing posting system for international players doesn't meet their needs, so they've been renegotiating.
Then, according to MLB COO Rob Manfred, this happened, via Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times:
We made a proposal to the Japanese. When we made that proposal, we told them it was important that they give us a timely response. Unfortunately, they’ve not been able to do that. In today’s [owners] meeting, there was discussion that will require us to go back to the Japanese and have some further conversation about the proposal that sat out there for a long time. We’ll have to go back and talk to them about where we are right now.
Thankfully, The Japan Times confirms that the talks have reopened.
The process of determining Masahiro Tanaka's major league destination cannot begin until this gets resolved, but all indications are that both sides want a quick resolution.
Jim Johnson is undoubtedly a great reliever, but for the second straight season, the right-hander's saves total is misleading.
The Baltimore Orioles closer blew nine of his 59 opportunities, resulting in a solid yet unspectacular 84.7 percent conversion rate.
Only the raw total, however, will affect his earnings as an arbitration-eligible player. A 50-save season with a sub-3.00 earned run average following a year in which he earned $6.5 million puts him in line for $10.8 million next summer, projects Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette says that the O's plan to tender him a contract anyway, per Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com. He refers to Johnson as "one of our core players."
The latter remark could be true, but rather than commit an eight-figure salary to one reliever, expect Baltimore to briefly let him reach free agency and agree on a more reasonable contract.
Ellsbury wiping his eyes; he can't believe what he's reading.
The Seattle Mariners screwed themselves over in 2013 by stockpiling power-hitting defensive liabilities. Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse sold some tickets, but their one-dimensionalness—not a real word, but just go with it—was largely to blame for the club's mediocrity.
As trustworthy as ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick often is, if this tweet is accurate, then the M's haven't learned their lesson, and that's too tragic to believe.
Crasnick links Seattle to free-agent run producers like Carlos Beltran, Jhonny Peralta and Kendrys Morales while noting that Jacoby Ellsbury is a lesser priority.
To recap, the Mariners tried desperately to acquire a young, dynamic outfielder last winter. Giancarlo Stanton wasn't for sale, unfortunately, and Justin Upton exercised his veto power on a potential trade.
Although not quite as young or easy on the payroll, Ellsbury has the potential to transform their anemic lineup while providing above-average defense. He was also born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.
Signing the 30-year-old center fielder is likely a higher priority than the organization wants to admit.
The San Francisco Giants realize that they need to be aggressive to get back into World Series contention. So far so good, as the 2012 champs have already signed Tim Hudson and reached the final stages of negotiations with reliever Javier Lopez, according to CSNBayArea.com (h/t Associated Press).
The next step requires them to fill out the starting rotation, which already includes Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Hudson.
However, Hank Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle tweets that the Giants are unwilling to resort to a long-term contract.
Free agents Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco would each substantially improve the club, but they seek deals that span at least four years.
Odds are that the Giants will loosen their wallets to obtain a member of that quartet.
The chances of the Detroit Tigers parting with Max Scherzer before he reaches free agency are extremely slim, but they shouldn't face ridicule for entertaining the possibility, as CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reports.
Retaining Scherzer through his final season of arbitration eligibility would result in roughly the same 2014 payroll as signing Joe Nathan and shifting Drew Smyly into the starting rotation. On top of that, the Tigers would get a substantial haul of prospects from the team acquiring Scherzer.
It's an idea worth contemplating, but SI.com's Joe Lemire echoes the popular sentiment.
"The Tigers should be targeting another title run in 2014," he writes, "while not worrying too much about hedging their bets toward the future."
Detroit is probably curious about Scherzer's market value but definitely not eager to make a move.
Late in the regular season, A.J. Burnett was "50-50" about whether he wanted to pitch in 2014, according to Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Two months later, his baseball future is still up in the air, per Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
All along, Burnett has insisted that he wouldn't suit up for any team besides the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's comfortable there, and with more than $120 million in career earnings, the veteran right-hander certainly doesn't need to set outrageous demands.
But in an interview with David Todd of 970 ESPN, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington makes it clear that the club simply can't afford him.
If Burnett truly has the desire to continue his MLB career, then he'll need to consider other teams with rotation vacancies and payroll flexibility (and there are a bunch of them).
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports discussed the Cincinnati Reds' offseason plans while assuming that they'd be moving forward without second baseman Brandon Phillips. An MLB executive had told him that Cincinnati would certainly trade its slick-fielding 32-year-old.
Jon Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reminds us that, "Phillips ticked off a lot of people in the organization with his behavior this year."
It's true that he whined about his contract and questioned the integrity of Reds ownership. But would the team actually fare better without him? Free agent Omar Infante will demand a comparable annual salary, and there aren't any other outstanding internal candidates who could start regularly with success in 2014.
And why sell now when Phillips' trade value has hit an all-time low? His performance lagged in each of the triple-slash categories.
To clarify, the All-Star's availability isn't in question. He's even a logical fit for the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, Jon Heyman reports.
The idea that he couldn't possibly remain in Cincinnati is absurd, however.
Power is selling well in the majors right now because few batters have been consistently translating their strength into home runs.
Jose Bautista continues to go deep frequently when healthy, and his tolerable contract guarantees $28 million over the next two seasons. No wonder Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that there's been some chatter about him changing residencies in a trade for pitching.
The Toronto Blue Jays were undone last summer by hurlers who ranked 25th among 30 teams in earned run average and 28th in average start length. In exchange for Bautista, they could expect to receive several impact pitchers.
With that said, it's unclear if Toronto has enough confidence in the rest of its offense to pull the trigger on such a blockbuster.
The firing of Dusty Baker as manager of the Cincinnati Reds put this rumor in motion.
Last spring training, he was reluctant to trust Aroldis Chapman in the starting rotation, per Jim Bowden of ESPN:
Now at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds, Baker is convinced leaving flame-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman as his closer gives him the best chance to win. Most of the players and staff think Chapman should close, too.
However, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is convinced his team is better with Chapman starting. Pitching coach Bryan Price agrees.
With Jocketty still installed as GM and Price picked as Baker's successor, Chapman need not worry about skepticism from Cincy's decision-makers. The imminent departure of durable right-hander Bronson Arroyo via free agency seemingly pushes him toward a starting gig as well.
The Brayan Pena signing is perhaps the strongest indication that a transition is coming.
The Cuban catcher formed a relationship with Chapman years ago when the latter first arrived in the U.S. Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today reports that they worked out together prior to the 2010 season. Communication is far more crucial to rotation success than it is during relief work (discussed in greater detail here). Recognizing that might have compelled the Reds to acquire a battery mate who shares Chapman's language and culture.
However, Tony Cingrani's 2013 emergence—2.77 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.08 K/9 in 18 starts—presumably puts him directly behind Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake on the depth chart. Barring a trade or serious injury, it's unclear how Chapman can crack the starting five.
Slugger Nelson Cruz is a "victim of the qualifying offer," in the eyes of ESPN Insider Buster Olney (subscription required).
Rejecting the one-year, $14.1 million from the Texas Rangers tied Cruz to draft-pick compensation. That means any of the other 29 teams would need to forfeit a 2014 pick—a first- or second-rounder, depending on their record last season—to sign him.
But as a 33-year-old one-dimensional player coming off a PED suspension, that caveat won't be easy for him to overcome.
Fortunately, his market is larger than many originally anticipated. Even the thrifty Oakland Athletics have considered Cruz, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
Their interest isn't entirely surprising.
AL West rivals like the Rangers and Seattle Mariners are in pursuit, and the A's would have to battle Cruz as many as 19 times per year if he landed with either of them. With Chris Young searching for a new home in free agency and Seth Smith looking like a borderline non-tender candidate, Oakland should have ample playing time available for an outfielder/designated hitter.
Heyman also believes that general manager Billy Beane grew fond of Cruz when he spent the 2001-2004 seasons in the club's minor league system.
Of course, the A's seldom participate in bidding wars for older free agents, and even when entering the fray, they always let go of the gas pedal too soon. Olney tweets that Oakland finished second to the San Francisco Giants in this offseason's fight for Tim Hudson, while Heyman recalls that Beane also came up short when Adrian Beltre was available several years ago.
Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston reports that the Boston Red Sox won't match the hefty, multi-year offers that Stephen Drew will inevitably receive from other teams this offseason.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington publicly refutes that, but let's consider the clues.
Top prospect Xander Bogaerts emerged as a solid offensive contributor down the stretch and into the postseason. He doesn't have a "surefire up-the-middle future," according to Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum, due to his size and lack of quick feet. But with that said, Bogaerts has the potential to rival Drew or even exceed him in overall value beginning in 2014 thanks to his talent in the batter's box, all while earning MLB's minimum salary.
Secondly, allowing Drew to sign elsewhere would earn the Red Sox a compensatory draft pick. The team would surely feel more comfortable in its pursuits of Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran—free agents who also declined qualifying offers—with the assurance that it still has an opportunity to add elite amateur talent.
The Texas Rangers are aiming for a few impact bats this winter to bolster what was arguably their worst offense of the past two decades.
Mike Napoli spent the 2011-2012 seasons with the organization, and now ESPN's Buster Olney hears from executives who are convinced that Texas will pursue him fiercely.
Of course, the Rangers won't be the only ones to beg for the beard.
The first baseman-less Colorado Rockies nearly landed Jose Dariel Abreu, according to Troy Renck of the Denver Post, by bidding $63 million. They've since made Napoli their Plan B and formally expressed interest. The Milwaukee Brewers also desperately need to upgrade on the right side of the infield after their first basemen combined for a brutal .206/.259/.370 batting line last season.
Ultimately, though, Olney's suggestion seems valid.
Napoli can maximize his playing time with Texas by occasionally serving as a designated hitter, and those half-days should be invaluable to someone with a degenerative hip condition. The Rangers also operate with a larger payroll than the Rockies and Brewers.
Since debuting for the Boston Red Sox in 2007, Jacoby Ellsbury has stolen 241 bases, tied for the most in the American League during those seven seasons. Over that same period, he ranks only behind Boston icons David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia for most games played with the Red Sox.
And the reigning world champs are prepared to let all of that walk away?
That's right, reports Nick Cafardo.
Agent Scott Boras wants to secure Ellsbury a contract exceeding Carl Crawford's seven-year, $142 million monstrosity. It remains to be seen whether any team is foolish enough to accommodate him, but Boston's self-imposed limits of five years and $100 million certainly wouldn't suffice.
Cafardo's discovery of the team's hesitancy seems legitimate.
Consider how much success the Red Sox had last offseason while settling for middle-tier free agents. Also, after extending a qualifying offer to Ellsbury (which he understandably rejected), they'll gain a 2014 draft pick if he skips town.
The highly touted Jackie Bradley Jr. won't immediately produce at the same elite level in center field, but that isn't such a big issue. The Red Sox probably recognize that they can compensate for Ellsbury's value in the aggregate by dividing their available funds among several effective role players.
Pointing to the tremendous middle infield prospects in their minor league system, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports suggests that the Texas Rangers will inevitably deal either Elvis Andrus or Ian Kinsler this offseason to address other needs.
Not so fast.
That would mean handing a starting job to Jurickson Profar at age 21, who, through the equivalent of half an MLB season, owns a weak 75 OPS+. He hasn't exactly excelled with the glove either.
On the other hand, the long-term benefits could be extraordinary. Both Jim Bowden and Jeff Passan report that the St. Louis Cardinals have shown interest in Andrus. The Rangers ought to be salivating at the idea of plucking a couple of their extraordinary young pitchers.
Suggesting that Texas will break up its longtime double-play combination is completely understandable, but predicting that it will happen within a few months cannot be done with 100 percent confidence. Andrus and Kinsler don't get prohibitively expensive until the 2015 season (combined salary jumps from $22.5 million to $31 million), so the Rangers aren't panicking right now.
Cano laughing at New York's low-ball offer.
The dollar amount that Jon Heyman has reported is astonishing at first glance, but in this case, a $150 million gap isn't totally irreconcilable.
Robinson Cano expects to receive baseball's highest salary for the next decade, while the New York Yankees want him to settle for being the top-earning middle infielder over a seven-year period.
Cano's representatives can make a legitimate argument for a contract with $30-plus million in average annual value. Their client isn't showing the same signs of decline that Albert Pujols did prior to receiving his enormous deal ($24 million per year), and he's been much more consistent and durable than Josh Hamilton, who's now earning $25 million every season.
On the other hand, the Bombers can leverage the fact that Cano desperately wants to re-sign, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. It also helps that heavy spenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies won't participate in the bidding because they have long-term answers at second base.
Perhaps the disparity is being slightly exaggerated, but the gist of this report—that these sides aren't budging—is very believable.
Miami Marlins general manager Dan Jennings went on The Front Office with Jim Bowden and insisted that "Mr. Stanton is not available."
Although Jennings' franchise is lacking in credibility, there's nothing actually compelling Miami to shop him.
Three months after letting the world know how mad he was about the Mark Buehrle/Josh Johnson/Jose Reyes salary dump, Giancarlo Stanton was ready to move forward, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). If there has been any additional drama between him and ownership, they've done well to keep it hidden from the media.
The Marlins roster is extremely young, but it's not ridiculous to think that the club could compete for a championship by 2016, the final year before Stanton reaches free agency.
Perhaps between now and then, the slugger's trade value will soar and motivate a contender to make an unbelievable offer. However, after posting career worsts in batting average (.249) and slugging percentage (.480) last summer while battling more injuries, Stanton isn't currently being perceived as a demi-god.
Beltran waving goodbye to old-school NL rules.
There was zero doubt that Carlos Beltran would have ample options in free agency coming off a productive regular season and playoff run.
He threw a big wrinkle into this story, however, by prioritizing contract length above all else. Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports reported that Beltran would be pushing for at least three guaranteed years on his next contract, perhaps even a fourth to carry him through age 40.
The longtime outfielder is already in steep defensive decline, and his achy knees will only accelerate that.
Mark Feinsand of the Daily News tweets that all of the teams with interest in Beltran so far hail from the American League. That's presumably because those in the Senior Circuit don't envision him making enough outfield starts over the course of a long-term contract to justify a $12-plus million annual salary. At least in the AL, he can occasionally serve as a designated hitter.
Beltran is still allowed to tweak his contract preferences to spark more universal appeal, but otherwise, it's hard to envision any NL club seriously pursuing him.
Ryan Hanigan's name doesn't carry the clout of other previously mentioned trade candidates, but whenever a player's potential departure is stated as fact, it qualifies as a "top rumor."
One week after the Cincinnati Reds inked Brayan Pena, Buster Olney sent out a convincing tweet stating that Hanigan was going to one of several interested teams.
The Reds now possess three major league catchers, but they obviously don't intend to squeeze them all on the active roster. Although Pena is less accomplished than Hanigan, he's a year-and-a-half younger and the ideal candidate to serve as Aroldis Chapman's personal battery mate.
Hanigan, meanwhile, still maintains considerable value coming off a nightmarish season at the plate. Prior to 2013, he owned a .370 career on-base percentage; plus he has quietly led the National League in caught-stealing percentage for two straight summers. A projected $2.3 million salary, per Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, makes him Cincinnati's most expensive catcher, but he's a bargain compared to those available in free agency.
The Rollins College product was identified as a trade candidate two winters ago by Ken Rosenthal and others. Nothing materialized back then, but there doesn't seem to be any obstacles capable of derailing a trade this time.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.