Big MLB Offseason Questions Still Left Unanswered

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2014

Big MLB Offseason Questions Still Left Unanswered

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    As we reach the midpoint of the Hot Stove League, many of the questions that baseball fans and experts were asking in November remain unanswered.

    The biggest bats available in free agency have already found homes, with Carlos Beltran, Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann all finding that the grass really is greener in a new uniform.

    But the best pitchers available remain so, and the most polarizing player in the game today still faces an uncertain future.

    Here's a look at the biggest storylines in the game, roughly six weeks away from the start of spring training.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

Where Will Masahiro Tanaka Sign?

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Nobody has dominated the headlines in baseball this winter like Masahiro Tanaka, and after what seems like an eternity of waiting, an end to the saga draws near.

    The 25-year-old right-hander is in the United States with his agent, Casey Close, and has begun meeting with MLB teams. First stop: Chicago.

    A trio of executives from the Chicago White Soxexecutive vice president Kenny Williams, manager Robin Ventura and general manager Rick Hahnmet with the pair this past Thursday, per a report from ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand. Williams characterized the meeting as "exploratory."

    No fewer than a dozen teams, including the White Sox, are known to have some level of interest in the international free agent. Of that group, the New York Yankees may be the most motivated, needing Tanaka to bolster a rotation that consists of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and not much else.

    USA Today's Bob Nightengale tweeted Friday that the Los Angeles Dodgers were going to go "all-out" to sign Tanaka and would not be outbid for his services, only to soften his stance later in the day, noting Clayton Kershaw's impending free agency as a reason the team "won't spend wildly" to sign him.

    According to The San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea, Tanaka's preferred cities to play in are, to nobody's surprise, Boston, Los Angeles and New York. 

    Close and Tanaka have until 5 p.m. ET on January 24 to have completed a physical and signed a contract with a major league team. Otherwise, he becomes off-limits to MLB for another year.

What Will the Outcome of the Alex Rodriguez Saga Be?

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    At this point, A-Rod's supporters are few and far between.
    At this point, A-Rod's supporters are few and far between.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    News broke Saturday that New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez had lost his appeal of the unprecedented 211-game suspension handed down by commissioner Bud Selig and MLB, with arbitrator Frederic Horowitz reducing the ban to a full 162-game season. 

    As expected, A-Rod quickly stated his intention to bring the case into federal court, releasing a lengthy statement through spokesman Ron Berkowitz.

    Here's part of what A-Rod had to say, via CBS Sports' Mike Axisa:

    I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner, and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension.

    While the Player's Association disagrees with the ruling, the union acknowledged that the process was fair and will not have any further comment on the issue, something that A-Rod certainly doesn't agree with. 

    A-Rod plans on attending spring training—the Yankees could tell him not to report—and his legal team will likely seek a temporary injunction from a federal judge until his case can be heard, which would, technically, allow him to play in regular season (and postseason) games with the team.

    If Rodriguez fails to get an injunction, he would be suspended, and his 2014 salary, which is a prorated portion of $27.5 million (roughly $24 million) for luxury-tax purposes, would not count against the Yankees' luxury-tax bill.

    That would give the team a chance—albeit a remote one, considering the moves the Yankees still need to make—to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, a goal that principal owner Hal Steinbrenner set almost two years ago.

Will Jeff Samardzija Be Traded?

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    In a normal offseason, a 28-year-old starter with limited mileage on his arm, no significant injuries in his past and two years of team control remaining would be the most talked-about and sought-after player available.

    But this has been anything but a normal offseason, and Jeff Samardzija remains a member of the Chicago Cubs—for now, at least.

    Samardzija, who set career highs last year with 213.2 innings pitched and 214 strikeouts, has rebuffed each of the team's attempts to work out an extension to his current deal, which runs through the 2015 season. That has led to widespread speculation that he will be moved this winter.

    The Cubs' asking price is believed to be quite high, as one would expect it to be, but thanks to recent comments that Samardzija made to CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney, Chicago may be hard-pressed to get the kind of return it expects in a trade:

    It would be a very tough sign, but obviously anything’s possible. Until that happens, I can’t really speak on what would I do. The odds are very slim that I would (sign a long-term deal if I got traded). For any professional player two years out of free agency, the odds they sign a deal are pretty slim (in that situation).

    Unless the Cubs lower their asking price—or a general manager that misses out on Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka becomes desperate—the odds of Samardzija starting the season in Chicago's rotation are likely as high as they've been at any point so far this winter.

Which of the 'Big Three' Signs First?

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Call them what you will—"The Big Three," "The Three Amigos," "Tres Lanzadores"—it doesn't change that Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, the best pitchers with MLB experience left on the free-agent market, are still waiting for that market to develop.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that teams are waiting to see where Masahiro Tanaka winds up. Another issue is that two of the three—Jimenez and Santana—will cost teams a first-round draft pick to sign, having been extended qualifying offers by their old teams.

    But really, the biggest issue may be trying to figure out which one offers a team the best chance to win in 2014 and beyond. Statistically speaking, there's little difference between them:

    "The Big Three's" 2013 Stats

    NameAgeGSW-LERAWHIPIPH/9BB/9K/9
    Matt Garza 302410-63.821.24155.18.72.47.9
    Ubaldo Jimenez 293213-93.301.33182.28.03.99.6
    Ervin Santana 31329-10 3.241.142118.12.26.9

    Whether it be inconsistency or injury, all three carry significant questions that, quite frankly, some teams would rather not find out the answers to firsthand. If I were a GM faced with the prospect of signing one of the three, Garza would be my first choice for two reasons.

    First, he knows how to keep the ball on the ground, with a career 41.2 percent groundball rate, according to Fangraphs. More importantly, he won't cost a team a draft pick, an asset that has become increasingly valuable as player salaries continue to climb.

    For those reasons, it would be surprising if Garza wasn't the first of the three to find a new team, with Jimenez and Santana following suit shortly afterwards.

When Will Tampa Bay Trade David Price?

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    It's not a question of if, but when, the Tampa Bay Rays will trade 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price.

    The 28-year-old left-hander struggled through an injury-filled first half of the 2013 season, but returned as strong as ever, pitching to a 2.87 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 15 second-half starts. Since he's under team control through the 2015 season, the fiscally-strapped franchise simply can't afford to sign him to a long-term deal.

    As it is, the $13.1 million salary that Price is expected to receive in arbitration this winter—roughly a $3 million raise from his 2013 salary—will account for more than a sixth of Tampa Bay's total payroll.

    Last month, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported that the Rays were unimpressed with the offers that they've received and, for the first time, were talking about holding onto Price for the entire 2014 season.

    The team's asking price is very high, as you'd expect.

    Tampa Bay asked the Cleveland Indians for catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana, right-handed pitcher Danny Salazar and shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor, among others, according to The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto.

    The Toronto Blue Jays were asked about right-handed pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, reported Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal.

    Seattle has the pieces it would take to land Price, but the team's reluctance to include pitching prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker in a potential deal—along with Price's agent, Bo McKinnis, stating that his client wouldn't sign an extension with the Mariners—make a deal highly unlikely.

    That said, Price is one of the premier starting pitchers in baseball, going 71-39 with a 3.19 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 3.06 K/BB ratio in parts of six seasons. While his value will never be higher than it is right now, the Rays are guaranteed to land a tremendous package of talent when they do decide to pull the trigger on a deal.

    After the aforementioned Masahiro Tanaka and "The Big Three" sign, it wouldn't be surprising to see the trade winds circling Price pick up speed, as teams who miss out on one of the four free-agent pitchers could be motivated to meet Tampa Bay's asking price.

Will Clayton Kershaw Sign an Extension with the Dodgers?

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    He's the best pitcher on the planet—he has been for three years—and teams are drooling over the prospect of Clayton Kershaw hitting free agency after the 2014 season.

    Since 2011, only six pitchers have made at least 55 starts and posted an ERA below 3.00. None of them come close to equaling Kershaw's greatness (via Baseball-Reference's Play Index):

    Pitcher (GS)W-LERAWHIPIPH/9BB/9K/9
    Kershaw (99)51-232.210.97697.06.62.29.2
    Johnny Cueto (68)33-162.611.13433.27.82.46.7
    Jered Weaver (87)49-212.771.05578.27.32.17.1
    Cliff Lee (93)37-252.801.05666.18.11.49.0
    Justin Verlander (101)54-252.811.09707.27.42.49.0
    Stephen Strasburg (63)24-162.971.07366.17.12.610.1

    There's no question that, should he reach the open market, teams will line up to hand him a blank check to bring him aboard.

    The Dodgers have tried to sign Kershaw to an extension before, with ESPN's Buster Olney reporting that the team offered him a deal in the neighborhood of $300 million back in October, but obviously, no agreement was reached.

    The scary thing is that Kershaw, 25, has yet to hit the prime of his career. He could be even better going forward, and that fact certainly isn't lost on the Dodgers, who also have to work out an extension with shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

    While the odds are overwhelmingly in the Dodgers' favor, with both All-Stars remaining in Los Angeles, look for them to pick up some insurance in the form of Masahiro Tanaka.

    Not only would Tanaka bolster their 2014 rotation, but he would ensure that the Dodgers would still have a "Big Three" (Tanaka, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu) atop the rotation should the unthinkable happen and Kershaw becomes a free agent after the season.