While most of America braces through the cold of winter, groundskeepers in Arizona and Florida are busy at MLB spring training facilities, getting the baseball diamonds to be in tiptop shape. In about two weeks, pitchers and catchers will report, signaling the beginning of the 2014 season.
At this point of the MLB offseason, there are only a handful of quality free agents left. But with so little time left before Opening Day, there figures to be some late action at the negotiating table between players and clubs.
With that in mind, here's a look at some predictions for February as spring training gets set to open across the country.
Think the New York Yankees are done spending after signing Masahiro Tanaka? I don't.
After the Tanaka signing, Yanks owner Hank Steinbrenner told Ronald Blum of the Associated Press that the team's payroll could be $300 million if it weren't for MLB's revenue-sharing structure, an indication that the club could still spend even with its current player salaries that are hovering around $200 million.
The Yankees have a solid trio at the front of their rotation in CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Tanaka but don't have much depth behind No. 4 starter Ivan Nova. Adding Santana would likely cost something in the Matt Garza range (four years, $50 million), but Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com reported that the Yankees are among the interested teams in the 31-year-old righty.
Santana has been rather inconsistent throughout his career but posted solid totals in 2013 (9-10, 3.24 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 ratio in 211 inning pitched) that will likely lead to a nice contract in the near future.
All winter long, Ubaldo Jimenez has been regarded as one of the top right-handed pitchers available. Well, it's February, and he's still available, probably because he'll cost most teams a first-round draft pick to sign him after he declined a qualifying offer from the Cleveland Indians earlier this offseason.
One team that's in a unique position to sign Jimenez is the Toronto Blue Jays, which has two protected selections in the 2014 draft at No. 9 and No. 11.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently reported that the Blue Jays have "done extensive background work" on Jimenez while weighing their offseason pitching plans.
Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos has a history of making bold moves, and I think he addresses the team's rotation via free agency.
In Jimenez, the Blue Jays would get a 30-year-old with a lot of upside, as shown by his dominant post All-Star break performances in 2013 (6-5, 1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.7 K/9 ratio and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio). Jimenez would add some nice depth to Toronto's rotation along with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ.
There was a one-off rumor, reported by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times during the winter meetings, that Nelson Cruz turned down a five-year, $75 million offer from the Seattle Mariners. While those rumblings may be true, it's hard to see this type of offer being put on the table by the club and Cruz denying so many years and dollar signs.
But that's why they call it the MLB rumor mill. Jim Bowden of ESPN recently fanned the flames on the Cruz-to-Seattle talk, saying earlier this week that the Mariners were close to offering the 33-year-old outfielder a deal.
Cruz comes with question marks after being suspended 50 games last year due to the Biogenesis scandal but would bring some much-needed support to Robinson Cano and the M's lineup.
Since 2009, Cruz has posted a .272/.331/.511 slash line with 27 homers and 81 RBIs, and he would add some power to a lineup that desperately needs it after Raul Ibanez left via free agency and with Kendrys Morales still testing the market.
The market for solid-hitting shortstop Stephen Drew continues to thin out.
Earlier this week, New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told Anthony DiComo of MLB.com that the team probably won't go after Drew.
"We haven't ruled it out, but I think doing anything is unlikely," Alderson said. "I think that Stephen will always have other opportunities. We continue to monitor his situation. We're looking at other free agents that are still available, and [we're] trying to judge their status and how they might fit with us. I know there's been a lot of speculation about Drew and the Mets, but at this point, that's what it remains -- speculation."
If the door is indeed closed in New York, where Drew would have had a chance to play a major role in a revamped lineup along with David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the shortstop might as well return to Boston.
It's surprising that Drew hasn't been able to find work this season after Jhonny Peralta signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, but it appears that injury concerns have limited his options. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports recently said that there's a "pretty good chance" that Drew comes back to the Red Sox.
It would certainly fit in line with the recent trend by Boston general manager Ben Cherington to sign a veteran to a short-term deal. For Drew, he would return to the reigning champs and a place where he enjoyed good success in 2013.
The Seattle Mariners raised some eyebrows this winter when they extended a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer to Kendrys Morales. The first baseman opened more eyes when he turned down the deal in hopes of securing a multiyear contract in the same price range.
Now the prospects of that happening seem slim to none. According to a recent report from Buster Olney of ESPN.com (subscription required), Morales might have to wait until after the draft (June 5-7) to find a contract he likes, as teams will no longer have to forfeit a first-round selection to sign him.
That would be a shame, but Morales would have himself to blame.
Morales is a solid hitter at age 30 but simply hasn't been the same since his freak leg injury in 2010. In 2012-13, Morales batted a combined .275/.329/.457 with a 121 OPS+ and yearly averages of 22 HRs and 76 RBIs. Those are nice numbers but not enough to warrant such a big annual salary like Morales desires.
At the beginning of every spring training, it seems like San Francisco Giants fans and reporters are on Panda Watch. How's Pablo Sandoval looking? He fat again?
The talented third baseman has been dedicated to his conditioning throughout the offseason as he enters his contract year. During the winter meetings in December, Giants general manager Brian Sabean told Chris Haft of MLB.com that he would consider offering Sandoval an extension if he looked good in spring training.
After Sandoval's weight reportedly ballooned to more than 280 pounds last year, the third baseman shed a lot of weight while training and playing in Venezuela, though he sent two tweets denying the exact amount, as reported by Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News.
Sandoval underwent a similar transformation in 2011, and it resulted in a solid campaign. And I think he'll do it again in 2014.
Get ready to hear a bunch about Masahiro Tanaka's nasty split-finger fastball this spring.
When the New York Yankees open camp later this month, Tanaka's every move will be watched closely after he signed a seven-year, $155 million deal after dominating in Japan for several seasons.
In 2013, Tanaka raised the bar by going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Japan Series champion Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Early on in the spring training process, I'm sure we'll hear plenty from Yankees catchers and the coaching staff about Tanaka's stuff, highlighted by his splitter. Facing MLB batters during Opening Day will be a completely different challenge, but I suspect Tanaka will make a great early impression with the Yankees in Florida.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly might have to be patient before expecting any major contributions from new infielder Alexander Guerrero.
The Cuban defector signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Dodgers this winter to be the team's starting second baseman, but it appears the team might ease him in with some minor league ball to start the year. It's hard to justify paying someone that much money to play in Triple-A, but Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com reported the club is concerned about Guerrero's defense.
The 27-year-old is naturally a shortstop and admitted that the switch to second has been a challenge. Unless he makes some swift improvement in the next few weeks, don't be surprised if he's left off the Opening Day roster for the Dodgers.