Albert Pujols is one of the marquis free agents available
Several superstar free agents are on the market, including Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder and Carlos Beltran. Other top hitters available include Michael Cuddyer and Jimmy Rollins.
The hot stove is not for hitters only, as free agents C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell head the crop of free-agent pitchers on the market.
In addition to free agents, teams can also use the trade route to improve their ball clubs. The San Francisco Giants have traded pitcher Jonathan Sanchez to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Melky Cabrera. This is just one of many trades we could see between now and the start of the 2012 season.
Let's take a look at some of the teams looking to make some noise in the baseball winter meetings.
Prince Fielder is a free agent and could depart Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Brewers won the NL Central and went to the playoffs. After defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round, the Brewers lost to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The key for the Brewers will be what happens with their first baseman Prince Fielder. The team offered arbitration to Fielder and he has until the end of November to accept. If they lose or trade Fielder it will leave a gaping hole in the middle of their lineup.
Fielder played in all 162 games for the Brewers in 2011 and hit .299, with 38 home runs and 120 RBI. His OBP was .415 and OPS was a whopping .929. The Brewers simply will not be able to replace him in their lineup.
NL MVP Ryan Braun also benefited greatly from hitting in front of Fielder. Braun got the protection he needed from having a big bat hitting right behind him in the order.
Braun parlayed this into his MVP season with a .332 batting average, 33 home runs, 111 RBI and even 33 stolen bases. Braun had an OBP of .397 and led the league with a .563 SLG. His OPS of .994 also led the league.
There is no way Braun will come close to that level of production without Fielder in the lineup to protect him. Milwaukee will be a one year wonder if they cannot keep Fielder or get some other impact offensive player.
I expect the Brewers to make every effort to sign Fielder. However, if they lose him, it will spell big trouble in Milwaukee.
Relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez, who was an effective set-up man for closer John Axford was also offered salary arbitration.
The Brewers are also looking for a shortstop, as they did not offer arbitration to their 2011 starter Yuniesky Betancourt. He had an okay year for Milwaukee, but his overall numbers weren't great by any means. He hit .252 with 13 home runs and 68 RBI. He also was not that strong defensively and made 21 errors this past season.
The Brewers will be active this winter, especially as they try to address the Fielder and Rodriguez contracts and also try to lock down a quality shortstop.
Matt Cain's contract expires after the 2012 season
The San Francisco Giants are a team built around their outstanding pitching staff. From top to bottom, the Giants have one of the best group of pitchers in baseball.
However, the contracts for aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are nearing expiration. Cain's contract expires at the end of the 2012 season and Lincecum is under the Giants' arbitration control only though the 2013 campaign.
Giants' GM Brian Sabean has stated that he wants to sign both Cain and Lincecum to long-term extensions. We'll see if he can do it.
In addition, the Giants also have arbitration control of closer Brian Wilson until the end of the 2013 season. Wilson could be the odd man out, if money becomes an issue.
With the Giants needing to keep their core pitching staff together, that does not leave a lot of money to acquire the big bat the Giants and their fans are coveting.
Unfortunately, the albatross contracts that Peter McGowan gave to Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand are huge hurdles for the Giants to overcome.
The Giants' ownership group has stated they do not want the 2012 payroll to exceed $130 million. When over a quarter of that amount is tied to Zito and Rowand, they have a problem. The Giants ended 2011 at about $124.5 million
Zito is owed $19 million in 2012, $20 million in 2013 and another $7 million buyout after the 2013 season. Rowand is owed $13.6 million for 2012, which is totally dead money.
This lack of financial flexibility will handcuff Sabean, in his quest to acquire the big bat the Giants need.
San Francisco has already traded enigmatic starter Jonathan Sanchez for outfielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera fills a void in center field for the Giants and also as a leadoff hitter.
However, the Giants still have three glaring weaknesses. First and foremost is an impact bat. If that was an outfielder it would be even better.
Shortstop is the next area of need, although the Giants appear resigned to giving the job to Brandon Crawford. He is an excellent fielder, but is not a competent big league hitter as of yet. He batted just .204 with a .288 OBP in 2011. A full year at the Triple-A level would benefit Crawford, but do not expect that to happen.
The Giants also could use a backup catcher to spell Buster Posey. It remains to be seen how well Posey will return from his devastating injury and as a catcher, he will need rest anyway. The Giants should be able to find a decent backup catcher for a good price, if they so choose.
I expect the Giants to kick the tires on some of the top free-agent hitters on the market. A player like Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Carlos Beltran would look good on the Giants' roster in 2012.
The Giants will also look at some of the next tier of decent hitters available, like Michael Cuddyer and Jimmy Rollins. Unfortunately, I do not think any of these players will fit into the Giants' budget.
If the Giants head into the 2012 season with an outfield of Nate Schierholtz, Melky Cabrera and Brandon Belt, that could spell trouble. There is not enough pop there and you would be banking on a major improvement from Belt, who only hit .225 last year.
The Giants will be doing a lot of talking in this year's hot stove league, but unfortunately, I don't think they'll be able to make an impact move to upgrade their offense.
Manager Bruce Bochy will be counting on Posey and Freddy Sanchez to return and be productive in 2012. He will expect another big year from Pablo Sandoval and needs a resurgence from Aubrey Huff.
Jared Weaver anchors a strong starting rotation
The Angels were led by a strong starting rotation, led by Jared Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. The three combined for 45 wins and only 30 losses.
Although the Angels will look to bolster their No. 4 and five spots in the rotation, the biggest problem for them was their lack of consistent run production. The Angels scored 667 runs last year, an average of 4.12 per game. This was tenth in the American League.
Their highest paid player, Vernon Wells was a huge disappointment in 2011. He hit just .218 with 25 home runs and 66 RBI. Wells' OBP was also dismal, at only .248. Wells is set to make $24.6 million in each of the next three seasons, so the Angels need him to produce.
One positive for the Angels is they are out from under the contracts of Scott Kazmir and Gary Matthews Jr.. The pair made roughly $25 million in 2011 and made no contribution to the Angels.
DH Bobby Abreu only hit .253 with eight home runs and 60 RBI. He is signed for $9 million this year and will need to do better.
Look for the Angels to use some of their available money to bolster their offense any way they can. Outfield, third base and catcher are three key areas where the Angels can definitely improve.
The Angels may also want to upgrade their bullpen, as they blew 25 saves last season. Closer Jordan Walden has a big-time power arm and had 32 saves, but blew 10, also. He will need to work on his command and develop a more consistent off-speed pitch to complement his fastball and curve.
Left-handed relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi were strong out of the pen, but the Angels would do well to pick up a solid right-handed pitcher for the pen.
The difficulty for the Angels is that they have committed approximately $100 million to only nine players. With several arbitration eligible players, including Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, it's likely the Angels will need to increase payroll above the $142 million they began 2011 at.
The Cardinals want Albert Pujols back
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series but this is a franchise that could be in store for several major changes. Manager Tony La Russa has already retired and the job was given to Mike Matheny, who has no prior managerial experience.
In addition, Albert Pujols could elect to depart via free agency. The Cardinals offered him salary arbitration and Pujols has until the end of the month to accept or decline. If Pujols were to leave, that would leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup.
The Cardinals also have two productive stars in Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. Both are starting to get up in age, Berkman will be 36 and Holliday 32, when the 2012 season begins.
The Cardinals acquired shortstop Rafael Furcal in the middle of the 2011 season and he gave them a boost during the Cardinals' postseason run. Furcal is a free agent and St. Louis would like to have him back, if the price is reasonable.
The key for the Cardinals however is Albert Pujols. The Cardinals will be scrambling to find a big hitting first baseman or outfielder, if Pujols departs. Their alternative will be to move Berkman over to first base and give a full-time starting job to postseason hero Allen Craig.
My gut feel is that the Cardinals will ultimately find a way to keep Pujols. He is an institution in St. Louis and it would be a shame if they were to allow him to get away. Nevertheless, if they lose Pujols it will be a long, hot summer in St. Louis.
jacoby Ellsbury emerged as a superstar in 2011
The Boston Red Sox faded down the stretch and failed to make the playoffs in 2011. The aftermath of that was that GM Theo Epstein left to join the Chicago Cubs and Terry Francona is also out as manager of the Red Sox.
The Red Sox moved quickly and hired Ben Cherington as their new GM. He has worked in the front office for the Red Sox since 1999 and will now get his chance to run the team.
Cherington is now actively working on bringing in a new manager to replace the departed Francona. It appears former Rangers, Mets and Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine is the front runner. Valentine has not managed in the Majors since 2002.
The Red Sox will need to make some important decisions this winter, in order to fortify their roster. They currently have 12 players under contract at a whopping $131 million.
In 2011, Boston began the season with a starting payroll of nearly $164 million. It appears almost certain that the Red Sox will need to go significantly above that level.
The Red Sox need to bolster their pitching staff. They have cornerstones in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, but after these two, there's a lot of uncertainty.
John Lackey will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming off an injury plagued season and is a question mark.
The Red Sox will need to come up with a minimum of two, and potentially three, starting pitchers for 2012, depending on the status oft injured Matsuzaka.
Clay Buchholz started 14 games for the Red Sox and won six games, but he is far from a sure thing. Andrew Miller also contributed in 2011 with 12 starts and six wins. These two will be counted on but that's a big risk for the Red Sox.
In addition, Boston lost closer Jonathan Papelbon to free agency, when he signed with Philadelphia. New GM Cherington will need to dig deep to fortify the starting rotation and also find a reliable closer.
Offensively, the Red Sox are hoping that Carl Crawford will turn it around and have a big year. He was a major disappointment in 2011, after signing a seven-year $142 million contract that stretches to 2017. Crawford hit just .255, had a dismal OBP of .289 and hit only 11 home runs and 56 RBI. Crawford also stole only 18 bases after swiping 46 in 2010.
Boston led the league in runs scored and have several elite players on offense. The offense was led by Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, but may be without free-agent DH David Ortiz in 2012. They will either re-sign Ortiz or look elsewhere for a replacement.
The Red Sox are pursuing Carlos Beltran as they have an opening in right field and he would fit nicely in Fenway Park. If the Red Sox are successful signing Beltran, he would strengthen an already imposing offense.
The Red Sox had the second highest payroll in the American League, yet missed the playoffs. The pressure will be on Cherington to put a winner back on the field in Boston. Carlos Beltran and a pitcher like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle would be two big steps in that direction.
The New York Mets are trying to keep Jose Reyes
The New York Mets were faced with severe financial problems due to owner Fred Wilpon's involvement in the Ponzi scheme scandal surrounding Bernie Madoff. Wilpon's resources have been severely compromised and the Mets' ability to sign any big name free agents has been affected.
The Mets traded Carlos Beltran in the middle of the 2011 season in a cost cutting move. They have offered shortstop Jose Reyes salary arbitration, but it's doubtful that Reyes will agree to it.
The Mets are a team in disarray. They have paid big money to Johan Santana and Jason Bay. Santana is a huge question mark after missing the entire 2011 season, following arm surgery. He is due to make $24 million in the coming year.
Bay has simply not played well enough to merit the big money he receives. At a salary level of $18.125 million, Bay produced a .245 batting average with 12 home runs and 57 RBI. He also battled injuries, appearing in only 123 games in 2011.
David Wright could also be on the trading block if the Mets decide they cannot afford him. Wright will make over $15 million in 2012. He is an excellent player, but can't do it all by himself.
The Mets do have some good young position players, like Lucas Duda, Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy. They also have some talent on the pitching staff with R.A. Dickey, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese and Bobby Parnell. Unfortunately for the Mets, there simply is not enough of that good talent on this roster.
Executive VP and GM Sandy Alderson has his work cut out for him. He will need to rebuild the Mets' roster, but may not have the money to do so. This could make big money players like David Wright expendable.
Alderson will try to sign Reyes, but that won't be easy. My feeling is that he will go elsewhere, lured by big dollars and a better chance to win than he would have in New York.
The Mets will most likely try to sign some younger players and hope to develop them. They need a lot of help in many areas, so Alderson will be quite busy.
C.J. Wilson is the top free agent starter on the market.
The Texas Rangers have made the World Series twice in the past two seasons. In 2010, they lost to the San Francisco Giants and then, in 2011, to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The window of opportunity is often quite short and the Rangers will try to keep that window open in 2012. Texas has already inked closer Joe Nathan. Nathan will assume the closer role in Texas, which will free up Neftali Feliz to join the starting rotation.
In theory, this is a great idea, however, Nathan is 37 years old and has battled arm injuries. The first issue will be whether he can pitch effectively for an entire season. Then, we will see how Feliz, who excelled as a closer, does as a starting pitcher.
Making the move from closer to starter is not always an easy task, as Feliz will need command of multiple pitches and also develop arm strength to go deep in games.
I believe Feliz has the tools to be a fine starting pitcher, however, I do not think Nathan can pitch an entire season without getting injured again.
If Feliz can make the transition to being a closer to a starter, the Rangers will have their rotation set, heading into 2012. Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison give the Rangers four solid incumbent starters.
Texas could use a couple veteran arms to solidify their bullpen. Scott Feldman and Mike Adams give the Rangers two quality arms, but they could use a couple more.
Offensively, the Rangers had the third highest number of runs scored in the American League. They could use an upgrade in one outfield position and first base, as David Murphy and Mitch Moreland are merely adequate.
The Rangers have already made one impact move, with the Nathan signing. Keep an eye on them, as they aren't done yet.
Starlin Castro is one of the best young players in the league
The Chicago Cubs finished a dismal 2011 season with a 71-91 record and in fifth place in the NL Central. They have a roster full of holes and very few solid Major League players.
The Cubs went out and hired Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox. He takes over as President of Baseball Operations in Chicago. Epstein has a huge job in front of him and it will take more than just this one offseason for him to rebuild the Cubs' roster.
To make matters worse, the Cubs' two highest paid players are Alfonso Soriano, who is a shadow of his former self, and Carlos Zambrano, who doesn't even want to be there.
The Cubs are after free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder. He would be a great fit in the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field.
Marlin Byrd had a down year in 2011 and at age 34 is on the down-side of his career, similar to Soriano. Former All-Star Geovany Soto also had a down year, batting only .228.
The Cubs need major help at virtually every position, except shortstop, where Starlin Castro is one of the top young talents in baseball.
The pitching staff in anchored by Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. After these two, there are no proven quality starters on the roster. In addition, the bullpen, including closer Carlos Marmol has been very inconsistent.
The job of rebuilding this roster will be monumental for Theo Epstein. It will take him at least two or three seasons before he has a competitive team. With that in mind, look for Epstein to try and make a big splash this winter.
Robinson Cano is the next great Yankee
The New York Yankees finished the 2011 regular season at 97-65, first in the AL East. The Yankees, however, were ousted in the playoffs and failed again to make it to the World Series. In New York, this is deemed a failure, even though the Yankees won their division.
The Yankees began the 2011 season with a payroll in excess of $207 million. Expect them to be above this level, as they are desperate to get back to and win the World Series. The Yankees already have nearly $173 million committed for just 11 players.
Senior V.P. and General Manager Brian Cashman has a few holes to fill, heading into the 2012 season. His benefit is that the Yankees can afford to spend more than every other team in baseball.
New York has an aging lineup of superstars, with a few young, up and coming, stars on the roster. The Yankees' infield is set with Teixeira, Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez.
In the outfield, there is Granderson, Swisher and Gardner.This is an area where the Yankees can upgrade, especially at one of the corner outfield spots. Granderson had a very strong 2011 and was in the running for the MVP award.
Gone is Jorge Posada, which will free up significant money for the Yankees. Russell Martin is expected to handle the majority of the catching duties, but the Yankees could upgrade their backup spot.
The key for the Yankees is pitching. This let them down in 2011 and Cashman is focused on improving this area. The Yankees have already brought C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, the top two starting pitchers on the market, in for initial discussions.
I believe the Yankees will sign one of these two and perhaps both. If they only get one, look for someone like Edwin Jackson or Hiroki Kuroda to surface in New York.
With the recent signing of Freddy Garcia, the Yankees add him to a staff that includes C.C. Sabathia and young sensation Ivan Nova. New York will make every effort to add top flight arms to their rotation heading into 2012.
Michael Stanton is a rising star in Miami
The Florida, or perhaps I should say, Miami Marlins will definitely be making noise in the hot stove league. Their new stadium opens and new manager Ozzie Guillen is sure to provide some excitement in Miami.
In my opinion, the Marlins underachieved last year. With the talent they have, they should not have finished 72-90, last in the NL East.
The Marlins will be opening their new stadium in 2012, so they are working to make a big splash in the hot stove league. They have shown interest in Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes. My gut feel tells me that Reyes will be a Marlin in 2012.
If Reyes joins the Marlins, Hanley Ramirez will move to third base or be traded. Ramirez has been criticized for his lackluster attitude and it will be up to Guillen to get him back on track.
The Marlins have also had discussions with Oakland about acquiring pitcher Geo Gonzalez. The A's are seeking offense so Logan Morrison could be dealt to Oakland for Gonzalez.
If they're successful in acquiring Gonzalez, a starting rotation consisting of Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Geo Gonzalez would be a great start.
If the Marlins cannot make the deal for Gonzalez, they will be active in their pursuit of another top flight starting pitcher.
With their new stadium set to open, the Marlins are trying to create some excitement in Miami. In addition to Reyes, the Marlins will try to land a top flight outfielder.
Heath Bell is one of the top closers on the market
The new labor agreement is in place and baseball has assured itself labor peace through 2016. This means that Major League Baseball will not have had any work stoppages for at least 21 years.
The Hot Stove League is heating up. We should start to see much more activity in the coming weeks and much more player movement. It's an exciting time, as fans wait anxiously to see who their favorite team will sign and what trades will take place.
In only three months, pitchers and catchers will report and baseball will begin anew.